The rapid spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) has raised a lot of questions within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over how the church conducts everything from worship and communion, to official meetings in the face of quarantines and calls for social distancing. Most churches have opted to close during the pandemic and last weekend, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), called on all churches to refrain from holding worship services on site in an effort to contain the virus.
Over the last few days, staff from Theology, Formation and Evangelism in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Office of the General Assembly and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) have discussed and reviewed the Book of Order, the Directory of Worship and other documentation to determine the best way to move forward. On Wednesday, the Office of the General Assembly released an advisory opinion saying churches can hold online or virtual communion during an emergency/pandemic.
“In emergency circumstances there may be situations in which the pastoral needs of that moment require that the church take actions that run contrary to normal practice,” the statement reads. “During an emergency or a pandemic in which the church is unable to gather or advised not to gather in person for reasons of public health, a congregation’s session may determine that this includes observing communion online.”
The Book of Order gives the responsibility to the session (and other councils) to authorize the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at least quarterly … in accordance with the principles of the Directory for Worship.
“Decisions made within an emergency or during a pandemic which precludes the church from meeting in person are not to be taken as changing this denomination’s understanding of the meaning and practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as found within the Directory for Worship,” it reads. “That understanding has been worked out in deeply Presbyterian ways: through careful reflection, study, discussion, and through making decisions collectively.”
The opinion states that the session may authorize the Lord’s Supper during a virtual service after thorough exploration of the theology of the Lord’s Supper using Scripture, the Confessions and the Book of Order and with a clear understanding of why the session is making the decision and how those who will participate in the Lord’s Supper at home will receive the sacrament as a means of God’s grace.
Nelson says he hopes the advisory opinion will provide clarity and direction for churches during the pandemic.
“These are truly trying times in our world today, in ways we’ve never experienced before,” he said. “We desire to fellowship and worship the Lord our God together as the body of Christ, but we also recognize the risk that a physical gathering places on the health of all we hold dear. We hope this new advisory opinion will shed light on how churches and councils can move forward. We are walking this unknown road together. Sometimes we stumble, but with God’s help, we will never fall.”
Click here to review the full advisory opinion.