IT OUGHT to surprise me — but it doesn’t — that, during the Covid-19 lockdowns, a few parish priests mailed consecrated bread from the eucharist to parishioners.
No doubt the motives were pastorally well-intentioned and sincere, and, having been a parish priest and a diocesan bishop, I recognise that there are occasions when the undesirable is regrettably necessary, and that some rules are made “for the guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools”. Posting the sacrament, however, seems to me to breach a fundamental principle and pander to a deeply undesirable trend.
When we gather to celebrate the eucharist, we are powerfully drawn to the Lord Jesus, and his cross and resurrection, and come to be fed with his life. Holy communion is the act at the heart of the eucharist, itself the sacramental heart of the Church.
“Communion” — fellowship, koinonia — acquires its meaning in the language of relationship, with God and with one another. That communion is maintained by the active relationship of the congregation (members of the Church) and the priest who has been ordered to preside in “community”. When we speak of the “gathering” (the synagogue-ing) of the people at the beginning of the eucharist, we refer to the coming together of the community into communion; the bringing into unity what the people have in common: their allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus.
The title “holy communion” provides the obvious clue to the corporate nature of this sacrament: its purpose is to make us more holy by bringing us (plural) into close communion with the Lord; to make Christ more present in our lives today than yesterday. The purpose of the sacrament, at its root, is not to consecrate bread and wine, but, by those means, to consecrate God’s treasures — people — for whom his Son gave his life.
George Herbert described this purpose of the sacrament in one of his more difficult poems, “The H. Communion”:
Then of this also I am sure
That thou didst all those pains endure
To’ abolish Sinn, not Wheat.
In every eucharistic prayer, the petition for consecration says something to the effect that the bread and wine may be “for us” the body and blood of Christ.
The words “for us” have triple significance.
First, they remind us that consecration involves the faith of the participants (“us”) as well as the performance of a rite; the people are active participants in the consecration, and all the references are in the plural: “Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord,” etc. It has wisely been said that the eucharist flows not from ordination, but from the Body of Christ. That is why the Prayer Book requires that a minimum of “four (or three at the least) communicate with the Priest”.
Second, they remind us that the congregation is instrumental in the consecration, so that taking the consecrated elements from the celebrating congregation and transferring them to others (as in the communion of sick people from pre-consecrated elements or communion by extension) is an exception.
And, third, whenever that exception is used, “for us” reminds us that a personal link between the source-eucharist and the recipients is vital: the minister (lay or ordained) was there. Posting the host on the feeble justification of a “doctrine of necessity” is the extending of exceptional circumstances beyond breaking point.
As Anglicans, we prioritise training and ordination, licensing or authorisation, which means that we take care who ministers the word and sacraments, regardless of whether those ministries take place in a church building or someone’s home. Just as we expect the word to be proclaimed with intelligent fervour, so we expect holy communion to be shared with reverent care, in each case by an authorised minister. None of us is our own minister.
For those towards the top of the candle, receiving holy communion is not the same as a celebration of the mass, and mailing the sacred host demonstrates a serious lack of reverence for the sacrament.
The rest of us may note that the “High Church” Caroline divines of the 17th century asserted that holy communion loses the nature of a sacrament when it is removed from the use appointed by the Lord, because the vital relationship between the bread and wine and the congregation has ceased. Hence, the Prayer Book injunction that the consecrated elements should “not be carried out of the church”.
Eucharist with everything
Covid-19 may also be a God-given moment to re-balance our sacramental practice. Every bishop and archdeacon has been told, “All we want is communion every week; how you do it is up to you.” Obviously, the coronavirus has seriously hindered church life, and, particularly, the celebration of the sacraments. These periods of lockdown have been times of enforced abstinence. It seems to me that we are being taught by the Holy Spirit in this pandemic “Lent” to value worship for its own sake, even if it is not the eucharist, and experienced by YouTube or Zoom, with the added benefit that we come to value holy communion as more “special”.
It is to the credit of the Anglican tradition that we generally put a lot of effort into maintaining a balance of word and sacrament. Our relatively recent monocular obsession with communion has, in many places, relegated the word to a couple of ill-prepared and hurried Bible readings and a sermonette — and we wonder why Anglicans are so often theologically immature!
The worship of the Church is bifocal: we celebrate and affirm both word and sacraments. A proper appreciation of the sacraments — as “high” a theology as you care to adopt — recognises that they proceed from and accompany the word. The eucharist itself is a balanced diet — word, prayer, and meal — but, when the meal takes over from the word and prayer, it becomes unbalanced.
This may be God’s wake-up call to the communal nature of holy communion, and of the importance of word and prayer.
The Rt Revd Robert Paterson is a former Bishop of Sodor & Man; Secretary of the Church in Wales Liturgical Committee; Vice-chair of the Church of England Liturgical Commission; co-founder of the Four Nations Liturgical Group; and the author of several books, including Making Christ Visible (2018) (Books, 9 August 2019).