Making the Real Presence real.

The following paper has been prepared to stimulate discussion at an online conference that is being held on Saturday 25 September 2021 on the subject of the Real Presence in relation to Online Eucharists.

These thoughts stem from many conversations with others – both those I agree with and those I don’t. I would particularly remember amongst these conversations, discussing these issues with Diana Butler Bass, Deanna A Thompson and Joshua Case in a similar online conversation last year and also with the Bishop of Argyll and The Isles, the Rt Rev Keith Riglin. I am particularly indebted to Bishop Keith for the idea of people consuming the elements at home as an kind of anamnesis of gathered Eucharists in church and also for the idea that what people do with the remaining elements as being an indication of what they believe about the Real Presence.

More details of the conference are available here: The other participants include Eleanor Charman, Alasdair Coles and Stephen Holmes, each of whom has written a paper to stimulate the discussion.

Christianity is an endlessly mutating theological virus. It is passed on from person to person, from group to group, from age to age. The symptoms of the Christianity Virus can be perceived either positively or negatively by the host organism which it may inhabit at any one time. On the one hand, the Virus may be recognised by the conspicuous presence of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control. Conversely, symptoms of dogmatism, hatred, anger, self-righteous indignation and certainty may present themselves. Confusingly, both positive and negative symptoms may be found to be present within the same individual or group.

No vaccine has ever been found that completely suppresses the Christianity Virus. The consequence of its ability to mutate has ensured a lasting presence within the host population. Many mutations of the Christianity Virus have developed without the host population being aware of the nature of the changes in the Virus. However, at times of great change, more significant mutations emerge which are often accompanied by years of frenzied debate which sometimes spills into violence.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of the Christianity Virus is that although the host population seems to group itself in ways which seem to reflect different mutations of the Virus, these groups (whether churches or theological movements in more general terms) do not map completely, exclusively or neatly onto groups or individuals who are infected by individual mutations.

This paper will consider several issues arising out of the March-2020-Online-Worship Mutation of the Christianity Virus which appeared suddenly and unexpectedly all over the world around 16 March 2020. Within weeks, this variation of the Christianity Virus was widespread and pervasive.

The particular question which presents itself at this time is whether the Real Presence Spike Characteristic that has been observed in previous mutations of the Virus is present in the current mutation and whether that presence, if it exists, should be welcomed as life-enhancing or be suppressed.

The emergence of online worship within the worldwide church was surprising and extraordinary. Clergy and lay leaders of the church were suddenly unable to gather in physical spaces. Simultaneously many were also experiencing personal lockdown situations for the first time. Christians found their usual activities restricted in ways which might have been unimaginable only days previously.

Online worship developed in a time of chaos. It is not surprising therefore that many different forms of online worship emerged. Several distinctive forms of online worship appeared which might have a bearing on whether the doctrine of the Real Presence can be said to have any connection with the actions of the church online. Two distinctions in particular are worth considering in the context of a discussion of the theology of the Real Presence. Firstly, the question of asynchronous forms of online worship (typically pre-recorded communion services) in which those participating watch at different times, as opposed to synchronous forms of worship (typically a livestreamed/Zoom service) in which those participating all watch at the time as the action is taking place. Secondly, the question of whether those participating in online worship should make a ‘spiritual communion’ by praying a prayer at the point in the service where bread and wine would normally be consumed as opposed to services in which people are encouraged to have their own bread and wine and consume it at that point at home. These categories are, of course, porous. It is possible for a livestreamed communion to be posted online and become a pre-recorded service, and it is possible for a service to have participation both from those who find a prayer of spiritual communion satisfying and complete and those who would wish to eat the bread and drink the wine for themselves. Some people might even receive bread and wine at home when they had been explicitly told not to do so.

Interesting questions relating to the Real Presence arise from each of these variations of online worship.

There are undoubtedly some Christians who struggle with the idea of a pre-recorded Eucharist which is being watched by participants at different times. This reservation seems curious in a church in which receiving communion from the reserved sacrament was so common prior to the pandemic. Notwithstanding this, an objection is commonly put that it cannot really be communion as the church has previously understood it, if the congregation are not joined together in either space or time.

However, the church has always sat rather lightly to the space–time continuum. Before the pandemic how many Eucharists were being celebrated on a Sunday? Was it one Eucharist per church, or was each celebration merely part of one cosmic celebration presided over by Christ the great high priest? And where were the participants for those services? Were they really scattered and separated across Scotland or were they conceptually gathered together somewhere else — an upper room in Jerusalem or perhaps the banqueting table of heaven where all are welcomed, and none are denied? A great many Maundy Thursday sermons have been devoted to convincing congregations that when they gather at the table, they are not in fact gathered in St Agatha’s, Auchtertochty, as may seem to them to be the case, but are in fact meeting with Christ and his disciples in a borrowed room.

Livestreaming a Eucharist does not necessarily resolve matters either. Are online participants who are watching online at home actually part of the congregation, or are they observers of the congregation? Most such celebrations seem to involve simply placing a camera at the back of a church to observe a celebrant who consistently addresses only those in the room.            Perhaps the most controversial aspect of online worship to develop was the practice of some Christians of preparing bread and wine to be consumed at home whilst participating in an online offering of worship. This development happened quickly and did not pass without notice.

The College of Bishops made an attempt to suppress this practice within days of online worship beginning at the start of the pandemic. Their statement of 27 March 2020 very clearly indicates disapproval of bread and wine being consumed at home, offering prayers of spiritual communion instead.

It is perhaps worth noting that no purer example of ‘virtual communion’ could be found than the practice of praying a prayer of spiritual communion. For some people this seems to have been a satisfactory thing to do whilst for others it has offered nothing.

The 27 March 2020 statement was an unusually heavy-handed attempt by the College of Bishops to regulate the spirituality of lay Christians worshipping at home. Although some individual bishops attempted to present the advice subsequently as merely guidance, it was received by some as a “Thou Shalt Not…” form of commandment, from on high.

How much more fruitful it might have been if the College had instead provided rubrics for those sharing bread and wine at home. For example, prepare the bread and the wine before the service; ensure you have time to participate in the service fully and without distractions; light a candle or do something else that will help you to remember you are in a sacred space; if it is your practice to make the sign of the cross when you are at worship at the absolution, epiclesis etc., then continue to do so whilst participating in an online service; pray aloud with those who are praying in the service; and consume any bread and wine that has not been eating during the service immediately after the service is finished.

The different beliefs of Christians in connection with the doctrine of the Real Presence can sometimes be seen more clearly in what they say needs to happen to bread and wine that has not been consumed during the service than in the words said over the elements during worship at the table. Is such bread and wine to be discarded, put back in the packet or bottle, ‘reverently disposed of’, returned to the elements, or consumed? Each answer to this question gives indications of the theological presumptions behind it.

Some in our church, including this author, believe that it can be appropriate for bread and wine to be consumed at home as part of an online service of worship. Furthermore, there are those of us, including this author, who believe that if God is capable of transfiguring/transubstantiating/ transforming the bread and wine that end up in people’s hands in church, then God is more than clever enough to manage to do this with the bread and wine that end up in people’s hands at home.

Words have never been capable of capturing what the doctrine of the Real Presence actually means. They skirt about it. They are, by their very nature, inadequate to the task.

It is God who makes the Real Presence real.

With regards to all our worship, whether online or in person, it is surely God who provides the sacrament. The church is the provider of the rubrics.

There may also be theological positions which lean towards recognising the Real Presence in this way but do not fully articulate it. What would it have meant if the College of Bishops had asked those people who were consuming bread and wine during an online service to remember the Eucharists that they formerly experienced in their churches whilst they were doing so? We have anamnesis as a central concept in the Scottish Liturgy 1982. Might that idea of present remembrance have been more dignified than simply forbidding a practice that was, at the very least, bringing grace to some who were, in the first days of lockdown, isolated, lonely and distressed?

Online worship, of course, is not only related to lockdown. It has opened the life of the church to some who find buildings difficult. The voices of able-bodied bishops have been promoted loudly by the Scottish Episcopal Church in relation to this question; the voices of those who are disabled by physical buildings, much less so.

If it is possible for the church to gather online, then a catholic sensibility would suggest that the sacraments must necessarily be present. Without the sacraments, it is not the church at all. As ever, we may be physically able to see outward signs, but we are physically unable to see inward grace.

The eucharist has famously been celebrated in an abundance of settings — for prince and pauper, in times of war and in times of peace etc. Is it not inconceivable that God would withhold a blessing from those participating in the supper of the Lamb as devoutly, faithfully, and as reverently as they are able to manage, in any circumstance, including the first days of lockdown?

There is only One Table, One Celebrant, One Lord, One Church and One Sacrament, after all.

It remains too early to tell how the mutations of the Christianity Virus of 2020 will affect its host organisms in the long term.

Pandemics result in changes in human behaviour. Whilst seen as almost exclusively negative at a pandemic’s peak, a pandemic may also lead to extraordinary developments, previously unseen and unimagined. Without the scientific understanding of cholera, human beings would not have developed modern sewerage systems. Without the black death, serfdom might never have been overcome in parts of the world where it has ceased. Human misery has so often been the crucible for great art.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that positive and novel theological developments might occur within the Christian faith as a result of the current pandemic. It is not unreasonable for religious people to presume that even in the midst of a pandemic, God is still at work and will continue to make all things new. Indeed, for those who are infected by any mutation of the Christianity Virus, that conception of the divine work is not merely an option or opinion. All that Christians have ever taught would indicate that God is fully present in the world during a pandemic and that the sacramental life of the church will never be extinguished by circumstance.


  1. Rev Bill Robertson says

    I totally agree. I encouraged those joining live broadcast church services to prepare some bread and wine and consume them at the appropriate time. It is only God that makes the miracle of his real presence and I am sure he did that for those who couldn’t get to church fue to suspension of public worship.

  2. Lots to agree with in here.

    “Most…addressing only those present” – there are churches who acknowledge those snooping-in via live feeds. I tend to like those.

    Bishops & theology: I suppose, the way it’s gone with that prayer-of-not-being-there at the relevant moment, it is easy to become detached and look at the celebrant sliding into the over-familiar as “the thing they do, the only thing they do” like a music-box. So what counters that, making me recognize the celebrant as a real person? Amongst other things, relevance of sermon and sense of community outwith the video come to mind.

    Speaking of theology and detachment: I don’t care whether it’s Oxford or Tractarian or whatnot leaning of centuries past that might cause a priest to face the wall, but turning one’s back to the camera is *rude* and bad cinematography is bad theology. This I feel quite strongly; it’s a massive turn-off, in both mental and literal-red-button senses, down there alongside 1970, non-inclusive 1982, triumphalism and conflation of Spirit with nation, miserable collects and forms of grovelling such as the prayer of humble access. (I think that’s everything on my list, and it’s not all new-for-Covid-videos…)

    “It is God who makes the Real Presence real.”
    Yup. That’s a core with which I agree lots. If/as/when I get the feeling there’s a real person on the screen and I’m present and involved, God’s as omnipresent down the back of my sofa as anywhere else in the universe.

  3. Rod Gillis says

    As always, creative and stimulating writing. It leaves me with questions I cannot let go of. With regard to real presence in the Eucharist, indeed because of an emphasis upon it and/or controversy over it, are we not over focused on the bread and wine? In order for the presence of Christ to be fully appreciated must we not also be equally attentive to our presence to Christ and to one another in that same Eucharist? If we are not attentive to Christ or to one another in the community however gathered may not the presence of Christ be impaired? With regard to mediated Eucharists online in one format or another, I’m wondering about the following, which are all examples of the same question: which is more fulfilling, a zoom call with one’s grand-child, or an actual visit with that grand-child; a phone call from a friend or an actual coffee with that friend; picking up one’s ‘meal on wheels’ where it has been left outside the door because of pandemic restrictions, or chatting with the volunteer who has delivered the meal to the shut-in; (from my grand-parents generation) a letter from ‘the front’ or the arrival safely home of the ‘returned man’? The questions are not new. Additionally, can we not value the zoom call, the streamed Eucharist, the phone call, the meal dropped off, the letter, while at the same time recognizing the greater fulfillment that comes with the in person encounter? Doesn’t the Eucharist, even when celebrated live and in person, work most sacramentally when it leaves us longing for something more, i.e. the arrival of the kingdom and its heavenly banquet? Would it not be more helpful if bishops asked more questions and provided fewer answers?

  4. I think the practice of Spiritual Communion is a valuable one, and I think it has the advantage of both giving us solace when we cannot receive the sacrament in person, and remind us that we are not, in fact, receiving the sacrament in person. It is also one with precedent among Anglicans and Episcopalians, which I would say is always a good starting point.

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