Last weekend there was some anxiety, a few woes, but much elation at the first experience of being ‘online church’. There was most anxiety about technical challenges, but many reported a positive experience—and higher numbers attracted to online participation than usually attended in person. The situation this weekend offers new challenges: with the ‘lockdown’ measures announced last Monday evening, the small groups working together in church buildings, whether pre-recording or broadcasting live, will no longer be able to work in the same way.
But the biggest ministerial-liturgical challenge is what to do about the celebration of Holy Communion together. Churches of a range of traditions decided to live stream the minister conducting a service of Communion in the church building, so that those watching at home could see it happen, and possibly do something to imitate what was going on. There was, in most cases, a small group in the building, so there was a sharing of the bread and wine actually going on; in this sense, it was no different from watching a service of Holy Communion on television.
Some, however, conducted the service alone. Giles Fraser spoke in slightly ecstatic tones:
Even so, I loved it. I can imagine that when we are back to normal — if, indeed, there will be a normal to return to — the idea that the sick and the housebound will be able to join in our Sunday service from home is something we will want to continue. But it still felt odd giving the Eucharist out to nobody but myself. Even odder to invite the e-congregation to say along with me the words of the post-Eucharistic prayer: “we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood …”. Can we get bread and wine and hold it up near the computer screen, someone asked, that way you can consecrate ours at home? That felt like a clear no to me, but I’m not sure Eucharistic theologians had ever considered anything like that. So many questions, so few answers.
During the service, it was to Masterchef that my mind wandered. Why are food programmes so popular when no one at home gets to taste or even smell the food? And is this what church is to become, a kind of simulacrum of itself, a digital re-presentation of live-giving bread that is apparently offered, but cannot be eaten? Yet nourishment there was. People at home appreciated the service, however amateurish it was as a first go. They say around their kitchen tables and on their sofas and they joined with me and each other singing words like “Help of the helpless, O abide with me”. For all the clunkiness of the presentation, it felt so important and bonding to be with my congregation like this.
As it happened, I watched Masterchef last night. It was entertaining—but I did not eat the food! I did not experience the taste and the smell, I did not meet the chefs (except in that very thin and managed way in which we ‘meet’ anyone on the screen), and my body was not nourished. Of course, this is a limited analogy, since the benefits of Communion (within Anglican theology) do not come from ‘pressing with the teeth’ the elements, but in receiving the person and work of Jesus by faith as we share the elements.
The consideration of what might be possible raises two questions: what is the nature of Communion? and what is the nature of virtual communication and virtual presence? Both need some careful reflection.
Within some Christian traditions, most notably the Roman Catholic and Orthodox, the focus in Communion or Eucharist is the action of the priest and the consecration of the elements. I remember quite clearly, having been raised as a Catholic, the sense that the congregation were in some sense spectators of the really important business that was going on in the sanctuary, and reciting:
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for our sake and the sake of all his church.
There is a sense that, within this tradition, the demanding for spatial distance offers no threat to this, in the sense that the important business of the priest offering the Eucharist could indeed continue (as in many places it did last week)—but the real loss now is the closure of the building, whose consecrated space has some analogy to the temple within the Old Testament, the only authorised place where the sacrifices might be offered.
But none of this can apply in Protestant churches like the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer and the Articles at every point set their face against this kind of understanding of what the Lord’s Supper is about. It is not a ritual offering of sacrifice (hence the only real offering, that of praise in the Gloria) is postponed to the very end of the BCP Communion service, to make it very clear: what matters here is not what we offer to God, but what God offers to us, his whole people, gathered together, to receive both Christ and ‘all the benefits of his Passion’ as we remember him in bread and wine. This emphasis on reception is clear in Article XXVIII:
THE Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
Some years ago Colin Buchanan, formerly Bishop of Woolwich and for many decades a member of both the Liturgical Commission and General Synod, wrote a careful study of Eucharistic Consecration (Grove Worship booklet W148, still available as a PDF) in which he explores what consecration effects and what effects consecration. His primary focus is on whether there are, in Anglican theological understanding, special words or actions that ‘effect’ consecration, and what that means, rather than considering issues of social space and context, since this latter question has not usually been the main concern! (See also his other important study What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?) But the issues he highlights do have a bearing on our question.
First, he highlights the central place of a ‘receptionist’ theology that was strongly articulated in Cranmer’s 1552 Prayer Book, which was retained (despite other alterations) in 1662.
The elements change their signification but not their essence. In broad terms that makes the consecration of eucharistic elements comparable to the consecration of a building (e.g. for purposes of worship) or the consecration of a man (or woman, come to that) as a bishop. In each case the consecration indicates and initiates a change of use, but not a change of nature. The same is true of the consecration of baptismal waters. Consecration is then a setting apart for a specific (and God-given) purpose, and the elements are ‘trans-signified’ but not transubstantiated…
The bread and wine are still bread and wine. We are still receiving ‘these thy creatures’. The outward sign is intact. But the signification—the inner reality ‘signified’—is the death of Christ and the benefits conveyed to us thereby. We do not have to juggle questions that suggest localization. The elements ‘convey’ the reality to the true recipient… (pp 15–16)
Buchanan goes on to reflect on some of the key biblical texts which have influenced this Protestant understanding of what Communion is all about—Jesus’ meals with his disciples, including the feeding of the five thousand, the gospel accounts of the Last Supper itself, the episode on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, the discourse on Jesus as bread of life in John 6, and Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11. He observes:
These five considerations points strongly to a doctrine of the living Christ binding us to himself (and thus to each other) by the sacrament in which he, present as the giver at the meal as well as present among his people, mediates afresh to us the benefits and claims of his love. These benefits and claims strong from his death which is central to the message he conveyed; he is rise with the power of his redeeming death within him to convey to us; but he does not divide, and we must not divide, between his person and his work. (p 18).
Although Buchanan is here quite narrowly focussing on ‘what effects consecration’, he incidentally draws out a key Protestant theological emphasis: this is about the gathering of the whole people of God physically together, remembering together, and sharing together in a meal. That is not to say that those who are cut off from the physical gathering of God’s people are automatically excluded—but their situation should be seen as a difficult exception, and not one that can be normalised.
This essential communal nature of the event is made clear in this difficult situation in the rubric relating to Communion of the Sick.
But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel here following.
There is a correlation here with the biblical mandate (found in Deut 17) that requires there to be two witnesses for a testimony to be reliable. But the main point here is that the sick person, in receiving Communion, does not receive private from the priest, but is participating in a communal act of the people of God. (There is a provision that, in times of plague when no others can be found, then the priest and sick person alone might communicate—but this is an exception in extremis.)
In his further discussion on what effects consecration, Buchanan notes that Cranmer’s 1552 rite shifted the whole notion of consecration away from a particular moment, and even a particular prayer, to include right reception. Though 1662 included the ‘manual acts’ and appeared to emphasise consecratory words (to be repeated when the elements were exhausted and needed replenishing), this emphasis on reception remained. We can still see this in the epiclesis, the calling down of the Spirit within the Eucharistic Prayer. It takes a range of different forms in the eight authorised prayers in Common Worship:
A: as we eat and drink these holy gifts in the presence of your divine majesty, renew us by your Spirit…
B: grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit, and according to your holy will, these gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…Send the Holy Spirit on your people..
C: grant that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, we receiving these gifts of your creation, this bread and this wine, according to your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood…
D: Send your Spirit on us now that by these gifts we may feed on Christ with opened eyes and hearts on fire…
E: send your Holy Spirit, that broken bread and wine outpoured may be for us the body and blood of your dear Son
F: by your Holy Spirit let these gifts of your creation be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…
G: Pour out your Holy Spirit as we bring before you these gifts of your creation; may they be for us the body and blood of your dear Son
H: send your Holy Spirit that this bread and this wine may be to us the body and blood of your dear Son
Although some are more explicit and other more implicit, we must read them together assuming that they express the same theology, and we must read that theology as expressing (rather than changing) the theology of the BCP, since that remains the expression of the doctrine of the Church of England, and Common Worship is legally an acceptable alternative to it. The Spirit is invoked on the people, not the elements, and works to affect our reception (‘may be to us‘).
What does all this mean for ‘online church’? That the whole event of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is something that can only be done at the gathering of the whole people of God, since the reception by them of the elements is integral to the meaning of the whole event.
It is worth briefly also considering the nature of virtual reality. Curiously, this was debate some time ago, at the advent of virtual reality and the question of the place of religion in the virtual world Second Life. Professor Paul S. Fiddes, a Baptist minister and Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford, wrote a paper arguing that virtual consecration in a virtual world was possible, and that in some sense if a person’s avatar received the virtually consecrated elements, then the person themselves had in some sense shared in Communion. But Bosco Peters offered a robust critique of his argument:
Baptism, immersion into the Christian community, the body of Christ, and hence into the nature of God the Holy Trinity may have some internet equivalents – for example, being welcomed into a moderated group. But my own current position would be to shy away from, for example, having a virtual baptism of a second life avatar. Nor would I celebrate Eucharist and other sacraments in the virtual world. Sacraments are outward and visible signs – the virtual world is still very much at the inner and invisible level. Similarly, in my opinion, placing unconsecrated bread and wine before a computer or television screen and understanding this to result in consecration tends away from the liturgical understanding of the Eucharist (liturgy = work of the people/ something done by a community) towards a magical understanding of the Eucharist (magic = something done to or for an individual or community)…
Following Fiddes’ approach one would logically hold that God gives grace to a cartoon character like Mickey Mouse with whom an observer (or cartoonist) identifies – and that Mickey Mouse passes this grace on to the observer or cartoonist. Similarly God, according to Fiddes’, would give grace to a character in a computer/video game and that grace is then passed on to the person playing that character…
There is no denying Fiddes’ statement “There is a mysterious and complex interaction between the person and the persona projected (avatar).” This relationship is, in my opinion, akin to identifying with a character in a novel, play, or movie, or with a string puppet one is controlling in a puppet theatre. A baptism, marriage, or celebration of communion in such a novel, movie, or puppet show may deeply move the person identifying with the character. Such a person may very well be graced and transformed by God at such a time. But there is no sense in which the person identifying with the character is thereby baptised, married, or receiving the Eucharist.
Our situation is different from the one being considered here, in that we are talking about remote communication between real people, rather than virtual representations. But his arguments about the importance of real, rather than virtual, contact and the substance of the material world are well made.
What, then, might we do? Anglican theology and liturgy do permit an authorised ministry to preside at a celebration of Holy Communion, provided that is not done as an individual, but as part of a community of believers of at least three. It does allow that to be live streamed or pre-recorded and broadcast. It does also allow that those watching, in their own homes, might eat bread and drink wine (on their own) or share it with others in their household, whilst they witness the service of Holy Communion being broadcast from elsewhere. This does not suggest that, in any ‘magical’ sense, the bread and wine in the individual homes, are in any sense ‘consecrated’ in the terms of authorised liturgical use of that term.
But Protestant Christians have always maintained that ‘where two or three are gathered, [Jesus] is with them’ (Matt 18.20), that when we invite the Spirit to come on us, the Spirit truly comes, and that when we remember Jesus as we eat bread and drink wine, that we are strengthened and encouraged. That is why, until the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century and then the Sunday Communion Movement in the twentieth, the reception of Communion by the laity has often been relatively infrequent in the Church of England.
If sharing such ‘fellowship meals’ in the home feels like something that falls short of the full sharing of Communion together in a church building, well in many respects it is. A Roman Catholic research paper on ‘virtual Eucharist Mass’ from 2014 makes the following interesting observation:
Ultimately, I suggest that it is doctrinally possible to promote participation in the virtual Mass as a sign of solidarity with marginalized Christians as long as it is in view of making real the fully embodied communal Eucharist.
In other words, ‘virtual Communion’ derives from something in the past (the actual sharing of Communion that we previously experienced) and looks forward to something in the future (the restoration of this practice once the present constraints are relaxed). This should remind us that our usual practices have exactly the same status!
Our rather liturgically rarefied celebrations of Communion actually derive from a real meal that Jesus held with his disciples. I, for one, would love it if we could recover that fully-orbed context of shared community. And they look forward to something much greater—a feast in the kingdom of heaven, where our sharing is not just a morsel, but a fully satisfying feast on God and all his unmediated goodness with all of creation. Whether in our homes, or restored back to our church buildings, we experience a mere foretaste of a much fuller reality.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?