THE pandemic resulting from the Covid-19 virus led Christian churches throughout the world to reconsider their usual communion practices, and adopt a variety of expedients for its duration.
In the first part of his book (News, Comment, 21 January; Letters, 28 January, 4 February), Richard Burridge documents and examines just seven alternative proposals that were made and sometimes put into practice in response to this situation: abstinence from communion altogether, spiritual communion, a priest celebrating alone, multiple priests simultaneously celebrating alone, lay presidency, drive-through communion, and taking/sending consecrated elements to individual homes. In each case, he notes problems or objections to the practice.
Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, in their Grove booklet (News, 21 January), attempt to cover similar ground, but far more briefly, and with a clearly preferred option in mind: the use of multiple individual cups rather than a single common chalice for the distribution of the consecrated wine, an option not considered by Burridge.
In the second part of his book, Burridge ranges far more widely and explores the world of the internet and of the “Cyber-church” and virtual reality. It seems that this is where his real interest lies. He eventually turns to dealing with the questions that have been raised by various authors about live streaming, or the broadcasting of pre-recorded services, that is, the reality of online communities and the possibility of sacraments in this context.
Here, he seems less concerned about meeting needs in contagious times than about arguing for some sort of parity between online and physical presence. He devotes considerable space to this, challenging objections to the acceptance of genuine reality in such virtual experiences and mounting a robust theological defence of them. In so doing, however, he appears to discount the fundamental physicality necessary for truly deep human relationships and overlook the importance of physical contact and human touch as the medium within sacramental interaction. This fatally flaws his argument.
Touch is the most profound action that people make with one another and is the one thing that must be denied in the face of contagious disease. In normal times, we receive baptism from another person; and we receive communion in a similar way. No alternative arrangement can ever fully make up for that loss of personal touch, and there is no one “correct” practice to adopt in a pandemic, as all have strengths and weaknesses.
Live streaming is no more than a high-tech version of traditional ocular or spiritual communion; and taking some bread for oneself at home or taking an individual cup at church compromise the reception of communion from the hands of another. Some such steps may be unavoidable in times of contagion, but they are not the same as full sacramental practice.
The danger that lurks behind the adoption of any emergency provision, however, is what I have in the past described to my students as the employment of “desert island” theology, that is, of arguing from the exceptional to the normal instead of the other way around. “If we were cut off from other people and lacked, for example, a priest or bread or wine, what would we do? Well, why can’t we just do that anyway?” Whatever may be expedient in an extreme situation should never be misused to justify its practice in more regular times.
The Revd Dr Paul Bradshaw is Emeritus Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
Holy Communion in Contagious Times: Celebrating the eucharist in the everyday and online worlds
Richard A. Burridge
Cascade Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
“Drink this All of You”: Individual cups at holy communion (W250)
Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard
Grove Books £3.95