A Crisis of Communion: Implied Eucharistologies in the midst of COVID-19

Introduction

As Anglican churches across the country have scrambled to adapt to mandates from civil and ecclesial authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of tenets of Eucharistic theology have been asserted and circulated across the province that have been received without sufficient theological analysis. In a time of crisis, quick decisions are necessarily made, but if we don’t sift through those decisions after the fact, we are liable to unintentionally import errors into our doctrine and worship. I think in this unusual moment in history, our Eucharistology is being threatened by un-Anglican views on four fronts — in both Reformed and Romish directions — resulting from practical decisions (and their rationales) that have been made or ordered, which I shall quote and then analyze.

“The Eucharist should be administered under one kind only: Bread.”

It is the case that in the risen body of our Lord, as he sits at the right hand of the Father, his glorified blood is inextricably connected with his glorified body. That, mutatis mutandis for his unique resurrected state, blood cannot exist outside of a body, and a body is made alive by the presence of blood. Therefore to receive Communion under one kind is not unreasonably put forward as still being a full participation in the sacrament and the thing it signifies: Christ himself. However, the withholding of the cup is one of the chief developments in medieval worship that so rankled the reformers. It actually gets its own article (Article 30) in our Articles of Religion:

“The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.”

This was one of the great gifts the reformation bequeathed to our Anglican Church, and it should perhaps not be set aside so easily.

We know that practical considerations initially prompted the witholding of the cup in the middle ages (mustaches were apparently a big factor), and who knows if pestilence wasn’t also a factor (even before germ theory, animal instinct causes us to be repulsed by putrid fluids, such as those which emanate from a sick person)? Either way, the congregation got used to it, and all manner of clericalist, superstitious pseudo-theology rose up in the wake of the practical action. Indeed, the Tridentine line of argument as to the “sufficiency” of communion under one kind as it pertains to our salvation is the genetic descendant of these errors, and has been used uncritically to justify the action in the present day.

Additionally, as Article 30 directs, since our Lord instituted both kinds, we should not be so cavalier to assert that both kinds are not fundamental to the sacrament. They may not be; but we should be more cautious and not rush in where angels fear to tread.

Lastly, the most careful theological doctors of all time — the Salamanca divines — discerned that there is an additional gift of grace annexed to participation in the cup: that of spiritual gladdening. Vasquez and Lugo both asserted that it was more probably the case that communion under both kinds brings a greater gift that communion under one, and it is recorded that the great doctors of the council of Trent all believed this to be the case as well, hence their careful wording regarding communion under one kind. (for more on this, see the summary in E.B. Pusey’s Eirencion, Part III, 328-330) Again — has this been accounted for when the cup has been banned?

It would seem more prudent to encourage the frail to abstain from the chalice, for health’s sake, rather than to withhold it.

“God gives the same grace without the sacrament as he does through it.”

If the previous direction is underwritten by Romish doctrine, this rationale for shutting down the sacraments is Reformed to a degree that is not reflected in our Anglican formularies.

To be clear, this offered rationale is certainly the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist. As Article 19 of the Consenus Tigurinus (the foundation stone for Reformed Eucharistology) states,

“As the use of the sacraments will confer nothing more on unbelievers than if they had abstained from it, nay, is only destructive to them, so without their use believers receive the reality which is there figured.

The absence of any analogous statement in our own 39 Articles is glaring.

There is a provision for “Spiritual Communion” in the rubric following the Communion of the Sick in the 1662 Prayerbook:

But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood; the Curate shall instruct him, That if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption; earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.

While at first glance this might appear to resemble Reformed eucharistology, when it is read alongside the 1662 Catechism, it is clear that a different doctrine is suggested.

In the 1662 Catechism, the questions about the sacrament of Baptism are twofold: One, what is the outward part; Two, what is the inward part. When it comes then to the Eucharist, it is noteworthy that there are not two, but three questions: One, what is the outward part (bread and wine); Two, what is the inward part (the Body and Blood of Christ); Three, What are the benefits of partaking (The strengthening and refreshing of our souls).

The distinction between the ‘inward part’ and the ‘benefit’ suggests a more realist notion of the presence of Christ in the sacrament faithfully received: a res — a “ghostly substance” (to use the language of the homilies) — which brings with it certain benefits. When the rubric for the communion of the sick asserts that the Body and Blood of the Lord are eaten “profitably”, this indexes most clearly onto the third question of the Catechism: the benefits of partaking. In the very least, the rubric does not make a direct identification with the actual reception of the sacrament, as the Reformed confessions do.

Indeed, when we compare Anglican and Reformed thought on this question, it seems that there is a near equivalence between a Reformed view of Communion, and what Anglicans (and catholics) would call ‘spiritual communion’. That is, in both cases, the doctrine is that the virtues and benefits of the Cross of Christ are imparted to the soul, independent of sacramental reception. But this is a subordinate idea of participation in Communion for Anglicans, not the main idea.

I am delighted that Anglicans around the country are discovering spiritual communion, but in some quarters it seems to have been presented as if it is an identical act with actually receiving the sacrament, an identification the prayerbook and articles do not make. It is a next-best-thing in the present circumstances, to be sure, but it is not an equal substitute. It is beneficial, to be sure, but it is not the same as the unique act of being united to Christ in the act of faithful reception of the sacramental Body and Blood.

“The sacramental Body can be delivered to parishioners independent of the Eucharistic celebration.”

While the bringing of reserved sacrament from an earlier celebration of the Eucharist — in keeping with patristic-era practice — has been normal in the Anglican church for a century or so, it has always been a permission for the sick, not the norm for Sunday mornings. By making it a norm, its disproportional emphases become untenable. There seems to be an underlying sacerdotalism in the very idea: That the priest “saying mass” is what effects the “confecting” of the Eucharist, and that the transformed elements can then be delivered to those who did not participate in the liturgy. But participation is crucial. Not only because it is the vouchsafed way the Church has given us to be duly prepared for the reception of Holy Communion, but also because the Liturgy is the ‘work of the people’, not just the work of the priest. It takes a priest and a congregation in order for the church to be constituted, and only then can the Eucharist take place. To totally severe participation from reception will almost certainly lead to more unworthy receiving, and also communicates that the presence of the people of God is an optional element, an incidental when it comes to the Eucharist — a medieval lie that was happily dismissed by the liturgical movement of the 20th century.

“The Eucharistic liturgy can be live-streamed.”

This last direction dove-tails on to the previous. The problem with it is: To mentally be in a place where your body is not — as is the case when you watch a livestream of church while sitting in your living room — is to be discarnate from our embodied existence. Christ came in a real body. We are called as the Church to worship in and with our bodies. Our Lord has promised that a gathering as small as two Christians is sufficient to make “church” (“There I am”). Why watch someone else worshiping on a screen, when you can worship with your spouse or kids or room-mate? There is a strange and sneaky docetism at work in the idea of live-streaming. The church presenting the illusion of presence — via a screen — while not actually being present. We worship the God who took on flesh for our sake; we would do well to worship him within the limitations of the flesh that he came to redeem.

Moreover, to prioritize the seeing of the celebration of communion is eerily reminiscent of the ocular-shift that took place in the Mass in the 13th century — when just seeing communion celebrated replaced the actual receiving of the consecrated elements. A mistake whose ripple effects linger on in the Romish language of “hearing mass” to describe going to church rather than “participating in Holy Communion.” The resemblance between live-streamed Communion and medieval eucharistic errors can be further traced in the false assumption that as long as the priest celebrates communion, he does so for everybody, regardless of their level of participation. Surely such a tacit assumption betrays a clericalism that should not be left unchecked.

Additionally, what exactly is the Angel who guards each church supposed to do? How can he gather the prayers of the scattered?

CONCLUSION

While we must obey the orders from our authorities, we would do well to sift the eucharistologies that they can accidentally carry with them, and not accept any doctrine contrary to that of our Anglican formularies, however expedient.


The Rev. Ben Jefferies

The Rev. Ben Jefferies is a sinner, grateful to the Lord for his mercy. He grew up in England, and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He went to Wheaton College, and several years later discerned a call to ministry and went to seminary at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Duncan in 2014. He currently serves The Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Liturgy Task Force of the ACNA from 2015-2019, and was the lead designer for the production of the printed prayer book. He continues as the Assistant to the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer (2019), and serves on the board of directors of Anglican House Media Ministries. He is married with three daughters.


'A Crisis of Communion: Implied Eucharistologies in the midst of COVID-19' have 2 comments

  1. March 30, 2020 @ 8:35 am Rev. Dennis Washburn

    This thoughtful article raises important issues. It is a good warning about changing practice and theology by hasty or temporary solutions. Indeed, I am amazed by the extent of my agreement with the article. That being said, however, we are in the midst of a pastoral emergency as well as other problems. Ideally, we want to receive the Sacrament in its fullness and in community. But at the moment, only a few clergy with close family or friends are allowed to do so. So what about the rest? Yes, the Daily Office and the Litany are important and valuable. A form of spiritual communion can meaningful. But for me personally and devotionally, seeing even a small celebration of the Eucharist online with two or three physically participating is a meaningful reminder that the sacramental ministry of Christ’s Church is continuing despite pestilence.

    Reply

    • April 12, 2020 @ 9:39 am Jeremy Williams

      Thank you for your summary of the Eucharistology of the present time.
      We are in an enforced fast from the Sacraments of the Eucharist. Our communion is nevertheless the communion of saints, united with Christ by the action of the Holy Ghost, and so as you state the benefits of the services are also available to those who are unable to be physically present. You make an excellent series of points on “The sacramental Body can be delivered to parishioners independent of the Eucharistic celebration”. However I must draw an analogy between TV services, which have been around for since time, and live streaming, which is newer. The similarities are not in the media but in the participation – anyone who wants to participate via TV or live streaming must be dedicated to the service, not be distracted, say the responses and so on as though they were present. That cannot excuse our laziness to decide not to take part in the service in the House of God, where He has appointed us to worship. The necessity of the Holy Spirit to make the communion stands out, and our participation can be an act of faith, while we realize the fact that we are not physically taking part in the Communion.
      When the broadcast is edited, a recording, or switched on when we happen to be ready, for me this renders participation more difficult. Would it be sufficient to learn the discipline of switching it on with the whole family at a specific time?
      Your point about the lack of presence of a congregation is well made. If the priest has a family, there is a ready made congregation who can receive the Communion. There should also be enough portable altars in the Churches for a celebration at the house of the priest. When Archbishop Welby celebrated the service in his kitchen, I wish he had used a portable altar and found a curtain or wall against which to stand rather than his kitchen units! The rite is a solemn one, I find these backgrounds distracting.
      I have seen some on the Evangelical side proposing the practice of having everyone bring along their own bread and wine in their houses and having them consecrated by the word of the priest across the live stream.
      I would be interested in reading your views.

      Reply


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