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: https://www.scotland.anglican.org/real-presence-sei-event-reflects-on-online-eucharists/. 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.

Sev’n Whole Days

Sev’n whole days, not one in sev’n,
I will praise Thee.

I am sure gentle reader, that every Friday, if you are like me, you wait with great eagerness for the weekly delivery of that great organ called the Church Times. And if you are indeed like me, you find yourself flicking through the front of the newspaper quite quickly to get to the best bits, which are all at the back. Chief amongst them are the job advertisements.

Now, I read these religiously every week, though not because I am looking for a new job. I read them because they give just as much a sense of where the church (particularly the Church of England) is at than all the words in the news pages of Jezebel’s Trumpet.

It is always interesting to know who has moved on from something, or to think about who might be suitable for somewhere else. There are Diocesan Mission Statements and slogans to mock on a weekly basis and there are adverts for clerical positions of all kinds.

And thus, this week, my attention was drawn to one which claims to be for a part time post. The advert comes bearing the imprimature of the local diocese and the parish in question is looking for someone to work for “4 days plus Sunday” for 0.6 of the standard stipend.

The parish sounds lovely and they say they will offer the succesful candidate “love, support and a warm welcome”. But just think about that again – 4 days plus Sunday presumably equals 5 days work a week. Four and a half if you want to split hairs. 

Now, a stipend isn’t remuneration for work done (as I’ll come back to below) but is does strike me as very odd that an advert was put out in the name of a diocese, which is looking for someone to work for a least three quarters of an English clerical working week for 0.6 of a standard stipend.

And in fairness, I should point out that this is just one of a number of jobs that appear in which there seems to be an expectation that clergy really wouldn’t mind being paid less than the church thinks they need in order to live.

One of the interesting things that the Scottish General Synod did when it met recently was to pass a number of measures aimed at improving clergy well-being. There were a number of motions brought forward by the Administration Board, following on from considerable work done by the Personnel Committee over the last couple of years.

Some of the things that they were addressing were things that I have previously raised as concerns at the Synod so I was particularly pleased to see the work that they’ve done come to fruition.

One of these was about clergy time off and it passed with overwhelming support.

In its simplest form, it was a recommendation that full-time stipendiary clergy work a five day week rather than a six day week.

When I was training for ministry, I was never particularly told that I had to work for six days a week. It was more that I was told that I needed to designate one day a week as my day off. Implicit in that was the idea of a six day week.

Now, clergy are often the butt of completely HILARIOUS jokes about how they only work one day a week but that is so often very far from the truth.

I remember speaking with one of the bishops with whom I’ve worked who always used to say that the trouble with most clergy was that they were far more likely to overwork than to underwork and that his trouble was trying to persuade them to take time the time off that they were perfectly entitled to take. The same bishop also used to say that in his view, the clergy were often the largest financial givers in most congregations – but we’ll maybe leave that to think about for another day.

Now, for those who don’t know, most clergy working within Scottish Episcopal Church are not employees and don’t have a manager. We are office holders rather than employees and that is pertinent to the question of how many days  one works.

The guidelines that the Synod was being asked to agree were just that – guidelines. The fact remains that the clergy all have decisions to make every week about how they will spend their time and one of the interesting things about the church is that clergy spend their time in highly diverse ways. Some spend their time primarily on local community activities, some give a lot more time than others do to pastoral work, some are engaged on administration a lot, some devote many hours of their time to their role as teachers and so on. There are as many ways of inhabiting the clerical role as their are clerics.

And that is kind of the point of the system.

After all, a stipend is not something you are paid in remuneration for the work you do. The stipend is there to stop you having to find work. The stipend is supposed to set clergy free – free to give their time to what they need to do in order to proclaim the kingdom of God.

People are sometimes surprised that bishops are not the managers of the clergy. Indeed, bishops are sometimes surprised to find that they are not the managers of the clergy. And Archbishops sometimes need to be reminded, as we saw earlier this week, that they are not the managers of bishops. 

The church is an interesting example of an obviously hierarchical organisation that isn’t a hierarchy and which possesses all the outward signs of a democratic system that doesn’t amount to being a democracy.

It isn’t difficult to understand the frustration that bishops sometimes have of being in a position of authority but not being able to direct and control. What you say isn’t necessarily what you will get. The relationships and working patterns between clergy are governed by far more than the code of canons or any set of guidelines about working practices. There are clerical courtesies and expectations that you begin to learn during your training and go on learning throughout your ministry which play just as significant a role in determining how one spends one’s time as anything written on any bit of paper anywhere.

Notwithstanding all that, I do warmly welcome the new guidelines that we agreed at Synod. They offer something helpful that will stop clergy feeling guilty if they work five rather than six days a week.

But it is rather striking this week that there’s a diocese in England which thinks that clergy should be paid 0.6 of a stipend for a time committment which looks rather similar to what one might be expected to work for 100% of a stipend in Scotland.

Sometime last year, I agreed with my full time colleague that we would move to working five rather than five and a half days a week. It had been my practice for a long time to take a day and a half off each week and we decided that two days was clear, easier to maintain and easier to understand. I was aware that we were likley to get the recommendation we did and wanted to try it out.

My experience is that I’ve got more done in my working life by working five days a week than in five and a half and I got more done in five and a half when I moved to that than I did when I tried to work six full days a week.

On five days a week, work-life balance feels a bit better though this is a strange time and leisure is not always a comfortable cushion to sit upon right now.

In this way of living, everything has to be offered up anyway – work and leisure, holiday and hard graft.

For however many hours and however many days, it is, of course, all for Jesus.  (And his mum). 

Sev’n whole days, not one in sev’n,
I will praise Thee;
in my heart, though not in heav’n,
I can raise Thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort
to enroll Thee:
e’en eternity’s too short
to extol Thee.