Almost from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the shuttering of in-person church services, there have been questions: Why no communion? Why can’t we have it online? Why can’t eucharist be dropped off or sent to me in the mail?
We are Episcopalians. We love questions, so your priests will do their best to tackle a few.
Q: First, what is Communion?
A: It is a meal. It’s a memorial certainly. (“Do this in remembrance of me,” Christ said.) But it is more than that. Koinonia, the Greek word for “communion” means fellowship or joint participation. If you had a communal experience it would be together with others, and the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is not meant to be a private event. It’s public.
We believe that being together as a church is necessary for celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It has been pointed out that Paul uses the phrase “When you come together” five different times to describe the church’s sharing of the Lord’s Supper.1 And in 1 Corinthians 10:17, Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (Emphasis added.) Publicly gathered in the presence of one another, we are called to be served together from the same bread—indicating our unity in Christ. Anglican tradition explicitly requires the presence of at least 2-3 people for Communion and it is the custom of the church that the elements actually be touched to invoke the real presence of Christ in the bread & wine (“that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant” p. 363 BCP).2
Q: Don't you take communion to individual patients in the hospital or a nursing home?
A: St. Augustine refers to the sacraments as “medicines.”3 and even when Communion is offered under special circumstances (BCP 396) the instruction notes that it is “desirable” that others “be present, when possible.” Indeed, the reserved sacrament typically used has already been blessed during a regular service where the congregation was gathered together.
Q: But why can't we have communion inside church during a Pandemic? Others are.
A: First, there is no vaccine yet, and there are documented cases elsewhere of virus spread by or to the clergy.4 It’s not safe. The short answer is both our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, nationally, and our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Craig Loya, have said “no” indoor communion at this time for both public health reasons and theological ones. We, as priests, are bound by vows to be “guided by the direction” of our bishop. And all four of your Ministry Team priests fall into at least one higher risk category.
However, ECMN has said it will revisit this topic when there has been a sustained reduction of Covid cases for two weeks straight. For the theological reasons see: On Our Theology of Worship: Questions in the Time of COVID-19.
Why can’t we have virtual communion?
A: Let’s start with some definitions. Virtual Communion is the notion that a priest standing alone in church could bless bread and wine and that people watching at home (using their own bread or crackers or wine or juice) could have their home-based supplies consecrated electronically, even though the priest has never touched those elements. Virtual communion is not a recognized practice of the Episcopal Church. (Note: on April 13, 2020, the Episcopal Bishop of W. Louisiana attempted to authorize “virtual Holy Eucharist.” On April 17, after a cordial conversation with the Presiding Bishop, he rescinded that authorization.)5
Spiritual Communion, on the other hand, is the belief that we still receive the spiritual benefits of Communion even when we personally cannot consume it. (You have seen this noted in the prayer we’ve been using from St. Alphonsus.) Theologically, we are praying for the benefit of the saving work of Christ in our lives, even if we cannot receive the sacrament. The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for ministration to the sick (p. 457) specifically instructs the celebrant to assure the extremely ill or disabled that the benefits of Communion are received even if the bread and wine cannot be consumed, just as congregants who by reason of a cold take only the bread and not the wine, receive those benefits also. Even though your priests have permission to live web stream from Church, if the priest alone were to consume the eucharist, that would not be in community, despite his or her looking at a camera and giving directions to people in their homes.
And, so we wait, grieving the temporary loss of the rite we cherish within the community we love. Call it a time of eucharistic fasting. Yet, there is opportunity too, to look beyond our familiar rituals and encounter God in other ways. What might the Holy Spirit be calling upon us to do for our neighbors in need? How might Christ be revealed to us in acts of kindness for people on the margins, as we try to see Christ in all persons? That is our work to bring about the kingdom here “on earth as it is in heaven.”
11 Corinthians 11:17-34; see also 1 Corinthians 10:16
2Eucharistic Prayer B, p. 369, The Book of Common Prayer, with similar mentions in Prayers A and C.
3Augustine, Book 9 of his Confessions (9.4.8).
4“Patient Zero” in public health terms is the first patient in an outbreak. Patient zero in the Diocese of Washington D.C. was an Episcopal priest. (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/dcs-patient-zero-a-priests-journey-from-icu-to-reuniting-with-family-and-flock/ar-BB11Vhkb); Chattanooga, TN’s first case was an Episcopal priest. (https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2020/may/30/priest-who-wchattanoogas-first-covid-19-case/524203/).
5We acknowledge that there are differences in belief. Theologian Hans Boersma believes Virtual Communion “treats the Eucharist as a consumer service satisfying my individual religious demands rather than as the chief act of divine worship through which we’re transfigured.” While a Baptist theologian, Steve Holmes, a proponent of the virtual, says of in-person communion, “we do not imagine some magical aura emanating from the celebrant which fades after traveling 50 yards.” Catholic priests can celebrate the eucharist alone in times of great illness. And there may be other practices which would not violate our rubrics such as an “agape meal” where a Eucharistic rite is held without the Eucharist itself and then a meal blessing is said, but not consecrated. Photo credit: The Rev. Jesus Higueras, a Catholic priest is seen on a smartphone during a livestreamed Mass in Pozuelo de Alarcon, on the outskirts of Madrid, on March 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)