The Eucharist and coming out of lockdown: A tract for these COVID-19 times

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"If the church were to simply return to public gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist despite the ongoing transmission of the virus, a division would automatically be established within the community—between those able to attend safely (for example, younger people who can travel by car) and those made more vulnerable in such a situation (for example, the elderly who require public transit to attend). " Photo: Trinity College Chapel by Christopher Brittain

The challenges presented to churches by COVID-19 are numerous. Debates over whether to celebrate the Eucharist during the height of the crisis, and when to resume the sharing of the sacrament as lockdown restrictions are eased, are a case in point. In what follows, I argue that what the church is presently engaged in is not a “eucharistic fast,” but instead a form of “spiritual communion” that is informed and shaped by the eucharistic identity of the church. It is this same eucharistic vision that should guide Anglicans as they consider how and when to ease restrictions on public worship.

Overreactions against the moratorium

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, most Anglican churches across the globe have imposed a moratorium on celebrating the Eucharist. This has led some panicked voices to ask whether this marks “the end of the Eucharist?” Others have accused the Church of England of letting down its members by “going private.”

Brittain. Photo: Contributed

The reasons marshalled by those protesting the church’s decision to place a moratorium on the Eucharist vary. Some accuse the church of abandoning its commitment to the sacrament by bowing to the edicts of government policy. Others engage in debates over the definition of “essential service” and lament that liquor stores remain open, while churches do not.

The first accusation goes to the heart of the issue that inspired the Oxford Movement in the 19th century—a fear that the state was setting the agenda of the church. This certainly does not apply to decisions made by Canadian Anglican bishops. Recall that many dioceses withheld the common cup and interrupted the passing of the peace before the lockdown began. In other words, the church was ahead of the government in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Anglicans decided—on their own terms—to modify usual patterns of worship for solid theological and pastoral reasons. So, it strikes me as overly melodramatic to accuse our leaders of sacrificing church tradition to fit governmental policy agendas.

It is also curious to encounter suggestions that churches should open and conduct the celebration of the Eucharist because liquor stores and big-box hardware centres aren’t closed. This position essentially implies that Anglicans should fall in line with the consumer practices of the society in which they are located. Insisting that “we” should be able to live like “them” is not an argument; it is a sign of envy or a desire to copy the actions of others.

What, then, should inform Anglican decision-making about the celebration of the Eucharist during a pandemic? Furthermore, how should church leaders discern when to resume the practice? On such questions, Scripture and Christian tradition should guide our leaders.

Arguments from Scripture and tradition

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11:17-34) is a good place to look for guidance on the celebration of the Eucharist during a pandemic. In this passage, Paul criticizes the Corinthian church for the way it is celebrating the Eucharist: “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” (v. 17). What does Paul understand to be the problem? He states that “I hear there are divisions among you,” and because of this, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper” (v. 20). This is because, “each of you goes ahead with your own support, and one goes away hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

The biblical scholar C.K. Barrett emphasizes that the “divisions” mentioned by Paul are chiefly class distinctions between the rich and poor. Some come to church to feast, while others receive nothing. As such, the ceremony is reduced to a private meal, not a collective sharing in the body and blood of Christ. For Paul, consuming the bread and wine while disregarding the needs of others in the community represents eating in “an unworthy manner” (v. 27). Richard B. Hays concludes that Paul is arguing that those who celebrate the Lord’s supper “without discerning the body eat and drink judgement upon themselves.” To properly recognize the church assembly for what it is requires acknowledging that it is “the one body of Christ.”

What has this to do with a moratorium of the Eucharistic during COVID-19? If the church were to simply return to public gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist despite the ongoing transmission of the virus, a division would automatically be established within the community—between those able to attend safely (for example, younger people who can travel by car) and those made more vulnerable in such a situation (for example, the elderly who require public transit to attend). Under current conditions, a Eucharist cannot avoid becoming a celebration by the more privileged or mobile members of the community. To ignore this reality is to encourage people to partake in Holy Communion in an “unworthy manner.”

With regard to arguments from Christian tradition, if Anglicans look back to the first 1549 Book of Common Prayer, it is instructive to be reminded by scholars like Eamon Duffy that when illness made it impossible to safely gather a sufficient number of people (three or more), then the celebration of the Eucharist was not permitted. Instead, it was taught that through prayer, “the benefits of Christ would be just as profitable to their soul’s health, ‘although he does not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.’” This tradition of “spiritual communion” suggests that Christians can be confident of Christ’s presence and work among them during periods of time when the church is unable to safely celebrate the Eucharist.

Since the early church period, what has earned Christians the admiration of their neighbours during times of plague has not been the church’s determination to celebrate the Eucharist in unsafe circumstances, but rather their outreach to those in need. When a pandemic afflicted the Roman Empire between 249-262, the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, instructed his church not to focus on grieving for the victims of the disease, but on caring for the ill and those in danger. This pattern in Christian history leads the sociologist Rodney Stark to conclude that the growth of the church in the first four centuries was largely due to the ways in which Christians displayed care and mercy to the sick, particularly during times of plague.

Such a perspective does not signal a disregard or end of the Eucharist but is a consequence of the church being deeply formed by its sacramental practices. Through participation in the body and blood of Christ, Christians have had their hearts and mind shaped by God. Because we have been formed by our participation in Christ, we cannot but be committed to the wellbeing of other members of our community. As such, imposing a moratorium on the Eucharist during a pandemic is not a form of abandoning or even fasting from the Eucharist; it is rather a consequence of living out the church’s eucharistic identity.

If Scripture and tradition suggest that it is not only prudent, but faithful to the church’s calling, to place a moratorium on the celebration of the Eucharist in a time of pandemic, where does that leave Christians and their relationship to God?

Spiritual communion in the wilderness

Here we should heed Paul’s counsel that those who are hungry “eat at home” (1 Cor 11:34). Since there isn’t consecrated bread and wine available to consume, then we must trust that, just as God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna from heaven (Exodus 16), God will feed us through spiritual communion until such a time that all our people are able to come together to gather safely around the altar.

I realize that many of us will not consider “spiritual communion” a full substitute for the powerful experience of partaking in the sacramental body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist. Here it is helpful to remember that, when the Israelites first encountered the “bread from heaven” provided by God in the wilderness, their first reaction was, “What is it? (Ex 16:15). They had to be convinced to eat it, and even then, they did so with a fair bit of complaining. Sometimes we must learn to recognize the blessing in what God is offering to us.

Is it time to ease restrictions on the Eucharist?

At present, some Canadian provinces and other countries are beginning to ease lockdown restrictions. In Germany, church services of up to 20 people are now permitted (as long as there is no singing). At the same time, many worry that the easing of restrictions have begun too early. New cases have broken out in Germany, China and South Korea, so it is entirely possible that lockdown restrictions will need to remain in place for many months to come.

In many jurisdictions that are contemplating “re-opening,” different phases for the removal of restrictions have been established. Phase 1 involves a limited re-opening of select workplaces and public spaces; Phase 2 allows further workplaces and public spaces to reopen. Both stages keep protections of vulnerable populations in place. In Phase 3, more widespread re-opening is permitted.

Given that Christian churches include many older members and others with health issues, several members are classified as a “vulnerable” population in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests that it may be necessary to continue the moratorium on the Eucharist until Phase 3 is reached in one’s local context. At a minimum, churches should only permit a return to public worship in limited numbers during Phase 2. Yet those considering such a decision will have to first ensure that this does not result in what Paul describes as the introduction of “divisions” into the body of Christ.

Longing for restoration of the sacramental feast is certainly understandable and appropriate. Yet such personal desires, as Paul reminds us, are not grounds for faithful worship of God. Instead, we are called to take comfort from the reminder that God will send us bread from heaven, and to attend to the church’s teaching that Christ is present with us through spiritual communion. This will enable us, through the power of the Spirit, to be patient until such a time as we are able to celebrate the Eucharist as worthy recipients.

The Rev. Christopher Craig Brittain is Dean of Divinity and the Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Hello, I disagree with Dr Brittan’s assumption that only older and more vulnerable attend using public transport. My experience is the direct opposite, it is often the young who travel by public transportation. Dr Brittan also does not even touch on the nature of the host, as being the body and blood of Christ and if they are, why would our loving God let his body hurt his followers? Yes, social distancing, hand sanitizer stations, face masks, etc are vital, but to say churches should not reopen is incorrect in my opinion. Regards,

  2. Chris Brittain’s piece provides a good theological-pastoral reflection on the suspension of public eucharist, grief, and the nature of Christian community. However, the sweep of Brittain’s analysis glosses over some important distinctions. He states “…most Anglican churches across the globe have imposed a moratorium on celebrating the Eucharist.” Actually what is under moratorium is ‘public’ celebration. Eucharist under lockdown continues to be celebrated and streamed in many places in The Communion. Nova Scotia is one such Canadian jurisdiction. Archbishop Welby celebrated on live stream Easter Day from his Lambeth kitchen-even though he was policy lead in the now controversial decision of English Bishops (see Brittain’s embedded link ‘going private’) to direct clergy to stay out of their churches. (Ontario bishops have asked for a ‘fast’—perhaps technically lawful, but open to criticism on the bais that it is authoritarian and lacking in theological sensitivity.)

    Eucharist is mandated by Christ (” given for you…in remembrance of me”). Remarkably, in referencing I Cor. Brittain passes over St. Paul’s account of handing over the tradition, ” Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” ( 23-26, REB). Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias long ago noted the importance of remembrance before God of Jesus’ work ( Eucharistic Words of Jesus) . Ecumenically, The Roman Catholic Church notes the importance of priests celebrating the Eucharist even if there are only a few others of the faithful present (VII: Presbyterorum Ordinis III, 13). The Canadian BCP in the prohibitive rubric on page 67 tacitly recognizes the meaningfulness of a Eucharist with only one person present to communicate.

    Brittain is certainly insightful in helping the reader discern community issues around the resumption of public worship during lockdown–even if his reference to St. Paul and congregational class differences is not the best analogy. We must be responsible and exemplary as an institution entrusted with bearing the gospel. However, there are further questions about what constitutes optimal community. Local churches (the article is very urban cognizant) have the capability of doing that in consultation with public health. I have been cheered knowing that faithful priests continue to celebrate under lockdown on our behalf. My age cohort puts me in a Covid risk category. Notwithstanding, when public eucharist resumes, under whatever circumstances, I will be cheered knowing that a representative community is gathering to proclaim Christ’s death until he comes to establish perfect community.

  3. “churches should open and conduct the celebration of the Eucharist because liquor stores and big-box hardware centres aren’t closed. This position essentially implies that Anglicans should fall in line with the consumer practices of the society in which they are located…”

    That statement is well and good if we assume all the issues on the table are inward-focused for those already numbered among the Faithful. And, to be fair, many parishes live that way; with the sacramental family meal of the Eucharist as the familiar featured special on the menu.

    But the question of being “open” (though perhaps not resuming eucharist in familiar ways) is much bigger in those places which continue or which are seeking to restore the historic understanding of “parishes” as mission territories — villages, towns, and neighbourhoods claimed in the name of God and for whom the incumbent, with the support of the wardens, vestry, and congregation, is the appointed minister of God responsible for all in their cure, regardless of church membership, and perhaps especially for those who don’t realize they need the Church.

    In a congregational model, there’s little public benefit lost if a private group of like-minded believers cannot gather; it’s an inconvenience, but upsets nothing essential. But, for those parishes whose spiritual, charitable, and practical arms are extended daily to the general public and particularly focused on those vulnerable demographics within the mission field of the parish, the church being closed — really absent — when the exploitative consumeristic marketplace is open is an abandonment of the cure of souls, at least in any historic Anglican sense.

    As the author suggests, I agree that the average person in the average pew actually stands to learn and grow from the experience of losing the familiar Eucharistic rhythms and learning to experience what God provides, as manna in the wilderness. And, certainly, offering communion only to the healthy — or any other division — is far from how communion ought to be.

    But, unless churches are nothing more than Eucharistic venues for those who already consider themselves members, there are much larger questions to consider. The “consumer practices of society” need the counter-balance of Gospel truth and merciful hands ministering to those who are most susceptible to false information, exploitation, addiction, despair, and violence. Or, as I’ve posted around town and on the church doors: the buildings may be closed, but the church is open.

    Worship may have moved online, but pastoral care, counselling, food security programs, delivery of narcotics for those on daily dispensing orders, daily check-ins for those on suicide or addictions-related safety plans, low-income tax preparation and benefits-application services, home-delivery Sunday School lessons and crafts, delivery of reading materials to elders, delivery of puzzles and groceries to those in isolation, and even the notary public/commissioner of oaths services this parish offers to this remote Northern community — all in the name of Jesus — have ramped up rather than cut back during this pandemic, all undergirded by a parish learning to pray the daily office and continuing in the study of scripture via Zoom.

    The faithful will survive the inconvenience of Eucharistic restrictions, and even benefit from learning God’s grace in spiritual communion. BUT, there are many more vulnerable persons to think about beyond the older persons in the pews for Eucharist… and they, too, are the responsibility of the parish and those with the cure of souls, at least in any historic Anglican sense.

    If a return to “normal” Eucharistic worship needs to wait until Phase 3, we’re in the same position as any sit-down family restaurant. Yes, we long for things to be as they ought to be — a family gathered around the table. But, in the meantime, instead of closing the doors, we have the opportunity to reevaluate and re-jig the menu, and may just re-learn that there’s more to taste and see than the familiar weekly special.

    • Re: “In a congregational model, there’s little public benefit lost if a private group of like-minded believers cannot gather; it’s an inconvenience, but upsets nothing essential. But, for those parishes whose spiritual, charitable, and practical arms are extended daily to the general public and particularly focused on those vulnerable demographics within the mission field of the parish, the church being closed — really absent — when the exploitative consumeristic marketplace is open is an abandonment of the cure of souls, at least in any historic Anglican sense.” While agreeing with you, sir about the parishes with spiritual, charitable, and practical arms being extended to the general public, may I suggest that this has nothing, absolutely, nothing to do with a congregational model, a Presbyterian model (not mentioned), an episcopal model. If these marks of an active parish are missing, there is a lot more wrong than a matter of when, where, and how to serve Eucharist.

  4. Very sound advice and solid Anglican presentation. Thank you for this and May the Lord Bless you and keep you! Amen

  5. Far be for me to judge an article that was written with the worthy intent of helping us negotiate the present pandemic safely and spiritually, but the understanding here of “spiritual communion” is not accurate. From the beginning, the doctrine was instituted for those who had not practiced the usual disciplines (confession, penance) before taking communion. It was therefore a stopgap based upon a breakdown in Christian practice that assumed that the par taker was unworthy to receive the transubstantiated body and blood. Rather than jury rigging a Catholic doctrine, I would suggest a season of “Feasting on the Word of God.” That is to say, a time of evangelism and gospel-centered preaching aimed at conversion.

  6. For some Anglicans (and many other Christians, I think, the real question is whether we are living a sacramental life: if, indeed, we are united to Christ “whenever we eat this bread”. The light of the world, the water of life, the bread for the world–these are sacramental phrases that do not require theologians or clergy to pronounce in order for one to be surrounded by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and be blessed by His presence.

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