Whither the Eucharist?

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?

7 thoughts on “Whither the Eucharist?”

  1. I wonder where Josie finds the concept of consecration of the elements in Methodist teaching. It does not appear in MWB. As I understand it, I, as an ordained presbyter act on behalf of the Methodist people (represented by the Conference which accepted me and the President who ordained me) and as the one presiding at the table in the midst of the congregation gathered on the day. The elements become for us the body and blood of Christ by the act of the whole people. Extended Communion enables those not present to be included in the congregation, which is why it is preferable for them to share in this way on the same day as the service took place in church.

    Like

    1. Conference 2020 decided we shouldn’t have Communion on Zoom (a very simplified version of their pontifications) so my Circuit ‘toed the line’.
      I say Conference was wrong. I told my Circuit Leadership Team that Conference was wrong. (Yes, I did say it like that!) They insisted on ‘toeing the line’.
      As someone still not happy to congregate, I haven’t had Communion since before Lockdown. I have valued Zoom gathering as have many disabled people who have been unable to attend Church. Zoom Holy Communion should now be an added option for all, ongoing.
      What is missing is the togetherness of Holy Communion which we get on a Zoom meeting, not that there is some magic in the words of a Presbyter spoken over the food.
      I live with the Holy Spirit all day every day. Everything I put in my mouth is holy. I wonder what she thinks of all this.

      So, for me, still no fish paste sandwich!!

      I have deliberately replied this to ‘Woodville’ because I gave my affirming reply to Josie a few days ago.

      Like

      1. I agree with you that Conference was wrong in 2020. We seem to be in danger of forgetting who’s table and supper we are remembering. Denying this grace to those of us who, through no fault of our own, still need to shield is frustrating. The Spirit has no problem with time/space and resides fully in each of us.

        Like

  2. The Eucharist is a precious gift, given to us by the Lord himself.
    I think it is a beautiful thing to do, wherever and however I do it, and while being a collective act of remembrance and belonging in a Christian community, I also find it wholly personal and private.
    During the first lockdown, when it was Easter and all the churches were closed, I tuned into the Easter Mass from the Vatican. I used a Rich Tea biscuit and some fruit juice in place of the bread and wine. For me this was entirely symbolic, just a substitute for the real thing, and I was happy for Pope Francis to receive the consecrated body and blood on my behalf.
    I think everyone has to follow their gut feelings on this one, but I prefer the Lord’s Supper to be consecrated by a Priest or Minister.

    Like

  3. Dear Josie.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this piece.
    I am still waiting to eat my fish paste sandwich.
    Margaret

    Like

  4. Re the ‘concept of consecration’ – I’m an ecumenist in an Anglican / Methodist partnership so have to be aware of the breadth of views on this.

    Like

  5. I’m sorry to be commenting so late after Josie’s piece was posted. I take a rather different view from Josie. The question is not so much whether the Holy Spirit has a problem with space and time (and words). Of course – as the rhetorical question implies – the Holy Spirit transcends these categories. The question is, how does the Holy Spirit work with and through the categories of space and time as well as with and through the media of words and elements? In the eucharist we do anticipate the heavenly banquet where all these distinctions will fall away, but our celebrations are focussed on particular communities embodied in specific times and places, speaking a particular language and taking the elements of bread and wine. From my perspective there may well be opportunity to extend our celebrations of Holy Communion through online participation, but this should not stop us taking care over our use of time, space, language and elements.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s