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Is a Zoom rite a valid form of communion?

by
21 January 2022

The pandemic has led to eucharistic experiments online. But where is the Bishops’ guidance, asks Richard Burridge

A SOUTH African Jesuit friend started it on Facebook: “So I have been wondering who to ask . . . what is the range of consecration? If I have the elements in front of me, and you are consecrating in the knowledge that that is the case, why would it not work?? Just so you know, I am genuinely asking this.”

I had stepped down as Dean of King’s College London in July 2019, after 25 years’ service, to concentrate on research and writing. Yet, during unpacking, everything was shutting down as Covid-19 spread; even the church in which I received communion every Wednesday closed its doors at the Archbishops’ instruction (not realising that it would never reopen).

So, I experimented with Zoom communion on 25 March 2020, the Annunciation, little expecting it to develop into an online sacramental community embracing five denominations over four continents, still going after nearly two years.

As the pandemic grew, Archbishops’ letters withdrew the chalice, then public worship, and even forbade live-streaming from them. The Revd Dr Julie Gittoes movingly described her “eucharistic fast” in solidarity with lay people (Comment, 17 April 2020), while the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Chelmsford, advocated spiritual communion, and bishops permitted priests to celebrate communion alone, flouting Anglican tradition since the Book of Common Prayer.

With no end in sight, guidance issued for Holy Week and Easter 2020 included all three suggestions, but emphasised: “Participants in a streamed service of Holy Communion should not be encouraged to place bread and wine before their screens. . . Any idea of the ‘remote consecration’ of the bread and wine should be avoided.”

The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, who was involved in drafting the guidance, chaired a theological working group, to which I submitted an essay, considering all options: first, in the material world, from fasting and “spiritual communion” through solo and concelebrated online communions, via indiscriminate lay presidency (not even Sydney diocese allows that!), drive-in churches, and drive-through “McEucharists”, to “extended communion”, taking consecrated elements to those locked down — but, in such “contagious times” (BCP), none allow a valid and effective eucharistic celebration.

 

SO, I decided “to boldly go” into cyberspace, exploring church internet use during the 2000s, voyaging on the Ship of Fools website to online churches, and joining the Anglican Cathedral on Second Life, using avatars. Recent technological development provides two options: broadcast services (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube), and narrow-cast webinars (using software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams).

Assessing these must consider concepts of the Church, sacramental understandings of ordination and eucharist, priestly intention, the nature of bread and wine, and the Real Presence.

More Evangelical or lower-church congregations, following Zwingli, emphasise Christ’s command to “remember me”, and thus can invite people to do so before their screens. Others prefer to “allow God to do what God wills”, as Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711) says: “I believe Thy Body and Blood to be as really present in the Holy Sacrament as Thy divine power can make it, although the manner of Thy mysterious presence I cannot comprehend.”

The more Catholic require priestly intention to change bread and wine into the Real Presence. Yet this does not need physical touch: at cathedral eucharists and ordinations, eucharistic ministers around the altar hold up patens and chalices at appropriate moments, further extended at Walsingham pilgrimages, Greenbelt communions for 20,000, or even more in papal masses.

Zoom communion uses an authorised liturgy, with sermon, prayer, praise, and confession, culminating in bread and wine seen in windows. We pray that bread and wine “on this table and on our screens” may “be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and the president extends hands in the epiclesis over bread and wine closely visible and the people gathered. Unlike a YouTube broadcast’s indiscriminate eating alone, the president communicates each person by name, holding up bread or wafer, and we all drink from our cups together as one body.

 

THE Bishops’ guidance, reissued frequently, recognises that “whilst this practice may have spiritual value for some, participants should not be encouraged to believe that any bread and wine brought before screens during online Holy Communion has been ‘remotely consecrated,’” but “commends the questions raised by this practice for further theological reflection”.

I participated in a study day for the College of Bishops in October 2020, leading to various proposals, and in a similar online “Table in the Wilderness” for Episcopalian bishops in the United States. And yet “theological reflection” has not produced any new guidance or recommendations on either side of the Atlantic, such is the glacial pace at which church committees seem to work.

While we are grateful for communion in churches again, it is in one kind only, and with such restrictions that many prefer to worship at home in a blended live-stream. Omicron’s rapid spread, and the prospect of variants up to the apocryphal Omega, means no quick return to former ways. Meanwhile, despite the official instructions against this practice, hundreds of churches and thousands of Anglicans find spiritual comfort and sacramental sustenance through online experiments. How do we hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches? How much longer must “hungry sheep look up” — but be not fed?


Canon Professor Richard A. Burridge is a former Dean of King’s College, London, a biblical scholar, author, speaker, and social commentator.

His latest book, Holy Communion in Contagious Times, is published by Wipf & Stock at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-1-725-28577-4

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