I HAVE encountered a few online eucharists now, using various kinds of technology. Their form throws up some interesting questions about ecclesiology. They have also caused me to think more deeply about what it is that we mean by holy communion.
The first was a Roman Catholic mass from a parish that has obvious pre-Vatican II tendencies. It was streamed with a feed that allowed for no interaction, which made you feel like a spectator rather than a participant — probably an apt reflection of the priest’s pietistic ontology. The second, from a different Catholic church, which, in normal times, has a vibrant pastoral style of ministry, allowed the virtual congregation to type in their liturgical responses, so that parishioners were aware of one another’s presence. Though they would only have been visible to the priest at the end of the service, there was a clear sense of participation in evidence.
The third was an Anglican mass that was broadcast using the Zoom conferencing app, which allowed the focus to shift from the celebrant to different members of the online congregation. This allowed parishioners to do the readings of the day from their living rooms — and then allowed the church organist (on his home piano) to display the words of the hymns on his music stand. The effect was to make you feel invited to join in the worship of a vibrant community. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan put it.
What was more problematic was the business of communion. In each situation, only the priest was able to partake — the fact that the Anglican celebrant, clearly pained by the exclusion, suggested he would do on behalf of us all. The visceral sense of something being missing was palpable. At home, we tried to rectify this the following Sunday, by supplying our own elements of bread and wine. But, since the rest of the video congregation were not taking communion in any form, this felt excluding in a different way.
I am not proposing to enter into the theological quagmire that has preoccupied church thinkers since before the Reformation, about “substance” and “accident”, “valid matter” and “correct form”, Real Presence, pneumatic presence, sacramental presence, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, virtualism, and all the debate surrounding ex opere operato. Not to mention the old seminarian’s dilemma, which asked: “What if a bread van passes the church as you utter the words of consecration?” Using Aristotelian concepts or Lutheran theologies to explain sacramental mysteries in the 21st century is a category mistake. Let’s just call what we did a parallel agape rather than a heretical attempt at consecration.
What is striking is that — whatever position you take on any of that — no lockdown eucharist seems satisfactory. Traditionalists who are seized with ontological certainty would not agree: to them, questions of relationship and community are, at best, secondary.
But, for the rest of us, the people are the Body of Christ — and it is we who are consecrated, along with the bread and wine. Of course, there are different levels of consecration, and there are layers to communion. Participation in the body and blood of Christ is physical, spiritual, and communal.
If online eucharists have taught us that, then the lockdown has had some purpose.