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When priest and people are apart

by
27 March 2020

The eucharist remains vital, even if offered behind closed doors, says Andrew Davison

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AS A teenager, I belonged to a house church, where the oldest elder was a particular inspiration to me. The most solemn appeal that he would ever make in prayer was to “plead the blood of Jesus”.

That phrase will ring true for Christians of many backgrounds in time of danger, and it says something about why many look to the eucharist in moments of crisis. There, as one of our eucharistic prayers has it, “we remember all that Jesus did, in him we plead with confidence his sacrifice made once for all upon the cross”: we plead the blood of Jesus.

Last week, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York suspended public worship (News, 20 March). This meant that, last Sunday, many priests celebrated the eucharist in their churches, behind closed doors. After the Prime Minister announced strict new measures on Monday evening, however, the Archbishops wrote to clergy to say that church buildings must be closed “not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own”. If the eucharist is to be celebrated, it will, for now, have to be in a priest’s home.

Such measures are extreme but necessary, and will help to slow the spread of the virus that could over­whelm the health service and kill untold thous­ands.

If this raises questions, then — in a time of calamity — we should ex­­plore them in a spirit of encourage­ment, not polemic, seeking to under­stand one another better,and looking together for guidance from the tradi­tions that we share.

 

THE eucharist is at once the sacrament of the Upper Room, Calvary, and the empty tomb. It is both a meal and an offering. In it, we encounter the risen Christ as our sacrifice and our food. In recent decades, the emphasis has often been on the common meal. What the eucharist offers in bringing us to the Cross, however, and to Christ’s offering of himself to the Father, is also important, and part of our Anglican heritage.

Archbishops Welby and Sentamu issued a joint letter last week. So did the Archbishops of 1897, Frederick Temple and William Maclagan, in response to the condemnation of Anglican Orders by Pope Leo XIII. Their letter describes three ways in which the liturgy of the Church of England can be called “the Eucharistic sacrifice”:

“First, we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; next, we plead and represent before the Father the sacrifice of the Cross, and by it we confidently entreat remission of sins and all other benefits of the Lord’s Passion for all the whole Church; and, lastly, we offer the sacrifice of ourselves to the Creator of all things which we have already signified by the oblations of His creatures.”

This does not mean, as the Thirty-Nine Articles warn us, that Christ is sacrificed again and again. Rather, “we plead with confidence his sacrifice made once for all upon the cross.” In our time of peril, this is what the Archbishops encourage us daily to continue.

 

THAT this should happen in isolation goes against all our instincts, but, for now, it must. If priests make clear when celebrations will take place, then all who wish, and are able, can pause in prayer, even if only for a moment. The Church of England website now offers a form of devotion (a “spiritual communion”), through which we can unite ourselves to the eucharistic offering of the Church: not instead of what happens in our parish churches and cathedrals (or, as is the case for now, even at a priest’s home), but because of what happens there.

 

At each eucharist, we pray for the whole Church and all the world, but there is also a long tradition of associating each celebration with a particular need. That “intention”, as it is sometimes called, could be advertised day by day, to take it into intercessions shared across the community.

Each home is a “domestic church”, which clergy and lay ministers work to resource. Useful though many are finding recorded or live-streamed services, nothing about the eucharist competes with the prayers of individuals or families, or supplants them. The eucharist remains, as we explore novel and adapted ways to be the Church, and look for the renewal of prayer at home.

In the eucharist, those 19th-century Archbishops wrote, “the people has necessarily to take its part with the Priest”. But what of grave extremity? Could a priest celebrate alone?

No one could be less solitary than in that moment, joined by “angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven”. That is one response.

None the less, the tradition has still wanted another person standing by. The place of dialogue in the eucharist points to that: “Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.”

That principle knows exceptions, however. Roman Catholic deliberations in the 20th century might help us to navigate them. No priest may celebrate the eucharist without an additional participant, their canons state, “except for a just and reasonable cause”. One such cause, as a pronouncement from 1949 makes clear, is “time of pestilence”.

At the heart of the work of a priest, Michael Ramsey wrote, is “being with God with the people on your heart”. There is no better place for that than at the altar, or Lord’s table, pleading with confidence his sacrifice made once for all on the cross.

 

Canon Andrew Davison is Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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