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?

Baptism and Communion – more

I’m grateful to those who have commented on the post I put up on Monday regarding the order in which it might be thought proper to receive the sacraments. Particular thanks to Akma for the thoughtful post that he put up on his own blog about it.

Comments come in all over the place these days – it might be worth just noting a couple and my own response to them here.

Erp made the interesting comment that various Anglican churches honour Elizabeth Fry in their calendars and it seems to be the case that she being a Quaker would not have been baptised. That’s an interesting point and one that I’d not thought about. Can you have an unbaptised hero of the faith?

In a similar way, someone commented on twitter that Jesus said to the repentant thief that today he would be with him in paradise and that baptism did not seem to be an issue there. I’m guessing that Akma might well respond to that with the view that this was an utterly exceptional case from which it is pretty hard to make a general case. If he did, I’d have to say I’d agree with him.

However, I’m a bit troubled by something which Akma did seem to suggest which was that we could somehow note with rejoicing the unpredictable activity of the Holy Spirit blowing where the Spirit wills but at the same time apparently base our thinking about the church on Other Matters. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. It seems to me that if we believe that Pentecost matters, ecclesiology is inherently bound up with our pneumatology.

Much of Akma’s argument seems to be that specific instances of different practice in this area should not be used as a case for making a change to what has hitherto been the norm. I can understand that up to a point. However, I’d have to ask whether it is appropriate for the norm to be used to construct a prohibition on other possibilities.

Those who come to different conclusions about this question almost seem to pass as ships in the night, never really engaging with the issues which the other point of view raises. I suspect this may be because the argument is being played out in quite different playgrounds – the ethical and the more strictly theological.

Those who would favour a more open table are coming at this with ethical arguments. For example: Would Jesus have refused anyone communion who happened to be at the last supper on the basis of their baptismal status? (And yes, this is the point where that argument notes that he shared bread with Judas). [This is a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ argument and they don’t always make for straightforward thinking, but it is an ethical argument all the same]. There seems to be more evidence of disciples baptising than descriptions of them being baptised.

There is a reason why it matters whether or not this is an ethical argument. Modern times seem to be making people less easy with deriving ethics from norms. Increasingly, modern people will assess each individual circumstance and make ethical judgements in the moment on the best evidence that they have that something is right. (Those who have recently been at my ‘Everything You Need to Know about Christian Ethics in 6 Cartoons’ seminar can see pictures in their minds right now). I see situation ethics being used to trump normative ethics left, right and centre and I only forsee that increasing.

Those on the other side seem to have more of a theological system that they want to defend and I’ve seen some folk who seem to think that lots of other things will come crashing down around their ears if this point is conceded. I find myself wondering whether the same things would have been thought to be at risk 30 years ago regarding Confirmation before Eucharist. Or indeed in some traditions Confession before Eucharist. Or Baptism before Marriage. Or Confirmation before Bellringing. (This is not a hypothetical issue – I was involved in looking at our bellringers’ guild constitution at the weekend which asserts that members of the Guild need to be confirmed, a point which is as honoured in the breach as in the observation).

Please don’t send me postcards and billets-doux telling me that Bellringing is not one of the sacraments of the church. I know. I know.

I don’t think, incidentally, that I can be found to argue in favour of the unbaptized receiving communion as an idea that carries any theological virtue. However, I do tend to want to say that we should welcome everyone to communion. That does seem to carry theological virtue. In any case, the idea that baptism should precede eucharist and the idea that everyone is welcome at God’s table are not polar opposites and it would trouble me to think that they might be seen to be.

I remember a quite heavy discussion once with someone about this during which I proclaimed that if anyone presented their open hands at the altar I would be unlikely to refuse them the host. The person who had just moments before declared that baptism must always precede communion looked me in the eye and said, “Well, neither would I. Of course I wouldn’t.”

I tend to take the view that Christians should do what they say and be truthful about what they do. And that gets me back to ethics. Melissa suggested that this issue is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” kind of thing and I have a feeling she might be right. I’m not sure that I feel good about “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policies very often.

Do people who have different theological views about this issue actually have very similar pastoral ethics when the find themselves at Table?

If they do, then Akma’s raising of the issue of whether this is an adiaphoron is right on the button.