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Angela Tilby: Virtual bread-sharing is not the eucharist

24 April 2020


ON EASTER Friday, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, the Rt Revd Jake Owensby, retracted the permission that he had earlier given for priests to consecrate the eucharist virtually to enable people to receive communion in their own homes. He had been persuaded, he wrote to his diocese, that such virtual consecration “exceeds the recognized bounds set by our rubrics and inscribed in our theology of the Eucharist”. The letter reveals the delicate nature of decisions on eucharistic practice during the pandemic.

I can understand the desire to break bread in our own homes and to believe that, by doing so, nothing important has changed — we can still share in the eucharist. In my television days, I was responsible for a Sunday service broadcast from a home, which concluded with the sharing of bread. I was well aware that this could not help but bring holy communion to mind. I was not troubled by this: any breaking of bread could be said, in some sense, to evoke the Last Supper. But such evocations are just that: hints and pointers. Holy communion is more than that.

An obvious difference between virtual bread-sharing and the eucharist is the significance of physical space. The Didache speaks of the grain that was scattered being now united in one loaf. This ingathering of the bread represents the truth that we are, indeed, one bread, one Body.

But that is not all. Before it is shared, the bread is broken, recalling Christ’s sacrifice. This sacrificial dimension is weakened if the bread that we consume comes from the privacy of our separate kitchens. It then becomes an essentially private act; the bread is not truly broken because it was never truly united, and so the sacrifice of the cross is not set forth in our midst.

Not receiving communion is hard to bear at this difficult time (Comment, 17 April), but perhaps we are learning afresh what a sacrament is. The pandemic has questioned our understanding of the space between and around us. The pollution of air and water, our travel habits, and our disregard for other creatures have all produced conditions that have enabled the virus to take hold. Now that we are unable to be close to one another, we are all potential betrayers of one another’s well-being. Spiritually, this means that we need to recognise anew that our human freedom has limits. At the same time, we are more than ever cast on the presence of God, who is unconfined and everywhere.

Perhaps, at this time, we honour the eucharist best not by insisting that it is our right to consume it at the flick of a switch, but by honouring the space that separates us. This, for now, is holy ground. At the same time, we are surely right to long for the day when our scattered selves may be brought together from the corners of the earth.

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