Churches around the world are shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these closures will, in most places, last for at least another several weeks, past the first Sunday of April, through Holy Week, and past Easter. These are all times when United Methodists frequently celebrate communion together.
With many churches offering online worship instead of meeting in-person, this has let to what Discipleship Ministries has referred to as "the online communion dilemma." The UMC's official theology of communion, This Holy Mystery, and the Council of Bishops have both officially discouraged offering online forms of communion.
But can exceptions be made for the extenuating circumstances of the coronavirus shutdown? Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight has referred to this as "THE question" at the present moment. Many US bishops, theologians, pastors, and others have weighed in on this issue, some summarized in the two articles linked above.
Yet, given the extent of church closures in Europe, the Philippines, and Africa, this is an issue that affects more than just US churches. Here are some responses to this question by United Methodists from outside the United States:
Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area Bishop Christian Alsted has issued guidance regarding online communion. He states, "Until we again are able to worship in our churches, I give permission for pastors to offer communion online." He connects this provision to the UMC's theology of communion which stipulates, "The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely
manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or
He also sets the following requirements for online communion:
• "Communion should only be offered during live streamed worship services, where people participate in real-time.
• "If recordings of such live streamed worship services are made
available for persons to view at a later time, you should note that
communion should only be taken when participating in real-time.
• "In the announcement of the worship service, you should ask
participants, who wish to take part in Holy Communion to have a piece of
bread and a glass with juice available.
The Finno-Finnish Annual Conference, among others, has offered online communion following Bishop Alsted's guidance.
Note that Bishop Alsted's permission is limited to the present situation and requires real-time participation.
Norwegian District Superintendent Knut Refsdal offered instructions for a March 22nd online service led by himself and Rev. Ingull Grefslie that also fall in line with Bishop Alsted's guidance:
“The service includes communion. Those who wish to take part in the communion are asked to have bread and juice available.
“Such communion celebrations are only possible as part of a live online service, where people participate in real-time. If recordings of such online services are made available at a later time, listeners / viewers should be made aware that communion is only possible when attending in real-time.”
The Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche im Schweiz (UMC in Switzerland) notes that "there are some justified reservations about online sacrament celebrations," but nonetheless notes that in these "extraordinary times" it can make sense "to celebrate communion at home - and yet together - knowing and hoping that in a few weeks or months we will be able to celebrate together again in public service." The EmK has provided two possible liturgies ( and , both in German) for use under the following conditions:
"Pastors set the date and time. Church members that want to participate inform the pastor. The pastor connects 4-6 houses with each other so that the celebrants pray for each other by name during the celebration or pass on a blessing in a telephone chain."
It is worth noting that the above conditions can be met through other forms of connection than online livestreaming, but as in Northern Europe, synchronicity is a prerequisite.
The Manila Episcopal Area has acknowledged that it has received multiple questions about online communion, but has referred pastors and church members to pre-existing church guidance discouraging online communion.
While some African branches of The United Methodist Church have provided opportunities for online worship, there have been no official announcements about online communion there.