What if this is the end of the Eucharist?

So, what happens to the church if this is the end of the Eucharist?

Right now we lie in a very uncertain time. Very much thought is directed towards to a mythical time – “after this current crisis is over”. There is a deep desire to get back to normal that exists in both our spoken discourse and our deepest longings. And yet, that notion of getting back to normal is undermined by the oft repeated assertions that things are never going to be the same again. Politicians talk of developing a “new normal” which is a euphemism for “things are never going to go back to what you used to have”.

This is a tough time for the churches. Buildings are closed to the public and different denominations have different rules as to whether even the clergy can enter them to pray. The Eucharist cannot be publicly celebrated in person to person settings. This has unleashed a whole load of creativity as people have shifted their attention to nourishing the church in both online and offline ways.

The depth of this creativity is incredible and isn’t to be underestimated.

Conservative institutions survive and flourish because of their ability to embrace radical change. (Paradoxically, radical institutions often struggle because of their inherent conservatism).

The church has continued to exist through so many generations because of its ability to change. The basic idea – that human beings can know life in all its fullness by orienting their lives around the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t change but the means by which the church conveys this idea has changed through the centuries and is changing all the time.

Many Christians would express the view that the way in which the church has been expressing itself probably can’t survive in many places but far fewer would believe that this means that Christianity will die out.

The current Covid-19 crisis does form a particular challenge and is hastening change in a way that no-one expected or predicted.

Theologically, the question that is in my mind is the question of whether this is the end of the Eucharist. Or more specifically, how might my own small corner of the Christian faith survive if the Eucharist can no longer be at the centre of All That We Do.

The idea that the Eucharist might be drawing to an end is almost inconceivable to most people in the church. And yet, types and shadows have their ending as we all know deep down. And we’ve all sung about a time “Lord, when sacraments shall cease” that we “may be one with all your church above”.

Well, sacraments are not quite ceased but not that far away from it either. Clergy have been unable to give the last rites in person in a time of pandemic when to do so would be to bring risk to self and society. Confirmations are not happening. In person confession isn’t possible in most circumstances. Social distancing the sacrament of reconciliation does have its troubles – no-one wants to shout their sins at a priest from 2 metres distance. Marriages can’t happen in church and are severely restricted anywhere else. Ordinations have been postponed. Baptisms are only to be done in extremis. And the online Eucharists, whether from kitchen basilicas or isolated altars in church buildings look both deeply familiar and deeply unfamiliar at the same time.

Much energy has gone into the questions raised by the Eucharist at this time and I expect that to continue but there are deep, deep questions about the other sacramental signs too.

For me, the gathering of a community is intrinsic to the Eucharist and we are all learning rapidly and unexpectedly what is intrinsic to the way we express our faith. Some of the subconscious things are coming to light and we realise when they do so that not everyone’s subconscious presumptions are the same. This is hardly surprising but no less unsettling for so being.

Not for the first time I find myself turning to Dom Gregory Dix’s famous piece about the Eucharist.

 

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well–remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves—and sins and temptations and prayers—once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the Eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew—just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill–spelled ill–carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor:—‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday Eucharist in her village church every week for a life–time mean to the blessed Chione—and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought. (All that going with one to the altar every morning!)

It is because it became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and the rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever–changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In this twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.

Dom Gregory’s words seem to make nonsense of the idea that we could in any conscience engage in a “fast” from the Eucharist. A fast from the Eucharist is a contradiction in terms.

Reading his words again, I can’t imagine that this is the end of the Eucharist. Or even the beginning of the end.

And yet, what happens to the church if neither therapy nor vaccine can be found in our lifetime?

The church has survived the closure of its buildings from time to time, just as it has endured war, famine and outright persecution. It has also faced people being unable to participate in the Eucharist due to pandemic and plague.

What it hasn’t had to face before is the threat of the Eucharist and the other sacraments being withdrawn and quite rightly withheld from a Christian population which has been nourished, formed and shaped by the Liturgical Movement.

The relationship of those plebs sancta dei that Dom Gregory talks about to the Eucharist has been changed by the expectations of the last 50 years. We’ve been taught to long for the Eucharist as people longing for water in the desert.

What happens now?

For some, things are changing and the same grace and love they have known is being mediated in online forms of one kind or another.

The Eucharist has been taken to every new place and space that human beings have discovered and inhabited. Little wonder that the questions about cyberspace have been emerging for the last decade.

I am not going to rehearse the arguments about the Eucharist being celebrating in a virtually gathered congregation rather than an in-person gathered congregation. However, I would want to assert that this is already happening and smart churches will want to regulate that rather than ban it. Regulation is the way to prevent a free for all, regulation is not something that enables an anything goes spirituality. It feels to me that the church is faced with a choice of regulating clergy to celebrate in new ways or be faced with de-facto lay celebration.

For the record, I’m not in favour of lay presidency at the Eucharist. I believe, for better or worse, in an ordered church. For better or worse, many of us are wedded to the notion that for your own good, you can’t just do what you feel like.

I long to be back at the altar in church and I long to be gathering people around it to celebrate, weep, rejoice and pray.

I still have hope that is going to happen.

I still believe that is what people like me are called to hope for right now even in the face of the challenges of Covid-19 or Covid-20, or Covid-21 or Covid-22 or…

That litany of unknown pandemics in the future may end up shaping our common life in the church just as much as we have been shaped by our experience in the past. The social distancing that we are called to embrace doesn’t mean that we are going back to what we’ve experienced as normal any time soon in church life.

What will happen next?

Here are some questions that I’m currently thinking about.

  • Will online-only denominations/provinces/churches appear?
  • Will it be God raising them up?
  • Why do buildings become even more important when you can’t enter them? (And what does that have to do with the idea of the Holy of Holies of old?)
  • Will new sacraments ever be identified by the Christian community? Friendship? Buildings?
  • What are the things about the Eucharist that are essential to the experience of grace that it conveys?
  • How would Jesus use the internet?
  • What would a church look like that was blended from offline and online elements and how might they strengthen one another?
  • Will a new liturgical movement appear that does as much work on non-Eucharistic worship as has been done on Eucharistic worship?
  • What is good in our current situation that, forged in this furnace, will last for all time?
  • What happens when sacraments cease?

Comments

  1. One question to add to the pile: when are we going to see the phrase ‘the language of exodus’ being applied?

    • I’ve seen that already.

      But having recently read much of Exodus at the daily office, I’m a bit suspicious of it as a text of liberation.

      • It hasn’t made its way down to some of us laity just yet. There may be something helpful in the imagery behind the term – need to see how long it goes on for, I suppose.

        Kinda interesting. It shows up how much folks really believe the priest doing presiding is effective.

        Also: music, sermons, art, community. These things come out of second place to try and assuage the gap.

  2. David Kenvyn says

    I have been struggling with this. The question in my mind is this: What are the laity doing?” I suspect that they are doing whatever they are spiritually comfortable with. For instance, to my astonishment on Sunday, I saw a woman, as I was on my exercise walk, kneeling outside St.Peter’s, Hyndland, praying. I susoect there will be laity administering the bread and wine to themselves, and others will not be doing so. I think this is the key point that the discussions I have seen online are not taking into account. The laity have been forced by circumstances to make a decision about what they need. This is something that we have to come to grips with now and in the future. It will not go away.

    • Judith Miller says

      Our situations reminds me of that explored in Roger Kamentz’s 1994 book “The Jew and the Lotus” recounting the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and a variety of Jewish leaders. The quest, for the Dalai Lama, was to learn how the Jewish communities in diaspora through the centuries managed to persist. He wanted to learn how to help his people, also in exile and diaspora, to survive as a people.

      The answer pointed to the strength of domestic, versus ecclesial, rituals in the Jewish community that enables it to persist after the destructions of the temple. Christianity developed around, through, the communal ritual of Eucharist…with rather weak/non existent in actual practice domestic, personal ritual.

      I commend this book which COVID-19 may be making newly relevant.

      • Juli Mallett says

        “Christianity developed […] with rather weak/non existent in actual practice domestic, personal ritual.”

        This is true, if it is true at all, only of particular parts of the Christian west in the modern era, and not of Christianity’s development across time, and in all places. In every corner of the globe where Christianity has been persecuted, and then reëmerged, it has been the household life and practice of faith, including personal and household piety and ritual, which have enabled the embers of Christianity to exist until they could erupt in flame again.

        If any of our branches of Christianity have not enabled us to be keepers of the flame like that, then we should wonder why, and work at once to correct it. Indeed, even in Anglicanism, I would submit that it is only recently that it has generally become the case that personal and home piety have so declined as to be dependent upon communal practice and ritual entirely. It is certainly not the Christian norm.

  3. Sue Matthews says

    It is hard to see the way forward to Eucharist in church again. I believe even a cup of water taken in His Name is sanctified. With regard to Internet services,think it is very opportune, like being In the market place, along with most of the population anyone can intentionally or not find ‘The church’. Maybe where Jesus would be at a time like this. As for Eucharist, remember reading a book by the pastor/ priest not sure of denomination, who was the celebrating minister in the prison camp at the River Kwai, of Bridge fame, celebrating with a washed out can, leaf and a bit of mouldy bread, as acceptable surely, in those circumstances, as the finest wine, and convent baked bread, The Saviour is at home wherever His people meet.

  4. Steven says

    Perhaps the churches could encourage and provide for some simple prayers to accompany a weekly meal which might also involve bread and wine, to be shared with friends and family, more eucharistic, rather than formal eucharist, if that makes any sense. Celtic Daily Prayer (Book Two) has some options like “Around a table: a family breaking bread” which could be used by those who share a household.

    I’m afraid I don’t find online offerings a good substitute for actually being in church (whether involving “home” elements or not), though I do appreciate the efforts being made by the churches to keep people connected in this way. I agree with Kelvin that regulation is better (and more realistic) than a ban. It also avoids having to ask permission or to seek forgiveness!

    I hope we can all return to regular communion in our churches soon. The things, for me, that are essential to the experience of grace in receiving the eucharist, is the physicality of the whole process. The smells, sounds, touch, taste, and even posture. Eye contact. Human connection. Blessing of a child, called by name at the alter. All that and more.

  5. Coleman Poag says

    If I believe that, through something I can’t understand, I’m communing with Peter and Paul; why should I summarily rule out the possibility that I am communing with someone, who I have an ongoing relationship with, officiating the blessing of those elements while I am not physically, but am actually, present with by the current technology? How many centuries after the resurrection was it that confessions started happening anonymously and why should “we can’t do this anonymously” be a valid reason to declare “we can’t do this”? How many centuries did the Christian church live underground and commune by whatever means possible? Why are we setting our human expectations on what the God of the universe is capable of based on our own, puny, mortal experiences?

  6. Albert Lunde says

    I’m by no means orthodox, but I think the most important sacrament, as members of a Christian church, is to be the body of Christ in the world.

    Since I’m not any kind of clergy I’m less regulated.

    I do appreciate the virtual worship my congregation has been having, and seeing people via Zoom. We still have a ministry to the homeless, though we are now giving out boxes of food, rather that sitting them down for a meal.

  7. This is a fine essay. I think cyberspace, like “regular” space, is a context for God to find place as God with us. Where ever we are, there God will be too. I am convinced that community is possible in every space, and that there we can make sacred space, and therefor sacramental space. Your essay is a great beginning point for conversation and discussion. Thank you.

  8. I’m someone who’s been a part of the online world, and the Christian faith therein, since the dial-up BBSes of the late 1980s. I think that this pandemic has greatly increased our comfort in the online world. We try things out, and get used to at least some of them. My fear is that some church people will be too afraid of the offline activities, afraid of the next disease, afraid of the next hatemongering they see ‘out there’, afraid of finding out whether the online fakery is real or not. Our calling is to *go*, and that means not mostly our electronic image, but our actual presence, however mediated. The church over the years has had space for theory and action, for action through surrogates and action through each of us, for stillness and waiting and quiet action and loud action, through devotion and service and friendship and even rejection. The online realm is supplemental in nature, not primary, not even during lockdown. It adds to our cause, but it does not cease it.

    I think we are already seeing that buildings aren’t as important to the typical life of faith. They’re useful, but now we can meet together, even in fairly large numbers, without one. This can bring in more of those who were restricted from taking part, whether by practical matters (job, raising family, tasks at hand) or by social mores (poverty, physical or mental handicap, what part of town they are from). Those doing evangelism, church growth, arts, charity, and justice activities have long been saying we had to learn to think outside the walls. I hope we take that to heart and keep learning how to do so as our *usual* way of doing things. COVID is teaching us how, but will we really learn those lessons, or neglect them?

  9. Graham Holmes says

    If we say and believe at the opening of the Eucharistic Prayer, that the Lord is here, and His Spirit is with us, how then is His Spirit somehow not present for those whose presence is virtual (rather than physical) when we have heard the President’s bidding and have responded (where we are physically). The President presides, the people respond (as they have for millennia), the Holy Spirit is present, and normal Church discipline/regulation continues. Am I missing something? What is our understanding of God, of the Holy Spirit that constrains The Presence to where the President happens to be physically at a single moment in time and space?
    Am I regurgitating the Your God is too small/ God in a box line of thought?

  10. D Meister says

    Kelvin, you ask, What if no cure nor vaccine is found during out lifetimes? While the question is unsettling, the answer is actually clear: at some point, we will accept that our lifespan may look more premodern than postmodern, and people will begin to live again. It is one thing to say to someone who is eighty years old, “Stay inside for a year while we come up with a vaccine.” It is another to say, “Stay inside for the rest of your life. Do not see your children. Do not see your grandchildren.” People will not be willing to do that forever — nor should they. We who have grown up in the First World in the second half of the 20th century have enjoyed a degree of longevity that is utterly out of keeping with the overall experience of humankind (yes, this is true even of people of color, who have continued to suffer widespread poverty and abuse). Even in this situation of overall security, people have continued to take risks: for drinking, for drugs, for sex, for driving too fast. For now, the face of loving our neighbor involves taking precautions, but there will come a time when people will take risks not to protect them people they love, but to see them. Is it inconceivable that they might be willing to take risks for sanctity? And is it possible that this is a spiritual transformation Christ needs us undertake? Not to be stupid; not to be careless; but to be willing to put ourselves on the line for love? To march at Selma; to stand with First Nations; to give up some of our comforts in order to spare the earth? We who preach that material things do not define a life also teach that longevity and comfort are not goals in themselves. So: give scientists time to get us out of this mess, but, if they do not, I, for one, will be celebrating and offering Communion, making clear that it is not safe. Of course, it never was.

  11. Thomas Scott says

    Just noticing here that DGD (of happy memory) seems to have left out of his catalogue of joyous, sad, perilous, and solemn occasions any instance of celebrating during a plague or pestilence. I’m not worried about the mass. The eucharist need not be celebrated as though it were a car battery, as if not offering it now would somehow allow the power to run down. It is not at risk, we are, which I think is your point. The questions asked are worth asking, of course.

  12. Mo Nicholson says

    Mo Nicholson. This is an intriguing discussion and what I would like to add to it is the observation that I have had to learn the hard way that participation in the Eucharist being made impossible in no way diminishes an individual’s ability to worship God or be in fellowship with other believers. I am barred from receiving Holy Communion in the Catholic church because allergies make this impossible for me. The pain induced by this has little to do with feeling separation from God, in fact nothing at all as I do not feel that. It comes from feeling excluded from the community, different sections if which regard it as desirable or tolerable that a member of the community should be excluded in this way. This experience has made me understand as never before that if we place prime value on liturgical celebrations, ir indeed anything else, above charity, compassion, welcome and inclusivity, in other words love, then we have become the sounding gong which St Paul warned against. If we truly believe that God is love, as I do, then it is obvious that it is love for one another which makes us true children of God our Father, and in light of this we could begin to look at these present challenging circumstances as simply an opportunity to love more, to reach out to one another in whatever way possible in the knowledge that this is what actually matters and always did. Only perhaps we were tempted to almost make a fetish of our rituals, sacraments and so on. And perhaps this can show us a better way more adapted to the world we are supposed to serve.

  13. You and your conversation with Dave Roberts prompted me to write this. Does it resonate for you?

    https://astonishing.community/2020/05/06/conversations-in-coronatide/

    • Thanks Lynsay – yes, it does resonate with me very much.

      I’ve shared it on facebook. I think it is really helpful.

  14. Fr Keith says

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful piece. With the Eucharist central to much of, at least Anglican/Episcopalian, worship in recent generations, we perhaps forget that the Church in these islands was, between the Reformation and the liturgical revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries, sustained by Mattins and Evensong as the regular diet of worship on Sundays. I’m not advocating a return to such times, but there is, as you suggest, work to be done on non-Eucharistic worship (though not defining it as a negative). Thanks again.

  15. Fenland Boy says

    For the record, I’m not in favour of lay presidency at the Eucharist. I believe, for better or worse, in an ordered church.

    Why are you concerned about lay Presidency?

  16. Chuck says

    May I say respectfully, lighten up. Many Anglicans/Episcopalians lived on the edges of civilization in the nascent U.S. and various elements of the British Empire. Priests to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and to baptize were seldom seen, at most twice a year in many areas. (Bishops, only every several years.) The Church carried on in this manner decade after decade. If circumstances require, the Church will carry on again despite our profound sense of loss.

    I should add, to those who grew up under threat or reality of war, persecution, oppression, famine, other disease, etc, the present difficulty is not unfamiliar in many respects.

  17. Miriam MacCarthy says

    Thank you! It is wonderful to read these serious, personal thoughts about the Eucharist. My feeling is that it has become celebrated to the point of boredom. Church, and what we do in it, is in danger of becoming simply a habit. It could just as well be crackerjack for a fast-asleep congregation. My heresy is that the direction Jesus gave is to “do this in remembrance of me”, and that means everything we eat at any time, whether alone or with others, in thanksgiving. If that is seriously done, it has vastly more meaning. It really gets ones attention and requires preparation. Would not become popular or usual, I predict!

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