Often in the history of the church theology has followed practice; and while this sometimes
leads to error it can also lead us into truth. Only time and careful discernment can enable us
to decide what has been ‘of the spirit’ and what has been mistaken. Development of
theology and practice requires wisdom, reflection and courage – willingness to try things
out in communities of faith based in trust and openness.
Broken Body and Real Presence
As churches we have had to rapidly adopt new practice – new forms of gathering, new
patterns of worship, new expressions of word and sacrament; and we have had to do that in
one of the fullest and richest times of the church year. We have had to be adept at being
adaptive – a capacity that should serve us well in all of the uncertain future into which we
are heading. True to our inheritance, we are finding ways to ‘proclaim afresh’ the gospel in
this ‘Covid generation’. We have been resourceful and creative, putting new flesh on the
word; we have risked ourselves with new technology in the glare of a nervous and anxious
community of faith; we have been patient with ourselves and with each other as the new
begins to become normal. And we have experienced in new breadth and depth what it is to
be the broken body of Christ; and so there is something Eucharistic about our current lived
experience. Our partial gathering by Zoom brings the joy of glimpsing and hearing familiar
and new friends; sharing news and each other’s domestic spaces. It’s not tidy or well
ordered, even with the help of ‘mute all’; but it’s about as ‘real presence’ as is possible at
this time, and has some ‘reality’ that our physical gathering in church artificially leaves out.
Our Eucharistic Practice
Our Sunday pattern in the Benefice of Cotham and St Paul’s is this:-
We put together a pre-recorded video with various participants and contributions which we
edit together and publish on our new YouTube channel. This is both a Liturgy of the Word,
followed by the opportunity to join a Zoom Liturgy of the Sacrament that presumes
participants have just viewed the video; or it can be a stand alone Service of the Word for
those who choose not to join the Zoom Eucharist. The pre-recorded format has been a richly
creative experience enabling a high level of participation by different individuals and groups
– musicians and singers, the young people’s group, artists, creative pray-ers, reflections
where image adds something to word. Production qualities vary – its neither hi-def or hi-fi –
but there is something rich and beautiful that is enabling people to worship and pray in new
The Zoom Liturgy of the Sacrament that follows begins with a friendly ‘gathering’ welcome
by the president, sharing the peace and the offertory (with Taize chant). We are then
settled for Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion rite culminating in the president naming
our dispersed communion and showing the elements to their web-cam. We have invited
those who wish to have bread and wine at home and to share these elements at the same
time – some do and some don’t.
On Thursdays we have a whole said eucharist celebrated over Zoom with a similar invitation
to bring your own gifts to your own table.
Looking at wider church practice we are one expression of the growing diversity of
preference and practice. The debate is fascinating and important, and will I hope, lead us into a place of theological and liturgical integrity.
Reflections on our practice
Eucharist is always partial; while it is a great gift – perhaps The Gift – it always points
beyond itself. It is both real presence and pointing to an infinitely more Real Presence.
Eucharist is memory and foretaste – it looks back to the Last supper and to Crucifixion, and
it looks forward to fulfilment in the banquet of the kingdom where people will be gathered
from east and west, north and south.
1. Bread once scattered
The Shape of the Eucharist, following the fourfold action (taking, blessing, breaking, sharing)
of Jesus’ feeding miracles includes breaking – we have to break the bread to share it – Christ
is broken that we might be made whole. This broken Eucharistic offering is reflected in the
broken realities of the body of Christ – we are a broken body who break bread to share in
what we are and what we are becoming. This paradoxical mystery is at the heart of the
Eucharistic life of the church and at the heart of what it means for us to live Eucharistically.
In her column in the Church Times Angela Tilby, (Is it a sharing in the Body of Christ? Church Times, 24th April 2020) arguing against the kind of dispersed Eucharistic practice I describe, quotes the foundational first century Christian text The Didache which speaks of ‘The grain
once scattered in the fields and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside re-united on the
table’ in bread and wine as being a sign and prayer that the whole church will ‘soon be
gathered from the corners of the earth into God’s kingdom.’
This beautiful prayer of the Didache is full of anticipation, and suggests that all that is gathered together in the Eucharist is a sign of hope and foretaste of all that will be gathered together into God’s kingdom – in other words there is much, including the church (the broken body of Christ) that is still scattered, still fractured, still incomplete, still hungry, and still longing. Eucharistic fulfilment is always just a hint of what is to come; the Mass deepens our longing and as we are fed so we hunger more deeply for all that is not yet but one day will be.
Our pain at being scattered and isolated from one another in this time is, in this sense,
deeply Eucharistic – when we ‘gather’ by zoom we remember our fuller embodied gathering
in our churches where we exchanged hugs and handshakes, and knelt alongside each other
in gathered communion; and when we ‘gather’ by Zoom we anticipate and hope for a time
when we can again gather, though many, as one body. This current experience gives a
sharp, and even painful dimension to all Eucharistic remembering and longing – it reminds
us and teaches us what is always true – the not yet of all our partial and broken expressions
of God’s life amongst us and ahead of us. We feel this scattered partial experience in our
bodies and emotions; and the hunger and longing evoked is holy and far more significant
than any lazy ‘fast food, tv dinner’ sense of ‘convenience communion by spiritual deliveroo’!
2. Epiclesis – the Spirit blows where she wills
By the invocation of the Spirit, past and future are present in the Eucharist:
‘as on that night, so here and now he offers himself in touch and taste beyond all words can
hold’; ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Sacred memory and transformative hope are brought into sharp focus as the Spirit connects heaven and earth, time and eternity, in unboundless grace-full presence. To put boundaries around this boundless presence at a time of isolation and to keep Christ’s living presence
locked into our closed churches seems a limitation of grace and imagination. While I hold to
church order, and the ordering of ministry, these are always ‘containers’ of grace to focus
presence and enable that presence to be named, known and shared. If heaven and earth,
time and eternity find their focus in the Eucharist, is there any reason why in a dispersed
gathering with shared liturgy and intention the one spirit might not also be present in many
homes as the priest leads the people in words and actions of sacred memory and
transformative hope. ‘You who was once far off have been brought near’ (Eph 2.13) and he
remains near to us and we to him when so much feels distant and remote.
3. Living Stones – a dwelling for God’s presence
The ministerial priesthood always derives from the priesthood of the whole people of God,
and finds its continued life and connection within the community of faith, gathered and
dispersed, local and universal. The ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2.9) of the people of God is
the dwelling where God chooses to be present in and for the world. It does not mean that
all Christians are priests, but that together we are the priestly people of God. This context
for ministerial priesthood makes a nonsense of the notion of a private mass; we, priest and
people are ‘concelebrants’ of the feast: ‘The Lord be with you’ needs its ‘And also with you’.
Priests are called to be representatives of the church; therefore I can see some sense in the
priest receiving the gifts on behalf of her congregation and community. However, given the
foundational reality of the royal priesthood I don’t see why this representative role need be
brought into play for our dispersed virtual Eucharistic gatherings, and I would be concerned
about a growing clericalism where we become abstracted from our roots amongst the
company of the baptised.
4. God at home – delighting in the domestic
One of the scandalous gifts of this time is a renewed experience of God in the ordinary
domestic realities of our lives. A recent survey concluded the growing disconnect between
church and home amongst even the most committed Christians; the realties of lockdown
are sweeping this disconnect away as we join each other from our living rooms and
kitchens. Priests are seen presiding in a range of settings, and while we all prepare out ‘set’
the everyday realities of our lives are more on view – and that is part of our offering in this
time, and perhaps more connective to those we minister amongst than our regular
‘presentation of self’ in church.
A fascinating twitter feed (https://twitter.com/Ruthmw/status/1256312822012624897)
ensued when priest and poet Ruth Wells commented that she is “Not interested in getting into fights about clergy being allowed in church buildings, but find this idea that church has ‘retreated
to the domestic’ fascinating. As if the home is somehow impure. There’s some feminist theology here if I can just crank my brain into action”.
Ruth certainly did ‘crank her brain into action, no doubt with the help of a ‘company’ of sympathetic voices and refined her hunch into a beautiful haiku:
God snuck home.
No longer bound by the expectations of a ‘consecrated’ building
She’s concentrated her efforts on breaking out.
Now in the comfort of a well worn dining table she shares some bread, with some friends.
And she laughs.
And she weeps.
In the sacred space of home.
@Ruthmw, Twitter, May 1 2020
Ruth also cites a blog post: ‘Closed Churches and Kitchen Tables’
5. ‘Forget your perfect offering’
These wise words from poet / prophet Leonard Cohen remind us that Eucharist is always a broken cracked offering through which the light of God’s presence ‘gets in’. But for Eucharist to be Eucharist it must have offering – the work of human hands and the fruits of the earth must be brought to the table. The offertory is the work of the people of God, the gifts of the congregation representing the fruitfulness of their lives in a multitude of ways; and focussed in bread and wine. The 5000 can’t be fed without the boy’s picnic lunch being offered to Jesus (John 6., and neither can the priest bless, break and share unless she has first received and taken the gifts of the people. This hidden but crucial dimension of Eucharistic practice seems more ‘present’ as we invite people to bring bread and wine to their own tables, along with other aspects of their lives and homes that provide the context for this offering.
In Kevin Nichols’ Offertory hymn we sing:
The bread we offer you is blessed and broken,
And it becomes for us our spirit’s food.
Over the cup we bring, your Word is spoken;
Make it your gift to us, your healing blood.
Take all that daily toil, plants in our heart’s poor soil,
Take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream.
The chances we have missed, the graces we resist,
Lord, in thy Eucharist, take and redeem.
The times are extreme, the challenges great, and the gifts are new and real. ‘Real Presence’,
always integral to discussions about the Eucharist, is being experienced in new ways, uniting
what is torn apart by social distancing, gathering what is dispersed, and re-connecting what
has been long held separate. This is a time of deep formation, when we are ‘learning to be
God’s people once again’ (Lent Preface, Common Worship Times and Seasons)
As Anglicans we do our theology through our worship, and most especially through the Eucharist: as Christ continues to draw near and unite us in his body this ‘doing theology’ in new, experimental liturgical and sacramental practice is integral to this formational journey. What we do now, by zoom and livestream, won’t abide; but through it we will be enabled to continue to abide in Christ as he abides with us, on this particular and unusual ‘leg’ of our journey.