The Eucharist and coming out of lockdown: A tract for these COVID-19 times

By Christopher Craig Brittain

The challenges presented to churches by COVID-19 are numerous. Debates over whether to celebrate the Eucharist during the height of the crisis, and when to resume the sharing of the sacrament as lockdown restrictions are eased, are a case in point. In what follows, I argue that what the church is presently engaged in is not a “eucharistic fast,” but instead a form of “spiritual communion” that is informed and shaped by the eucharistic identity of the church. It is this same eucharistic vision that should guide Anglicans as they consider how and when to ease restrictions on public worship.

Overreactions against the moratorium

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, most Anglican churches across the globe have imposed a moratorium on celebrating the Eucharist. This has led some panicked voices to ask whether this marks “the end of the Eucharist?” Others have accused the Church of England of letting down its members by “going private.”

The reasons marshalled by those protesting the church’s decision to place a moratorium on the Eucharist vary. Some accuse the church of abandoning its commitment to the sacrament by bowing to the edicts of government policy. Others engage in debates over the definition of “essential service” and lament that liquor stores remain open, while churches do not.

The first accusation goes to the heart of the issue that inspired the Oxford Movement in the 19th century—a fear that the state was setting the agenda of the church. This certainly does not apply to decisions made by Canadian Anglican bishops. Recall that many dioceses withheld the common cup and interrupted the passing of the peace before the lockdown began. In other words, the church was ahead of the government in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Anglicans decided—on their own terms—to modify usual patterns of worship for solid theological and pastoral reasons. So, it strikes me as overly melodramatic to accuse our leaders of sacrificing church tradition to fit governmental policy agendas.

It is also curious to encounter suggestions that churches should open and conduct the celebration of the Eucharist because liquor stores and big-box hardware centres aren’t closed. This position essentially implies that Anglicans should fall in line with the consumer practices of the society in which they are located. Insisting that “we” should be able to live like “them” is not an argument; it is a sign of envy or a desire to copy the actions of others.

What, then, should inform Anglican decision-making about the celebration of the Eucharist during a pandemic? Furthermore, how should church leaders discern when to resume the practice? On such questions, Scripture and Christian tradition should guide our leaders.

Arguments from Scripture and tradition

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11:17-34) is a good place to look for guidance on the celebration of the Eucharist during a pandemic. In this passage, Paul criticizes the Corinthian church for the way it is celebrating the Eucharist: “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” (v. 17). What does Paul understand to be the problem? He states that “I hear there are divisions among you,” and because of this, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper” (v. 20). This is because, “each of you goes ahead with your own support, and one goes away hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

The biblical scholar C.K. Barrett emphasizes that the “divisions” mentioned by Paul are chiefly class distinctions between the rich and poor. Some come to church to feast, while others receive nothing. As such, the ceremony is reduced to a private meal, not a collective sharing in the body and blood of Christ. For Paul, consuming the bread and wine while disregarding the needs of others in the community represents eating in “an unworthy manner” (v. 27). Richard B. Hays concludes that Paul is arguing that those who celebrate the Lord’s supper “without discerning the body eat and drink judgement upon themselves.” To properly recognize the church assembly for what it is requires acknowledging that it is “the one body of Christ.”

What has this to do with a moratorium of the Eucharistic during COVID-19? If the church were to simply return to public gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist despite the ongoing transmission of the virus, a division would automatically be established within the community—between those able to attend safely (for example, younger people who can travel by car) and those made more vulnerable in such a situation (for example, the elderly who require public transit to attend). Under current conditions, a Eucharist cannot avoid becoming a celebration by the more privileged or mobile members of the community. To ignore this reality is to encourage people to partake in Holy Communion in an “unworthy manner.”

With regard to arguments from Christian tradition, if Anglicans look back to the first 1549 Book of Common Prayer, it is instructive to be reminded by scholars like Eamon Duffy that when illness made it impossible to safely gather a sufficient number of people (three or more), then the celebration of the Eucharist was not permitted. Instead, it was taught that through prayer, “the benefits of Christ would be just as profitable to their soul’s health, ‘although he does not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.’” This tradition of “spiritual communion” suggests that Christians can be confident of Christ’s presence and work among them during periods of time when the church is unable to safely celebrate the Eucharist.

Since the early church period, what has earned Christians the admiration of their neighbours during times of plague has not been the church’s determination to celebrate the Eucharist in unsafe circumstances, but rather their outreach to those in need. When a pandemic afflicted the Roman Empire between 249-262, the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, instructed his church not to focus on grieving for the victims of the disease, but on caring for the ill and those in danger. This pattern in Christian history leads the sociologist Rodney Stark to conclude that the growth of the church in the first four centuries was largely due to the ways in which Christians displayed care and mercy to the sick, particularly during times of plague.

Such a perspective does not signal a disregard or end of the Eucharist but is a consequence of the church being deeply formed by its sacramental practices. Through participation in the body and blood of Christ, Christians have had their hearts and mind shaped by God. Because we have been formed by our participation in Christ, we cannot but be committed to the wellbeing of other members of our community. As such, imposing a moratorium on the Eucharist during a pandemic is not a form of abandoning or even fasting from the Eucharist; it is rather a consequence of living out the church’s eucharistic identity.

If Scripture and tradition suggest that it is not only prudent, but faithful to the church’s calling, to place a moratorium on the celebration of the Eucharist in a time of pandemic, where does that leave Christians and their relationship to God?

Spiritual communion in the wilderness

Here we should heed Paul’s counsel that those who are hungry “eat at home” (1 Cor 11:34). Since there isn’t consecrated bread and wine available to consume, then we must trust that, just as God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna from heaven (Exodus 16), God will feed us through spiritual communion until such a time that all our people are able to come together to gather safely around the altar.

I realize that many of us will not consider “spiritual communion” a full substitute for the powerful experience of partaking in the sacramental body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist. Here it is helpful to remember that, when the Israelites first encountered the “bread from heaven” provided by God in the wilderness, their first reaction was, “What is it? (Ex 16:15). They had to be convinced to eat it, and even then, they did so with a fair bit of complaining. Sometimes we must learn to recognize the blessing in what God is offering to us.

Is it time to ease restrictions on the Eucharist?

At present, some Canadian provinces and other countries are beginning to ease lockdown restrictions. In Germany, church services of up to 20 people are now permitted (as long as there is no singing). At the same time, many worry that the easing of restrictions have begun too early. New cases have broken out in Germany, China and South Korea, so it is entirely possible that lockdown restrictions will need to remain in place for many months to come.

In many jurisdictions that are contemplating “re-opening,” different phases for the removal of restrictions have been established. Phase 1 involves a limited re-opening of select workplaces and public spaces; Phase 2 allows further workplaces and public spaces to reopen. Both stages keep protections of vulnerable populations in place. In Phase 3, more widespread re-opening is permitted.

Given that Christian churches include many older members and others with health issues, several members are classified as a “vulnerable” population in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests that it may be necessary to continue the moratorium on the Eucharist until Phase 3 is reached in one’s local context. At a minimum, churches should only permit a return to public worship in limited numbers during Phase 2. Yet those considering such a decision will have to first ensure that this does not result in what Paul describes as the introduction of “divisions” into the body of Christ.

Longing for restoration of the sacramental feast is certainly understandable and appropriate. Yet such personal desires, as Paul reminds us, are not grounds for faithful worship of God. Instead, we are called to take comfort from the reminder that God will send us bread from heaven, and to attend to the church’s teaching that Christ is present with us through spiritual communion. This will enable us, through the power of the Spirit, to be patient until such a time as we are able to celebrate the Eucharist as worthy recipients.

The Rev. Christopher Craig Brittain is Dean of Divinity and the Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

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Anglican Journal, May 14, 2020