Can we fast the Eucharist?

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April 18, 2020 by Worship, Community, Formation

As I’ve charted in previous posts, the Eucharist has posed the church with a particular challenge during the covid-19 crisis. While worship centred around the Word can take place via video links, the Eucharist presents a particular problem as the bread and wine must actually be somewhere. If the congregation is scattered, they will not be able to receive.

One response to this problem has been to speak about a fast from the Eucharist. Julie Gittoes is one cleric who has given a measured account of her choice to adopt this position in a recent Church Times article. The language of fasting from the Eucharist is an honourable attempt to take seriously the problem of a rupture in Eucharistic practice.

However, I think there are serious problems with the idea, and I want to lay them out here.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Firstly, fasting from the Eucharist seems like a category error; we normally fast from worldly comforts in order to seek spiritual connection. Unless we regard the Eucharist as a worldly comfort, fasting from it is not appropriate. (It is in this vein that Joseph Ratzinger has spoken positively about a fast from the Eucharist. But he shows that such a fast would be voluntary, carefully timed, and with the intention of spiritual growth and indeed increased engagement with the Eucharist. That in no way matches the current situation.)

In fact, for those of us with a Eucharistic sensibility, fasting from the Eucharist would in some sense be fasting from church; can we do that? Can we fast from God’s grace?

Secondly, fasting is voluntary, and most lay people are involuntarily foregoing Eucharist. As lay people, we are either denied it (if our priest is not celebrating it) or excluded from it (if s/he is). This is far from the same thing as a fast. An ‘enforced’ fast does not make sense. Clergy may justifiably speak of a fast from the Eucharist if that language testifies to their own experiences and sensations; but should be careful about using the same language to describe the experience of the laity.

Thirdly, the idea of a fast denies the importance of the Eucharist. If a parent has children to feed, and the normal arrangements for buying and preparing food are removed, the parent would pour energy, determination and imagination into how to feed their children. It would be their total, whole-hearted priority and their most consuming anxiety. I have hardly seen priests bringing this energy, determination and imagination to a matter they might consider as being just as important.

Of course, some ministers simply don’t think it’s that important. For them, Word is as full of grace and effectiveness as Sacrament. Where that is a faithfully held belief, we can respect that.

But many others speak of the Eucharist as central to their calling as a priest. In such circumstances, their failure to wrestle with the question of the Eucharist looks like a lack of faith in their congregation. They may not think the congregation has the same whole-hearted view of the Eucharist that they do. That could be right, in which case we could ask them what they’ve been teaching up to now; but I think it more likely they are wrong about their congregation. A deep and varied trust in the Eucharist lies within the hearts of many of our church-goers. It is not their engagement that we should doubt, but their ability to articulate that engagement.

I suspect the real challenge is communication. I don’t think churches often talk aloud together about what they think worship is doing. Priest and people rarely have the language to speak to one another about the Eucharist worship; in any case, priests usually talk to priests about the technicalities of their ministry, not the laity.

The laity of today has not had to develop much skill in theological language. The husk of Christendom means that believers have been able to out-source thier faith to their loyalty to country, while a rationalist world-view has left many embarrassed to speak of theology in the teeth of progressive and scientific energy in today’s society. So, lay people are likely to be short of confidence for such conversations. These are challenges the church has too easily ducked, leaving our lay people under-equipped.

But exploring the impact of the current rupture in worship is possible, if done right, and maybe that’s what the next Zoom call should be about.

Those of us at theological college in recent years will be familiar with models of theological reflection. More established priests may want to seek out Laurie Green’s Let’s do Theology. But essentially, conversation should start with observation and feeling, rather than analysis. The question, ‘what is life like without the Eucharist?’ could be a good place to start. Most empowering will be a mode of theological reflection which begins with experience, for we all have experiences; and then seeks to explore and analyse that experience in lay people’s own terms. Theological concepts should be held off to a second session, and even then, the theological concepts should come from either the lay people’s own awareness, or the questions they pose. Thus would begin a conversation that could help priest and people together work out what might be a faithful response to the mystifying experience we are facing today. And once they had come together on the matter of worship, they might start to find a shared voice in other matters too; for the Eucharist, if it lives at all, is formative of the community.

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