by Josie Smith.
When my daughter was a very little girl she was once quite frustrated at some Circuit event – probably a Garden Party – because in the crowd she couldn’t for the moment locate either parent to say grace for her, so she couldn’t eat her fish paste sandwich.
Thanksgiving was for her a necessary prelude to food, even just a fish paste sandwich, and great was the relief when a parent appeared and the necessary words had been said.
She was on to something, as children often are.
We grown-ups have had similar frustration since Covid-19 struck, when we have been unable to receive Holy Communion in a church building. If we can’t physically attend church because of the necessary restrictions, what are the implications for the Eucharist – Holy Communion? How has our practice (and more profoundly our understanding) been modified by these external events?
I was in Canada in the late 1980s as part of a British Council of Churches exchange visit, and at that time there was great deal of work being done there on understandings of the Eucharist, particularly by more far-sighted Roman Catholics. One question being asked in that country of vast distances, was (and I probably paraphrase – it was a long time ago!) ‘If it is considered theologically O.K. for trained lay people to take the consecrated wafer, as is the practice, to housebound people, would it be in principle any different if we were to send the wafer by post or dog sled, once it has been consecrated?’
My own interest arose partly from my involvement in religious broadcasting. Frank Pagden, who was in ‘other appointments’ as a radio producer for the BBC in Leeds, introduced a Radio Eucharist many years ago in which listeners were invited to take a piece of their own (ordinary) bread and some (ordinary) wine – or more probably a proprietary blackcurrant drink as he was a Methodist minister – and share in the Communion service. This was revolutionary and controversial, and caused much heated argument in church circles.
Many questions here – Can radio or televised Eucharist be real? Do people need to be physically together in order to constitute a congregation? Then, once you allow that people can be genuinely sharing in an activity though not physically in the same room as the rest of the people or the celebrant, does a broadcast Eucharist lose its efficacy if it is pre-recorded?
Does the Holy Spirit have problems with time and space?
And what constitutes consecration? What are the implications for the ‘Ministry of the Word and Sacraments’ if anyone at home can take their own bread and wine which haven’t had the words properly spoken over them?
During lockdown there have been many responses to the questions. At my own church we have enjoyed a streamed service every Sunday morning, pre-recorded during the week in an otherwise empty and thoroughly sanitised building. We are more than usually blessed in having a musical director who is also a sound engineer, cameraman and still photographer, and who has produced a seamless whole each Sunday morning. The preacher, together with those responsible for Bible reading and intercessory prayer, recorded their parts wearing masks except when actually speaking, and the music was recorded so that we could join in at home without breathing on anyone outside our household.
When Holy Communion is part of the service we are invited to take bread and wine wherever we happen to be watching. The Communion table is in full screen, the bread and wine are there, the candles are lit, and the minister is presiding, with a modified form of words. When we began online services it was made clear that the bread and wine or juice which people consumed in their own homes were not technically consecrated.
We can access the service at 10.30 on Sunday. But it is possible now by the marvels of modern technology to tune in at any time thereafter. Is it still an act of worship, is it still Eucharist, are we still a congregation, if we happen to watch it, prayerfully, at noon or in the evening?
That’s the real question – Does the Holy Spirit have problems with time and space? Or even with Words?