April 5, 2020 by Worship, Community, Formation
Covid-19 has killed the Eucharist. Dare we see it resurrected?
A week today it will be Easter.
An extraordinary day at the end of an overwhelming week. For me. And for Christians everywhere. It’s a week which absorbs all my thought, but does not stop there. It’s a week that stirs the thick soup of my emotional life and reshapes my spirit. It does this every year; probably even more so this year. It’s a week that affects what my body does, what my social life is, where I am and how I am. It’s a chrysalis week, ending in the new birth of Easter.
How shall I celebrate this marvellous day in lockdown?
I shall celebrate Easter, I am told, by watching and hearing a priest participating in the Eucharist. This has already become the church’s pattern for worship. Worship and especially Eucharistic worship is done somewhere else, and those who would normally gather are invited to watch, rather than participate. Somehow, seeing someone else ‘share’ the body and blood of Jesus Christ is to assure me that I too share in it.
So far, this experience has felt far from real. I have not been able to believe this experience has united me with my sisters and brothers from the church; nor with the priest who has celebrated and received communion, often alone, sometimes with their family, occasionally with others under some special exception I have not understood.
In this mode of worship, my church tells me that thanksgiving can go ahead without me. It can act without its disciples. We are not essentially part of what happens; the church can give thanks without us.
Thoughts of clerical privilege and exceptionalism have been rife in my brain since the Coronavirus crisis began. Yes even in mine, even though I am scheduled to be ordained in June this year; even though I trace a journey to impending ordination back to a call to serve somehow at the Lord’s table.
But I do not think the spiritual cry that wells up inside me is primarily a cry against clerical privilege. It is a cry of spiritual urgency that the Eucharist not be lost. The Eucharist is the act which time and time again the church has taught me unites me with my fellow believers across the world.
The framework thrown around recent developments seems best captured in the phrase spiritual communion. We started to hear that phrase learnt last month as we learnt to watch the priest receive wine and were told that this was sufficient. Then we learnt to watch via video links the priest receive bread and wine and we seemed to be encouraged to believe that this too was perhaps sufficient for us to know that Christ was still embodied in the church. Now we understand that our priests can record worship ahead of time and we can somehow participate in it later. Further, we seemed to be expected to adapt our previous understanding that it was insufficient for the priest to celebrate communion alone.
There is a huge lack of clarity around this. The theology of this was done on the hoof, if at all. It was not much communicated. That theology called on existing understandings of communion. Now it seems like the existing theology has fallen away under the pressure of the circumstances. Priests simply carry on consecrating, perhaps for no other reason that they can. By flexing the rules around the Eucharist, the church keeps hold of the rules. It says that the rules are the main thing. But the rules are not the main thing, and in this situation, they appear not to be up to the job at all.
What should happen to communion? Either it should be celebrated, or it should be suspended. The current fudge – which has emerged by chance – must end. Either option (celebration or suspension) needs a theology; it needs leadership from this church. I long for such leadership. So, I suspect, do our priests, who may be livestreaming or recording video worship because they are offered nothing more radical to work with. Of course, urgent practical and complex questions need resolving: about funerals, and church buildings, and when ordinations take place. But actually the church’s first task is not to bury people, protect buildings and maintain practices. Our first calling, our only true, calling is to witness Christ in each emerging age.
Central to this is our understanding of what the church is. Those who belong to the institution too quickly see the church as an institution. It is that secondarily – that is its earthly form. Primarily it is the community of believers – that is its spiritual form. It is that spiritual form, though many act as if they do not believe it, which gives it life. It is that spiritual form which enlivens the laity. It is that spiritual form which will speak to those beyond the church. We are called to faithfulness beyond rightness. That is always a difficult call to follow. It’s even harder when the rightness seems close and the faithfulness seems over the horizon. At those points, the rules can be more comforting than ever: they are all that seems to be left. But we are the church! We are the ones who trust God! We are the ones who believe the resurrection! Let the church dare to wrestle with the times; let it remember that it is called to be faithful, not right.
If worship and especially Eucharistic worship is to be suspended, let those who teach us tell us why and how it can be suspended. Let them tell us what it can mean to us theologically. Some have spoken of fasting from the Eucharist as an appropriate response to widespread lockdown which feels like a fast from life. It’s an innovative response and just possibly it may be the finest Christian response we have. If it is, let us embrace it; but I doubt it.
If communion is to be celebrated at all, let it be celebrated in the fullest spirit. This may mean risk, determination and trust, beyond rightness.
Whether we celebrate or suspend, let our imaginations and our hearts and our spirits be present in the decision; not just our minds. Our mind most often discerns the logic of a faithful spirit, rather than driving our spirit to faithfulness. Our spirits often know the faithful answer before our minds can speak it.
And either way, let the church show its theological workings, because we, lay people, have more heart, more dedication, more faith, more imagination, and more longing than the church ever seems to realise.
These are the things I would like to think the church was most interested in: in the spirit rather than the law. We see this month the church flexing on one rule after another; this is not enough. We should be building from the core of our faith rather than pruning the rituals and patterns of our hundreds of years of tradition. I see in the church offering cheap grace rather than costly grace at this time. I see it clinging on to all it can, in the shape of liturgies and rules, rather than going back to Jesus and saying, what now?
As for me, this is what I believe would be a faithful response. In these times I especially want to remember Jesus’ words. At this time I especially want to remember that Jesus has gathered us. I especially want to remember that the body of Christ is embodied, and on resurrection day more than any other day. At this time I want to remember with body and spirit and mind as well as eyes and ears that Jesus work’ is done for me, not by me. I want to say to Jesus that I believe that he has made me well, has saved me, and that I trust him with my best response to that. My best response, my body, my spirit, my community (however tiny) – not just someone else’s.
I want to experience God present, not just in the priest’s home but in my home, whether alone or with family. If Jesus’ invitation to the table is ever true for his disciples, it is always true.
On Easter Sunday I envisage sitting with any in my household at a table, bread and wine upon it.
I envisage reading the gospel and discussing something of what story of the day means, as best I can, in the limits of my lay mind
I envisage praying for those who would normally gather with me, and for my priest.
I envisage my priest knowing that my household and I are sitting at that time before a table on which bread and wine are placed. And I envisage knowing that my priest at about that time will be naming, in their own prayers, our household as one where bread and wine will be received in memory, thanksgiving and celebration.
I envisage knowing exactly what prayer they have prayed for my sharing because that prayer will have been shared across the land already. I will have seen it.
I envisage knowing too that the bishops of the church are praying in another liturgy for the priests who are praying for me. I envisage that the church is indeed assembled in faithful prayers for one united Eucharist in which the isolation of its members is recognise and ‘over-accepted’.
I envisage understanding the extraordinary theology of a church that trusts that Jesus through the spirit will make himself present wherever his faithful are gathered. This would truly be ‘spiritual communion’.
Then, if I and those gathered feel we have the courage, we will pick up that bread and that wine, and share it. In doing so we will stand with others throughout our church who do the same. We will stand against a virus and a world that says the church must close. We will prove that the Eucharist is indeed formative of us as disciples – no mere entertainment, but something that changes us – and that it shapes our hunger to be God’s people.
On Easter Sunday I do not wish to imagine that I am participating in worship and the Eucharist by watching someone else do it. I wish to participate; but I need the accountability and support of the church to help me do that.