Grace Received: communion on the battlefield

Two hundred and seventy four years ago, as I write this, some members of the congregation which I now serve were in desperate straits. They had been following the fortunes of the Young Pretender for some time – hoping for the restoration of the Stuart cause. Some had, no doubt, been following developments from home. Some had offered support to the cause. Some had followed. Some had gone into battle.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was himself not unknown to this congregation. Clementina Walkinshaw his long term mistress (some say his wife) was a daughter of this congregation. It has rightly been said that Episcopalians were persecuted in Glasgow at some times not because it seemed as though they were sleeping with the enemy but because they actually were.

Two hundred and seventy four years ago the Battle of Culloden was raging.

But Culloden was not about the personal. It was about the political and the very particular determination of the Hanoverian forces to wipe out the Jacobite movement once and for all.

Episcopalians died in significant numbers. Large numbers of deaths – the tragedy and pity of civil war played out in all its hideous cruelty with real lives.

We tend to remember the fallen at Culloden in our prayers at St Mary’s when the anniversary of the battle comes around. (We do the same for Sheriffmuir for similar reasons). It is ours to remember.

This year as I was thinking about that remembrance as I was saying morning prayer, I was struck by one of the details of the battle which has often been told by Episcopalians. It is that an Episcopal priest on the battlefield was called to give the last rites to Lord Strathallan who had been mortally wounded. The priest was John Maitland of Careston and it is said that, not having bread and wine on the battlefield, he administered the last rites using an oatcake and whisky.

Now, this story is oft told by those with a particularly romantic notion of Scottish Episcopal history. (The kind of people who forget that there were Episcopalians on both sides at Culloden). It is told with great affection. I’ve heard the story told by wistful people at wistful dinner parties. I’ve heard the story told at wistful General Synod Dinners in wistful General Synod Dinner speeches.

The story came from a bishop’s journal in the first place.

The notion that someone offered the last rites with oatcake and whisky paints a very powerful image – an image of someone refusing to accept that what he had to hand was inadequate. Someone doing what he could to meet someone else’s hour of need.

Two hundred and seventy four years later, we are faced with different times. Not as desperate as being on the losing side in a bitter physical battle but difficult times indeed. The Coronavirus pandemic has sent us all to our homes and closed all of our churches to public worship. Some fight individual battles for their lives. We all take our part in staying at home, washing our hands and hoping for ways out of a situation that six months ago was simply unimaginable.

The speed with which the church has changed its entire way of being is extraordinary. Some minister through phone-calls and letters. Many through a wide variety of online activity.

It has been breathtaking to see the church celebrate Holy Week without being able to gather in person. Extraordinary creativity has been exercised to ensure that people would not be denied the chance to join the greatest of stories and celebrate, even in their homes or at places of essential work, the greatest feast there is.

In the midst of the excitement and challenge of doing all this there are a huge range of questions. Some practical, some theological. And as usual the best questions are both practical and theological.

One question which repeatedly comes up is the question of whether it is appropriate for people watching a communion service online (either in real time or in an asynchronous way) to set out for themselves bread and wine and eat and drink at the time that the bread and wine are eaten in the service. Is such a thing communion? Is it lesser than that but a devout and pious response to the service? Or should it not happen at all?

A view has been expressed in a paper published by the College of Bishops advising that this should not happen. Instead, people are urged to make what is called a “Spiritual Communion” instead – the intention to partake of the bread and wine being seen as the equivalent of receiving bread and wine. The fact that this has to be spelled out seems to indicate to me that it has only ever been a reality to a very, very small number of people. For those who have partaken this way in the past, I have much admiration.

I am also in great admiration for so much that our College of Bishops has published in recent weeks. They have given very clear guidance and made very clear decisions under great pressure. They are to be much thanked for doing so.

If I have any hesitation it does lie with the advice about “Spiritual Communion”. I am grateful for the reflections and prayers in that paper, but I am aware that it is not ringing true for everyone who reads it. There is also confusion about its status. I understand it to be a set of reflections and prayers for the good of the church rather than an instruction to the church in how to behave. However, I am also struck by the fact that there are those who do very much believe that this is the bishops laying down how things are to be and presume them to be requesting (if not actually requiring) people to fall into line.

It is the case that there is a breadth of practice around this matter amongst those offering online services at this time – including different practices amongst the bishops when they offer such services – some being seen to receive the bread and wine and some being determined not to be seen doing so.

I am interested that one might be invited at home to light a candle along with the lighting of the Paschal Candle or use one’s own water to renew baptismal vows without there apparently being any theological issues involved in such graces being imparted digitally.

Some who are offering online services are clearly not expecting people to join in with receiving bread and wine at home. Some are suggesting directly that people do so. Here at St Mary’s we are doing exactly what the bishops commend in their paper in inviting people to share in adoration of the sacrament at that moment in the service.

However, it is the case that I am aware that some people are eating bread and drinking wine at that moment at home. And some are asking me what I think of that.

My position is that I am not at all surprised that people are doing this. My hope would be that if they do so they will encounter the grace of God.

I am also aware that some people would never do that and are very much content to receive by way of “spiritual communion”. My hope would be that if they do so they will encounter the grace of God.

I am particularly struck on this day, that the Rev John Maitland did not offer Lord Strathallan a “Spiritual Communion” on the battlefield at Culloden, but used what he had, in the form of oatcakes and whisky.

I suspect that it will take quite a long time for people to work out what they think theologically about all this. Indeed, I hope that people do take time to think about what they think about all this.

People don’t divide neatly into high church and low church on this matter for example. I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements and I am aware that my view on the propriety of people joining in with bread and wine at home differs from the views of others who also believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements.

I would hope that at this time and over the coming time we will find ways of discussing this and not closing off the conversation. It does not strike me as impossible that in two hundred and seventy four years there will be synod speeches referring to the extraordinary time when faithful Episcopalians even took the elements at home, their not being able to be present at mass in person in church.

It is undoubtedly the case that some people get angry about this matter and I would hope that we can get to a place where we can hear each other as we strive to get closer to God rather than just close one another down or use language in which we unchurch the other. These are unprecedented times after all. Plague is not unprecedented but plague in a digital era most certainly is.

It is a a theological statement that it is possible for Christ to be known in bread and wine blessed at a distance through digital means. It is also a theological statement to say that such a thing is impossible and that the Real Presence simply cannot be encountered in someone’s heart and home in that way.

Such theological positions deserve much thought and much mulling over rather than knee-jerk reactions.

It does seem important at this time to focus on the grace imparted by a sacrament. Indeed, if one concentrates wholly on the outward sign, it seems to me, that one has lost the reality of the possibility of sacramental grace anyway.

Let us have a conversation about how God can be known by online means. Not a battle.


  1. David Kenvyn says

    I have one question, which I know cannot be answered. What was that priest doing with oatcakes and a whisky flask on a battlefield?

  2. Intriguing.

    Given my off-the-bottom-of-the-candle-yet-staring-up-at-the-top approach, I think it was in St Mary’s that I first heard the term “Real Presence” and wondered what it might mean.
    Wikipedia documents multiple interpretations within the term. Somewhere there is a line to be drawn between understanding and mystery – to cease pressing the point and enjoy, yet without ceasing cogitation too soon. I expect somewhere in that space between literal and mystery, physical and substantial, is a view I’d find favourable.

    Perhaps an angle to consider is that it’s not about nouns so much as verbs. The presence is not in worrying what particular substances might be used and where, but in the calling to mind of the first _act_. God is all about experience so can be found on either side of the camera in church and on sofa alike.

    Oatcakes and whisky become a good-natured bonhomie, not anger. (At least, as long as they’re good oatcakes.)

    • I am an Episcopalian in the US and have “gone” (i.e. watched online) to the National Cathedral in Washington DC the past several weeks. They have a spiritual communion like your Bishops decreed.

      Although I haven’t heard anything like your Bishops did, in the Episcopal church here it isn’t Communion without a priest or by a deacon who uses wine consecrated by a priest.

      Kelvin, I always enjoy reading your posts and sermons that you post. You always say something that is meaningful to my Christian faith and helps me in becoming more like Christ. Thank you.

      We do agape meals when we cannot have Holy Eucharist. We are in community and can share the love of Christ with one another. That might be an alternative to going against the Bishops orders and calling the bread and wine Communion. Just a thought.

  3. Julia Ellis Burnet says

    Thank you Kelvin. I appreciate the historical data and your understanding of it. I also baked pitta bread on Maundy Thursday and ate with a glass of wine (from next door but I helped pick the grapes) and I had no worries about receiving your blessing and consecration during the Communion.
    Like the priest on the Battle of Culloden we are able to use what is at hand like the SAMS missionaries consecrating orange juice, the spirit moves between the material and spiritual always it is where the soul and mind are that counts.

  4. Helen P says

    Martha, I am very interested that you are doing agape meals now when you cannot have Holy Eucharist. I had not thought about these for a long time, but remember taking part in them in the Movement for Whole Ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church (which no longer exists but used to campaign for women’s ordination to the priesthood, support male and female deacons, foster lay people’s non-ordained ministry, etc.) as far as I understood, the reason was to share the love of Christ as a community, as you mentioned, and as a way to celebrate it without distinguishing between the different kinds of ministry (at a point when these might be determined by calling or by gender because of the rules of the church).
    I had started wondering if agape meals would be helpful in our current context, especially when I heard that people having virtual dinner parties, etc. In that case they are (I think) “sharing” food prepared in the same way and each other’s conversation and company, although of course it is not from the same kitchen and table. I also learned this week from Jewish friends about virtual Seders: as far as I can see a Seder works very similarly to an agape meal either virtually or irl, in that the food is prepared and shared in a sacramental way but can be made by anyone who follows the set practice and believes in what they signify (doesn’t require an ordained person to be present in each place where the food is prepared and eaten).

  5. It’s kind of odd. I have much less trouble making a spiritual communion of some kind in a Catholic Church where the host is before me physically, than I do when it’s on a screen. To be blunt, I’ve given up watching communion on-line. For me, it’s just a kind of misery of loss. But I’m glad it helps others. And I enjoy readings and prayers and especially sermons very much.

    • Variety is the spice of life. I can certainly see how too much of one thing gets offputting. The provincial Easter Day service was great for fellowship though – very uplifting.

  6. Fr Keith says

    As always, Kelvin, you write with such clarity. Thanks so much for this, which gives us much to ponder. Personally, I’m with the bishops on this, but I’m also with a generosity which appreciates why folk are doing, or not doing, what they are doing (or not doing).

  7. IRENE COOK says

    Blessed be God in the Holy Sacrament of the altar.

    I believe in the Real Presence with all my heart .When the Sacrament is kept in the Lady chapel, the presence of God is there,and thus healing. I was asked when ill to follow the mass in bad as it was being said in my church.

  8. I came to the practice of spiritual communion shortly after moving to the Hebrides and discovering that the sacrament was available physically far less often than I was used to. I cannot vouch for the theological basis for it, but I do know it has lightened my heart on occasions when I felt the absence of the sacrament keenly. To my mind the guidance of the Bishops not to participate with elements of your own seemed right, though clearly that is not a universal view. I would suggest that one could maintain an open mind as to whether consecration travels over wi-fi, and treat any elements one might use locally as foci for a spiritual communion, trusting that God will do with them and with you whatever he deems right.

  9. José Ribeiro says

    I’m portuguese, living in a small village (48 people), 15 km from town, Braganza, in the northeast of Portugal.
    The bread and wine are consacrated by the bishop at Braganza cathedral and franciscan nuns come two sundays a month with the eucharistic species so that we may take communion at the little and old (sec Xiii) village church.
    It seems to me a very orthodox and practical solution.

  10. Keith says

    À propos oatcakes & whisky ,I recall reading many many years ago about a bishop, I think, in a Japanese POW camp during WW2 consecrating the Eucharist using rice and … unfortunately I can’t remember what the liquid was!

    • Helen P says

      I had the same recollection, but no reference. The liquid you would expect, and so I thought I remembered, would be miso soup – but in the context it is also possible that it was water.

  11. robert e lewis says

    RE “Spiritual Communion”–This prayer has been used in one form or another of late in various instances, including the Easter Sunday service at the National Cathedral.

    My Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving as I proclaim your resurrection. I love you above all things, and long for you in my soul. Since I cannot receive you in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen .

    I detest this prayer. It is smarmy, dorky, and focused on ME ME ME. There must be something better that we can come up with in this unprecedented moment when we cannot gather for Eucharist.

    As an alternative I have created this prayer (well, not “created,” but rather pieced together using phrases and motifs from the BCP and A New Zealand Prayer Book), which I offer as a starting point for dicsussion.

    it has echoes of the sursum corda and the sanctus
    it is WE language (not ME language)
    it expresses both our fear and our hope
    it points to working together to end our exile.
    it includes the key phrase “receive into our hearts by faith”

    Lord, the door of your church is locked.

    We are not able to gather around your table;
    we are not able to share your peace.
    We are anxious and afraid.

    Nevertheless, we lift up our hearts,
    we join with angels and archangels
    and all the company of heaven
    as we proclaim you holy
    and receive you into our hearts by faith.

    Strengthen our love for you.
    Give us patience and hope,
    and help us work together with all your faithful people,
    that we may restore health and wholeness to one another
    and to all your creation.
    Through Christ our Savior, Amen.

  12. There will come a time – we are told in a certain Christian hymn: “When Sacraments shall cease” In the meantime, Jesus told his disciples that they were to “Do this to remember me”. In saying that, I’m pretty sure that Jesus meant that we were to gather together (whether in the body, corporately, or – in todays’s situation – possibly over the ether of the Internet – to re-member Him.

    Having been given the Spirit of Christ in our Baptism, we are told that the Holy spirit now lives within us. Teilhard de Chardin, when faced with the prospect of celebrating Mass with neither bread not wine to hand, asked God to “be my bread and wine for today”. He believed that he was receving Christ sacramentally in that moment. Knowing that God is much great than our understanding of God, can we not believe that God will feed us sacramentally when our hearts are actually open to receive Him? “I will never leave you” said Jesus. Do we really believe Him in this time of extraordinary need?

  13. David Wood says

    A typically helpful and generous reflection, Kelvin, thank you.

    Thanks to you too Robert, for your simple and elegant prayer suggestion, which will hopefully replace that narcissistic rubbish.

  14. Anne Wyllie says

    Thank you Kelvin for your helpful and thought-provoking reflection and questions. As a lay member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, I am following the current guidance from our College of Bishops and making ‘spiritual communion’ instead of partaking of bread and wine whenever I join in an online SEC Eucharistic Service. As a member also of the Church of Scotland, I gladly accept the invitation from Ministers in the Church of Scotland and other churches in the Reformed tradition to set apart a portion of bread and wine in order to receive it during an online Communion Service conducted by such a Minister. Do I feel more nourished by one of these acts of worship rather than the other? Actually, so far, no: I value both traditions and am grateful to belong to both.

  15. And what exactly is the purpose of an article which is all to do with senseless sensationalism and nothing to do with good an sound Theology?… This is the sort of nonsensical gibberish I expect to find the Sun Newspaper, or the Daily Mail, or the Express… They all make a living out of hysterical spectacle passing as “journalism”!

    What is the main objective of an article like this?… I have no idea! Irresponsible scaremongering certainly springs to mind, along with disbelief. What happened to Faith?

    This is not a matter of public relations, Earthly Humanism, or marketing. And this is NOT the place, the time or the subject matter for senseless speculation of utmost gravity!

    This is the MOST HOLY SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST, the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, instituted by Him at the Last Supper, with a simple and straight forward request: DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.
    For 2020 years Christendom has honoured that promise, through and through, amid endless wars, plagues, sieges, catastrophes in Europe and elsewhere and terrible tragedies such as World Wars 1 and 2, persecutions, and even evil, demonic dictatorships such as the Soviet Union and China.
    Despite all that, Our Lord Jesus Christ emerges, always radiant, always loving, always REAL and PRESENT, a magnet of the Christian Faith, the ultimate catalyst of the New and Eternal Covenant, declared at every Holy Mass during the Canon, at the Elevation.

    COVID-19 is no different than any other calamity the miserable History of Humanity has landed on our doorstep. And as before in 2020 years of Christian History, Our Lord Jesus Christ shall rise again, because we shall raise HIM again. We shall raise him in churches, and if we are forbidden to do so, we shall raise HIM in the streets, in processions, in Open Air Masses, in the open and in hiding if it needs be. And we shall raise HIM again, in public places and in private homes, in gilded altars and on kitchen tables if it comes to that!

    And why?!… Because He promised and so far has never failed us, to fulfil His Mission NEVER TO LEAVE US ALONE, even though He ascended to the Heavens.

    So the message for you, and ME, and all others in ALL CHURCHES is simple: Get AWAY from behind the comfort of a screen and a keyboard, put a washed and nicely ironed cassock on, get inside a cotta, grab a stole and get out, celebrate Mass as before. Ring the bells until they drop off the silent towers.

    Get organised, invite local brass bands, CELEBRATE the Victory of Resurrection as it should be celebrated. Take the Holy Eucharist in procession from local churches to the Cathedral, stop all the traffic, make a splash, make noise. MAKE A FUSS!

    Dying on the Cross for all of us is worth all of that and more, I believe.

    Have FAITH! And for goodness sake, blog less, especially when you are bored, it results in train crash articles like this one. Do something else for the Love of God.


    The Faithful will come, because Love is more powerful than blogs, empty notions, cheap pseudo-debates and all that nonsense.

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