Holy Communion and the Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that our health depends on that of others.  We learn from the primary New Testament image of the Church that its purpose is to live out that truth in the deepest way.  We are members of one body – the Body of Christ. If one part suffers, so do all.  If we are to be saved, it can only be together.  The slogan of the Church, said Rowan Williams, is ‘not without the other’. (1)

That’s why it is such a loss that we cannot gather to celebrate Holy Communion.  Here our membership of the mystical body is signified and renewed.  ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10.16).

The bishops have offered guidance for this period of fasting from the Lord’s Supper which I will summarise and comment on for our parish.

The Bishops’ Guidance

For Holy Week and Easter, a paper was published by a group of bishops, and commended to us by Bishop Keith.  It lays out the options for parishes, which still apply:

  1. ‘…bishops and priests may wish to celebrate Holy Communion in their homes [not in churches]… If they do so, they should make clear that this is in intention an expression of the shared life of the Body of Christ, not the offering of an individual.’
  2. ‘…bishops and clergy may choose to abstain from celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion for such time as this is not physically accessible to lay people.  They may choose to follow this course of action intentionally for the duration of the present emergency.’

Option 2 is what I have chosen for our parish, for reasons I will explain in the commentary below.

For option 1, the paper notes that priests may wish to stream the celebration online in recognition that it is done ‘in real but separated company with those for whom they have spiritual care’.  A paper from the London bishops says live-streaming should happen ‘whenever possible’, and at the very least the timing of the celebration should be advertised.

Furthermore, ‘Bishops may wish to give authorisation to those priests who seek it to celebrate services of Holy Communion at which other participants are not physically present.  It should be made clear that such authorisation will not extend beyond the period of the current restrictions.’

In other words, if a priest is not able to celebrate Communion at home with other household members, a solitary celebration is permitted.

On the other hand: ‘Participants in a streamed service of Holy Communion should not be encouraged to place bread and wine before their screens.  Joining together to share in the one bread and the one cup as those physically present to one another is integral to the service of Holy Communion; this is not possible under the current restrictions, and it is not helpful to suggest otherwise.  Any idea of the “remote consecration” of the bread and wine should be avoided.’

Instead, lay people are encouraged to use an act of ‘Spiritual Communion’ while viewing, or at another time.  Here ‘spiritual’ is being used in distinction to physical, since there is no eating or drinking of the elements.

The bishops draw support for this from the order for the Communion of the Sick in the Book of Common Prayer, which includes this rubric:

‘But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.’

Commentary

In allowing choice the bishops have set things up such that any justification I make for my decision can look like a criticism of my fellow priests. In what follows, I hope it can be understood that I am passing no judgement. Part of the difference in practice comes down to differences in the understanding of Holy Communion, which I don’t go into here.

Is the grace of God limited by the Church’s rules? This is a common reaction in the debates of recent days. It is an instructive question to ask non-rhetorically.

Never mind how we celebrate Holy Communion, that we do it at all is because of a command, from our Lord himself. We may even question that and claim that God is just as present among us without the ritual. Or further, some may say, ‘I don’t need the Church at all because I can find God on my own during my daily exercise walk’.

That is to leave behind the truth with which I started: ‘not without the other’. And that is to leave behind the Gospel. The whole life of Jesus was a sacrificial response of love to his Father. By his Spirit we are made children of God, participating in the divine life through our fellowship with each other. That the Church is one Body, where each part depends on the whole, is because God is revealed in Jesus Christ to be one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ‘Not without the other’ is God’s slogan before it is ours.

This is what we mean by the Catholic Church. The whole truth of God can only be known by the whole Church. The health of one part is bound up with that of every other.

The Church must therefore be wary of any approach to God which bypasses others, and order its life according to the fact that it is a body. True, a walk in the country may sometimes be more spiritually refreshing than a gathering of awkward believers, but long-term we’ll only grow together.

To celebrate Holy Communion we need to be physically present to each other and share in the bodily acts of eating and drinking. We don’t bypass the material in our worship, as though the ‘spiritual’ were a higher realm. To be catholic is therefore also to be present to our bodies and our environments, as well as to each other. The Church’s life is shaped by the whole of what we sense through sound, sight, posture, taste, and sometimes smell, all the symbols and acts of our worship, including buildings. What’s important is that those symbols and acts represent and effect the truth that the Church is a body.

That is why one of the Church’s rules is that an ordained priest is necessary for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In 1936, Michael Ramsey, long before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote The Gospel and the Catholic Church, now considered a classic. He considers how the threefold order of bishops, presbyters (i.e. priests) and deacons appeared in the second century, later than the New Testament, and soon became universal.

‘What, now, is the important question to ask about this development? Not, surely, whether our Lord laid down by definite commands that such and such an order was to be followed, but whether the development speaks of the Gospel and the one Body, so that the Bishop by his place in the one Body bears that essential place to the Gospel which the Apostle bore before him. To burrow in the New Testament for forms of ministry and imitate them is archaeological religion: to seek that form of ministry which the whole New Testament creates is the more evangelical way. And our view of the ministry had better be evangelical than archaeological.’ (2)

As Geoffrey Rowell wrote in his foreword to a more recent printing, Ramsey’s aim was to bridge the gap between those evangelicals who were dismissive of church order and those catholics who were legalistic in applying it. He did so by going deeper into the Gospel itself, which all have in common.

A priest has been ordained by a bishop who was also ordained by a bishop. The orders of ministry make visible the interdependence of the Church’s members across space and time. A priest celebrating Communion makes visible the local community’s dependence on the wider body of the Church, both living and departed.

This means that the Church has since its early years considered it more important that its way of celebrating Communion should signify this unity than that people should always have immediate access to the sacrament. It is far from unprecedented that for an extended period a gathering of a priest with the people has not been possible.

Just as a priest is necessary, so, in the Church of England, a priest alone is not sufficient. The Roman Catholic Church, pre-Reformation and post-Reformation, has allowed Mass sine populo (without the people), nowadays only in exceptional circumstances. The Book of Common Prayer disallows this.

The bishops’ current guidance is, I think, the first time in the Church of England since the Reformation that the celebration of Communion by a priest alone has been authorised. Certainly no precedent has been cited. It is true that the bishops have said that a priest ‘should make clear that this is in intention an expression of the shared life of the Body of Christ, not the offering of an individual’, but this is to acknowledge that the shared life is no longer visible.

The primary purpose of the breaking of the bread is that it may be shared. Communion is about something in common. Arguing against remote consecration, the bishops said, ‘Joining together to share in the one bread and the one cup as those physically present to one another is integral to the service of Holy Communion’.

Personally, I find it inconsistent to accept the loss of visibility of the shared life of the Body which comes from allowing a priest to celebrate alone, but not to accept the loss of visibility of the shared life of the Body which would come from allowing remote consecration.

I can see that politically it was easier to allow the first and not the second. I’m not arguing that remote consecration should have been allowed as readily. I don’t think either decision should be made without taking time for careful reflection and discernment.

I could have chosen to celebrate Communion at the Rectory with members of my family, but I would still have been conscious that others have to fast. It would feel and look like a private celebration, and as I have argued, if the Church is catholic, it matters how things look. I often emphasise at baptisms that it is about becoming part of a much wider family.

I have therefore chosen to fast with the people, as have many other priests and at least one diocesan bishop. ‘Not without the other’.

(1) Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, Canterbury Press, 2007, p. 106.

(2) Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, 2nd edn, SPCK, 1956, p. 69.

Mark Hart  4/5/20