The Consecration

Can the elements be consecrated over the web?

As we hear in the Communion liturgy, after Jesus gave the bread to his disciples, he said, "Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." After giving the cup to his disciples he said, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Liturgically and spiritually a “transformation” takes place with the consecration of the elements by the celebrant who has the authority to consecrate.  Who has that authority?  In the early church apparently any declared Christian had that authority.  It was only somewhat later that, as the institutional church developed, the institutional church claimed to have the "right" to declare the authority to administer the sacraments generally and Holy Communion in particular.

In most contemporary Christian traditions consecration is not a magical formula like an alchemist’s attempt to turn lead into gold.  At the same time we recognize that a transformation may take place within the process of the Communion liturgy.  That "transformation," however,  is as much an act of faith by the communicant as it is dependent on either the words of the consecration or the celebrant. The nature of the “transformation” is often not clear even in traditional Communion services. An important point made by John Wesley was that in the Eucharist God operates independently and objectively. Wesley commented at one point that if God did not operate objectively in the sacrament then Christ “would surely have warned us; he would have revealed it long ago.”  In other words, God has made Holy Communion available to us as a way we now have to open ourselves to God's grace and love.  This is the basis for Wesley’s strong view that Communion is both a confirming rite and a converting rite.

The issue of what constitutes a valid consecration is far too complicated to try to solve in a few paragraphs. It relates to how we view the church, ordination, and the meaning of “the priesthood.” While Wesley was, at least initially, a believer in ordination only by a bishop in the appropriate apostolic succession, his ordination of ministers for America undermined that early viewpoint. Wesley, in later life, often looked away when his preachers, who were not ordained, provided Communion for the people called Methodist.  At one point, this caused a distinct rift between John and Charles Wesley, who were, after all, co-founders of Methodism.  Contemporary practices in the United Methodist Church in the United States, also dilute Wesley’s early concerns about ordination. In addition, even in Wesley’s time, there was some disagreement among Methodists concerning the need for ordination to be able to provide Communion.

One of the issues confronting the provision of Holy Communion on the web is that a web-based Communion service requires that most or all the service be pre-recorded. A prerecorded consecration would seem, on the surface, to be almost absurd. One possible way to mitigate the “absurdity” of the situation, however, may be to have the communicant participate in the consecration. To repeat after the celebrant the words of institution, for example. This is consistent with the Protestant notion of the “priesthood of all believers” as well as with the view of some early Methodists, such as Thomas Taylor, that it was not, strictly speaking, necessary to have Communion given only by ordained persons. At the same time, having required the communicant to follow closely a set ritual maintains a continuity with the manner in which Communion is usually administered within the institutional church.