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Holy Communion by mail ‘not canonical’

15 December 2020

Corporate nature of sacrament should be upheld, says bishop


A FORMER Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, has criticised parish priests in England who have been posting consecrated bread from the eucharist to parishioners during lockdown.

Writing in the Church Times online this week, Bishop Paterson said: “No doubt the motives were pastorally well-intentioned and sincere. . . Posting the sacrament, however, seems to me to breach a fundamental principle and pander to a deeply undesirable trend.”

A spokesperson for Church House said that there was “no scope under the canons” for a minister to post the sacrament to a communicant after a service of holy communion. The sacrament should be “treated with appropriate respect”.

Many congregants have been unable to receive the sacraments since churches were closed at the start of the first lockdown, particularly those who have been shielding (News, 27 March). During the second lockdown, in November, churches closed again under government jurisdiction (News, 1 November).

Holy communion, Bishop Paterson writes, was centred on “gathering” and “community” between the congregation and the priest, which could not be replicated or replaced remotely. He explains: “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.”

He also expresses concern that the recipient could not be guaranteed to treat the host correctly. “Just as we expect the word to be proclaimed with intelligent fervour, so we expect the 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: behaviour that reminds me of the person who had a scrapbook of major life events, including her first communion — with the host pasted in.”

The plural language in the Book of Common Prayer required that a minimum of “four (or three at the least) communicate with the Priest”, he writes. The word “us” reminded the Church of this, “that the congregation is instrumental in the consecration”, and that, “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.”

Bishop Paterson suggests that the fact that priests are posting consecrated wafers in these times was a “wake-up call to re-balance our sacramental practice”. The coronavirus restrictions are an opportunity to “value worship for its own sake, even if it is not the eucharist and experienced by YouTube or Zoom”.

The Church House spokesperson elucidated: “The forms of service for holy communion authorised by canon involve the sacrament being distributed to those present during the service.

“Although there are forms of service for communion at home, they provide for a short service during which the person is given the sacrament by the minister of the rite (either a priest or deacon or an authorised lay person).

“There is no scope under the Canons for a minister to post the sacrament to a communicant following a service of holy communion. The Church of England’s forms of service reflect the need for the sacrament to be treated with appropriate respect.”

Read the full comment piece from Bishop Paterson here

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