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.