THE scriptural roots for considering the eucharist as the sacrament of the Church’s unity are found in 1 Corinthians 10.16-17: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (NRSV).
In one sense, both the foundation narrative of the Last Supper, held largely in common by the three Synoptic Gospels, and the elements of bread and wine have become part of a unifying identity for Christian communities.
The variety of names by which this blessed sacrament of unity is known, however, begins to illustrate the rich variety contained in this unity: holy communion; mass; eucharist; Lord’s Supper. In this blessed sacrament of unity, there are diversities of liturgical practice, of theological interpretation, and of valid presidency. This notion of sacramental unity also embraces rich diversity.
In the Western tradition, the main fault-lines emerged at the time of the Reformation, the time of the parting of ways between the Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition.
From that point onwards, it has been easy to recognise the sacrament as an all too visible sign of diversity, suggesting potential incompatibility of Catholic practice and Reformed practice. In this landscape, however, Anglicanism offers a distinctive position, claiming to be rooted in both the Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition.
The differences in eucharistic interpretation of the Catholic roots and the Reformed roots of the Church of England were sharpened in the 19th century by the emergence of the Evangelical and Oxford Movements, differences reflected in liturgical practice, clergy dress, and church architecture.
IT IS against this background that last year’s Coronavirus, Church & You survey set out to examine how far the eucharist served both as a sign of unity and as a signal of diversity in the Church of England during the first national lockdown, from March to July 2020. During this period, churches were closed, priests were kept away from the altar, and public worship was live-streamed or pre-recorded from the priest’s domestic space. This survey explored both understanding and practice of holy communion.
To explore divergence in eucharistic understanding, we compared the responses of 503 clergy who identified as Anglo-Catholic, and 234 who identified as Evangelical. We also compared the responses of 853 laity who identified as Anglo-Catholic, and 634 who identified as Evangelical. The following three items illustrate the difference in levels of agreement:
“It is right for clergy to celebrate communion alone in their own homes without broadcasting the service to others.”
- Anglo-Catholics: clergy 50 per cent; laity 46 per cent
- Evangelicals: clergy 12 per cent; laity 31 per cent
“It is right for clergy to celebrate communion at home if they are broadcasting the service to others.”
- Anglo-Catholics: clergy 70 per cent; laity 74 per cent
- Evangelicals: clergy 39 per cent; laity 56 per cent
“It is right for people at home to receive communion from their own bread and wine as part of an online communion service.”
- Anglo-Catholics: clergy 18 per cent; laity 26 per cent
- Evangelicals: clergy 41 per cent; laity 62 per cent
In each case, those who reported as Broad Church occupied a midway position between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals.
To explore divergence in eucharistic practices, we compared the responses of those receiving ministry during the pandemic (including some retired clergy, alongside laity): 853 who identified as Anglo-Catholics, and 634 who identified as Evangelicals. The following item illustrates the different experience:
“Were you invited to take communion at home with your own bread and wine?”
- Anglo-Catholics: 12 per cent
- Evangelicals: 26 per cent
We also explored the responses of those ministering during the pandemic (lay ministers and clergy): 607 who identified as Anglo-Catholics, and 406 who identified as Evangelicals. The following item illustrates the different practice:
“Were you able to offer online communion services where people watching took bread and wine at home?”
- Anglo-Catholics: 16 per cent
- Evangelicals: 25 per cent
Again, those who reported as Broad Church occupied a midway position between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals.
THE pandemic has helped to highlight the capacity for this blessed sacrament of unity in the Church of England to embrace diversity. Diversity, however, is not simply between church traditions, but also between clergy and laity. The breadth of this diversity is sharpest concerning the practice of people at home receiving communion from their own bread and wine as part of an online communion service.
Most Anglo-Catholic clergy do not agree that this practice is acceptable (82 per cent). Most Evangelical laity do agree that the practice is acceptable (62 per cent). These results might help the Church to shape online eucharistic worship as we move into a post-pandemic future.
The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.
For more details on the Covid-19 and Church-21 survey, visit: www.yorksj.ac.uk/coronavirus-church-and-you