Our eucharistic prayer matters—and not just for us

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A 2015 eucharistic celebration at St. George's Anglican Church, St. Catharines, Ont. Photo: Contributed

I am a priest of the church. Since the pandemic started and the bishops of our Anglican churches in Ontario decreed a eucharistic fast, I have not had any desire to celebrate the Eucharist without my community. I can’t even honestly say that I have missed the Eucharist. I miss gathering with my church. I miss the whole package of the singing, hugging, laughing, weeping, worrying, discerning, imagining, giving, serving and praying congregation of people who show up week in and week out. I miss how, in being together in worship, we are better able to hear and receive God’s response to the hopes and needs we offer up. I haven’t been able to tease out the receiving of bread and wine as a separate component of loss from all of the other pieces of church life that we have had to sacrifice.

Debate has been gathering around this eucharistic fast in our communities. When it was first imposed, I think we all imagined that it might last through Lent. We’re now approaching Pentecost, and there is no end in sight to the restriction. Our leaders’ position is an understandable one, and we know that, in consultation with health authorities, they are seeking to guide us with as much care for the well-being of our people and wider community as we can possibly attain. The debate then surrounding that particular decision to suspend the Eucharist, even in our online worship offerings, is by no means framed by dissent or disobedience. So much of what it has meant to be the church—so much of the tangible, physical, sensual nature of the gathered community—has evaporated with COVID-19. The debate is the community’s faithful grappling with how to be the church right now.

I have been listening to that debate but have felt removed from it. Which is why I was surprised to have this spiritual realization fall on me like a ton of bricks one Sunday morning: it is urgently important that we start celebrating the Eucharist again in our communities. How we are going to do this must lean on the promises we have been exploring in our Easter Gospel passages. Jesus tells us that we won’t be left orphaned. He tells us that the Holy Spirit abides with us and is in us, that we have a hope that can’t be taken away from us, and that because of this, Jesus will always be with us. He tells us that his faithful companionship with us is the road to God. These words are as valid in COVID-19 as in all other dark, difficult and uncertain times. Jesus, in that moment, might have had no concept of virtual worship, livestreams and online prayer, but surely we can trust in the Holy Spirit to be powerful enough to now find our way back to our sacramental identity.

Trusting that there is a way for Communion to happen is by no means the same as being able to articulate why it should happen. It may seem foreign to our Anglican piety to imagine the scattered community watching a few selected leaders share in a celebration at which circumstances prevent them from being. There would no doubt be those who would take issue with households lifting up their own bread and wine from afar to be virtually blessed in the prayer of consecration. As Professor Chris Brittain argued in a recent Journal article, this separation of the community from the sacrament could cause a sense of elitism in the communion and, therefore, a division. Which is why the why of what we are doing must be clearly named.

We need to do this because it’s never just about the people who happen to be gathered and who receive bread and wine in that moment.

The Eucharist can be understood as the family meal, the ultimate expression of the gathered community coming together to receive their true identity once again at God’s hand: “the Body of Christ.” This has been the understanding that our Anglican church has emphasized most in recent decades, and there is logic in saying that if the community can’t gather and the bread and wine can’t be safely received by our people, then it shouldn’t happen at all. But that isn’t the totality of our eucharistic understanding. It is not just a meal, but also a sacrifice. The Eucharist is, through the church, offered for the life of the world. It is the meeting of God’s love with, the offering of Jesus’s own life for, the broken state of affairs that is the world’s life. It is a vehicle of God’s reconciling activity across our earthly home. It’s about the gathered community, yes, but God forbid that it remain just about the gathered community. God forbid that the prayers of the people who are able to show up on any given Sunday would be merely about us.

This is what suddenly became clear to me. I need to celebrate the Eucharist because I am a priest and this is my vocation. It doesn’t matter whether I feel I need it or not. When I look at our aching, wheezing, anxious, physically divided world, with no clear path forward, I know that my job is to lift that up. Whether we can be together or not, we need to invite God’s healing power of love in to meet us here. Surely those prayers have power, not because we are all together and COVID precautions are over, but because God is powerful, and God promises to speak into all that we offer. By no means am I suggesting that God has a spiritual scorecard up there in heaven keeping tally of how many prayers are offered for any particular need before acting. I am saying though that prayer matters. I am saying that our eucharistic prayer matters. I do believe that there is a spiritual deficit, a cost, to having had all of our Anglican congregations in our ecclesiastical province suddenly halt our eucharistic offerings. Yes, there are so many ways in which we live into our identity as the Body of Christ, and my goodness, I have seen the kindness, compassion, generosity and sacrificial service of the church flourish in this pandemic. But if we don’t also claim that the difference made by the church’s faithfulness to Jesus’s call to “do this and remember me,” then we run the risk of falling into the social club, “huddled church” trap of thinking that our witness goes no further than just our own little group.[1]

I have imagined what it would look like when we next gather around God’s table. I saw our beautiful St. George’s sanctuary, with my beloved community buzzing with excitement, joy and love, so grateful to see one another after this mandated time apart. I imagined singing our favourite music, and I imagined that procession of broken people, some of them limping—spiritually or physically—their way forward with hands out to receive the bread and wine.

Now the picture in my mind’s eye has changed. I see a small skeleton crew and a livestream camera inviting our community to join in through nothing but adequate bandwidth and the power of the Holy Spirit. I trust this will be enough. I believe that as soon as those words, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” are uttered, it won’t just be our skeleton crew any longer. I expect I will feel keenly connected to the multitudes of people who won’t be able to be with us physically in that moment. That grief and loss will become part of what we offer up to God, and in a very real way, we will be together. The eucharistic prayer will open up into “all the company of heaven,” the way that it does when we are in our sanctuaries full of people.

The broken and limping people will be there, the ones I know personally, and the ones whose stories I can only imagine. God’s response, “the gifts of God for the people of God,” have never been offered merely for those of us physically present, in this or any other moment. The taste of the Kingdom in our mouths is the taste of union with all of the Body, scattered and isolated, and even now God is reaching out across our fractures with a healing love.

[1] Judy Paulsen, Professor at Wycliffe College, talked about the characteristics of the “Huddled Church” at a Clergy & Licensed Lay Workers Educational Day for the Diocese of Niagara on May 21, 2020.

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Martha Tatarnic
Canon Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Her book "The Living Diet" is now available on Amazon.

4 COMMENTS

  1. thank you Martha for this post.
    first i think as far as the eucharist I think that wafers could be placed on a platter and the person (using gloves) take a wafer
    the wine could be poured into small paper cups that could be disposed into a recycled bag.
    my thoughts
    ellie

  2. All this week I have been aching for an Easter moment at Pentecost: hearing the Eucharistic Prayer. To hear, join and sing the words even while watching from afar. To prayerfully rejoice as my priest and 1 or 2 others take the Cup, eat the Bread of Life would feed me and raise our prayers to the infinite.
    Please, Bishops, might it not be time?
    With hope & respect.

  3. My question would be: why just a skeleton crew? Why not 12 people masked and spaced, hands sanitized, standing at least 6 ft apart in a well ventilated church or an outdoor gathering. And schedule as many small Eucharists through the week as needed so that everyone who wishes to participate can. And schedule a weekly livestream of this for those who cannot attend in person.
    There are individually wrapped gluten free wafers that can be used. The priest administrator can put on fresh gloves and a mask to place the wafer in communicants’ hands as they come forward 6 feet apart.
    If sanitizing pews is prohibitive, perhaps pews can be pushed back so that there is a large space for people to stand 6 feet apart. The liturgy can be shortened!
    Or, alternatively, following a eucharist with ‘skeleton crew’ the priest and/or deacon or licenced lay minister can take the consecrated wafers to an area where the authorized number of masked communicants wait 6 feet part, and use the BAS Communion under Special Circumstances (page 256-60).
    There are ways forward to celebrate Eucharist together and keep everyone safe.

  4. Much of what you say I readily understand and appreciate. I, too, as a priest of the Church, miss deeply the celebration of the Eucharist – whether I be the presiding celebrant, or not. The action of the bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario in mandating ‘a fast’ from Eucharistic liturgy is unnecessary and entirely wrong-headed.

    The Eucharist in other parts of Canada has been and continues to be celebrated and live-streamed. For example, The Right Reverend William Cliff, Bishop of Brandon celebrates a live-streamed Eucharist Sundays from St Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon. Regarding a decision of such weight, the bishops should have acted in concert with the bishops of every diocese across Canada. The action is a negative and unhelpful sign of the autocephalous nature and polity of the Anglican Church.

    The argument for ‘a fast’ on the grounds that the Church community is unable to gather for liturgy – and the Eucharist is The central and defining liturgy of the Church – falls apart considering worship services of prayer, music and preaching are live-streamed. If the Spirit gathers us in community to celebrate Eucharist, it follows that the same Spirit draws us together to share in non-eucharistic worship as well.

    If the Eucharist should not be celebrated because the community cannot physically be gathered by the Spirit, the principle would dictate that non-eucharistic services should likewise not happen, nor be live-streamed, given that the community cannot physically be together. Doesn’t the same Spirit gather God’s people together for prayer, teaching and witness as for Eucharist?

    In times of pandemic, we do not gather for liturgy out of concern and care for the wider community’s health and welfare. This is entirely the right thing to do. We should only gather at the right time when the virus has abated or appears under medical (and scientific) control.

    The mandated ‘fast’ is indicative of the lack of a cohesive sacramental theology. It also is out of step and not in keeping with the near two-hundred-year-old Liturgical Movement which has restored the centrality of Eucharistic liturgy within the Anglican Church and other Churches under the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    You and I are ordained to the sacramental priesthood. We engage not in magic nor fantasy when presiding at the Eucharist. Every priest learns quickly that presiding is not all about ‘me,’ my particular gifts and what I am feeling. You have, no doubt, stood like me at the altar at times feeling tired, empty and cold. And, at other times buoyed by a sure and warm, confident faith. The offering of the sacramental sacrifice while recalling the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ has always been celebrated when two or three can be present. It is right and proper that a celebration of the Eucharist should be live-streamed during this pandemic, if possible, for other members of the congregation who cannot be present.

    The Church must always eschew the practices of a few high octane evangelists who ask viewers to touch their TV screens to receive a blessing or miracle. In no way should Anglicans viewing a Eucharistic celebration on a screen consume bread and wine thinking that their bread and wine is the body and blood of the Lord. That would be a corruption of sacramental theology and not be in keeping with the principle of the Church being gathered together by the Holy Spirit.

    Anglicans at home in time of pandemic should be able to view through modern technology the celebration of the Eucharist live-streamed – albeit removed and separate. While sadly not being able to receive Communion, the viewer nonetheless shares in the recalling of the Lord’s death and resurrection and is helped in ‘communing’ prayerfully with the Lord.

    Like many priests, I have followed the long-standing practice of taking the reserved Sacrament to hospital or home, or celebrated Eucharist for people unable to be at liturgy. Although others may or should be present, quite often only the individual receiving and myself are in the room. The lack of others present does not inhibit the Sacrament being celebrated and received.

    The Archdiocese of Toronto joined with all churches in closing the doors of churches for worship.

    Throughout the pandemic, Archbishop Thomas Collins has celebrated a daily Mass which is live-streamed at 7:30 in the morning and on Sundays at 10:00 am. Holy Week liturgies were live-streamed as well. The archbishop presides, assisted by one priest who reads the scriptures and assists in preparing the table. At the time of Communion, the assistant priest leads in a heartfelt prayer addressed to our Lord recognizing that “I cannot now receive you sacramentally.” The prayer welcomes Jesus, praying may “I receive you spiritually.” The prayer addresses the reality of not being able to gather physically for liturgy while affirming the presence of the Lord in sacrament, Church and the lives of his faithful.

    I have viewed the celebration of Mass each day of the pandemic. And, more than just the viewing, I have been supported and fed spiritually through Word and Sacrament. Until I can be present at Eucharist, whether I be the presiding celebrant, or not, I will continue looking to be fed in the daily live-streamed Mass from St Michael’s Cathedral and in the weekly Eucharist live-streamed from the diocese of Brandon.
    Fr. Ted Hales

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