Why are we still on a Eucharistic fast at St. Francis? Can’t we have communion virtually?
The quick answers to these questions are that; 1) Bishop Susan has called for a Eucharistic Fast during this time of pandemic and we are still in pandemic, 2) the Bishop has called for this fast recognizing we still have more to find out about communicability issues of COVID-19 before we can safely share the Holy Supper, and 3) given the Episcopal Church’s core Eucharistic theology of the common bread and cup, other forms of celebrating the Eucharist would be inconsistent with our theology and practice.
It will be helpful to analyze the above summary, especially the theological part. The first issue is the practical response to COVID-19 and its transmission. Operating under the principle that the church should not be a place where its members face more danger at church than at home or in other kinds of gatherings, then fasting from each other’s presence and the sharing of the Holy Supper is the right and even holy thing to do.
The leadership of the diocese evaluated the risks at the onset of the pandemic and continue to do so. They determined that gathering for worship exposes ourselves and many of our fellow church members to increased risk of serious complications and even death. Those practices include passing the peace, sitting in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time, singing, and the sharing of the eucharist. Although it seems that some of these issues can be mitigated, they can only be mitigated through attentiveness to practices such as wearing masks, close attention to washing of hands, distancing ourselves at church, and continuing to refrain from live singing. Even these conclusions are somewhat tentative, so the diocese, and its priests continue to be cautious about how and when we gather.
The area that this separation affects most is the absence of communion. This loss is so very understandable because this act of community was not only given by our Lord, it was also practiced very early in our new faith by the followers of Jesus, not only the apostles but also the early adherents to proclamations of God’s love in Christ. And, it is an act in which we experience Christ’s presence.
In reading the Bible and other ancient texts associated with the early Christian communities, such as the Apostolic Tradition, the letters of Clement, and the Didache, there is a sense of the Lord’s Supper as both community and mystery. The presence of Christ was known in the combination of the people gathered together and the bread and wine being blessed in the words of Jesus.
This combination has meant that the English Church’s reforms of Roman Catholic medieval practice focused on community. In our communion, no priest can celebrate alone. One other person has to participate. This was and is different than Roman Catholic practice which requires daily mass for its priests, either alone or with a congregation. In order to fully participate, the language of the celebration in the English church was its vernacular, English, as opposed to Latin. It also meant there was communion in both kinds, the bread and the wine, more than just the host of the Catholic mass. The Roman Catholic tradition is the standard against which the English reformers pushed, but their insight was informed by the texts and practices of the first three hundred to five hundred years of church reflection. And, it was the desire of the English reformers to embrace the practices and understandings of the early church. To be with Christ in simplicity.
Though there are many more things that can be said about our practices, the last area to be discussed here is the movement away from the implication that the priest is to be the center of communion. The current Book of Common Prayer is clear, the priest is the principal celebrant (p. 354). That implies that other celebrants are to be present. It also implies first among equals. The unstated celebrants are the congregation, the people. This is an important distinction in our theology and practice. Bishops and Priest are still ordained to preside, but they are not the celebrants alone. Yes, the priest must be present, but it is not only the priest.
Yes, there must be bread and wine, but it must be bread and wine prayed over and experienced within the body of the gathered community—a physical gathering. Therefore, simply holding up bread to the monitor is not the sense that is derived from our tradition, nor is it the sense that we have practiced.
It has been a long time, and it may be that the church has never had this experience in the past two thousand or so years. We are in the midst of a pandemic and know enough to know that close contact for a long period of time, handling things in a large crowd which will be shared by hand and mouth, and the passing of our breath, spirit and life, between us exposes us to real physical danger even as it communicates the presence of God to us.
We will share communion together again. We will do it in both species of bread and wine, with hymns, with the passing of the peace, with hugs, and probably with tears of joy. We focus now on the gifts that God has given us to enjoy in this time: daily offices, prayers, social hour, Bible study, Men’s Group, virtual coffee hour, our faces, and our voices. The Bishop’s concerns for the care of this Diocese are real and deep. She knows our hunger because she walks this journey of fasting from communion with us.
As recorded in lasts week excerpt from the letter of Paul to the Romans, keep this promise close as we continue to endure the vagaries of these times:
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Photo credit: Jovan Vasiljević on Unsplash, copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio Boltfraffio (ca. 1515-1520). © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited, Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash All rights reserved.