Episcopal church struggles with eucharistic theology amidst pandemic

By | August 12, 2020

During the late twentieth century, The Episcopal Church experienced a sea change as the liturgical renewal movement transformed the Holy Eucharist to the focus of divine worship in the church. The COVID-19 pandemic has, however, upended those changes, and the church is struggling to discern a path forward.

Prior to the liturgical renewal movement, many parishes celebrated Holy Eucharist only once a month, with Morning and Evening Prayer the primary forms of worship. In some Anglo-Catholic parishes, High Mass did not involve receiving the sacrament, instead focusing on adoration of the consecrated host.

These practices had their roots in medieval times, when actually receiving communion was rare. Indeed, in Western Christianity, the practice of ocular communion was commonplace. During the Mass, the priest consecrated the elements, and the Sanctus bells rang at the precise moment in which the bread and wine were miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Persons jostled for position to observe the miracle, but actually receiving the elements was rare—so much so that a 13th century church council decreed that Christians should receive the sacrament at least once a year, at Easter.

Flash forward to 2020, and many Episcopalians have not received the sacraments since March due to the pandemic and the cessation of in-person worship at many Episcopal churches.

In response, most churches have shifted to online services. While this initially resulted in surging virtual attendance, anecdotal evidence suggests that the novelty has worn off, with many parishes facing sharply declining participation.

All of this raises the question: How does the church maintain the Holy Eucharist as the primary act of worship when congregations cannot be together in person? Of course, there’s also a related question that many have been reluctant to ask: Should Holy Eucharist remain the centerpiece of Episcopal worship?

For many churches, the temporary solution has been so-called spiritual communion, in which worshippers partake through intent, versus consumption of the elements. This is not a new concept, for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer contains prayers for spiritual communion, to be used when ministering to the dying and others who may not be able to eat or drink. In such cases, the officiant is to assure the communicant that they still receive all the benefits of communion.

Meanwhile, the House of Bishops has joined the fray. The discussions, which seemingly have dragged on interminably, evince a reluctance to endorse changes such as virtual consecration of elements in the homes of communicants, drive-in communion, or other innovations.

True to form, nothing much has come from the discussions at the House of Bishops. There’s the predictable effort by some bishops to avoid being told what to do, while others seem intent on avoiding change. Others appear less interested in the outcome and more interested in seeing an end to the virtual meetings, whether via a protracted internet outage or the clock running out on the discussions. Still others try to link the matter with efforts to end racism.

The latter, on its face a curious juxtaposition, may not be as strange as it seems at first blush. A key aspect of in-person communion is the sharing of one bread and one cup—a notion that reminds church members that, at the end of the day, we are all one in the body of Christ. Thus, racism injures all persons, not just those of differing places of origin.

And yet both racism and Eucharistic theology are complex issues, fraught with strong feelings and centuries of tradition. Thus, combining the two seems to all but guarantee that neither issue will move any closer to resolution.

Not surprisingly, the Episcopal media conflates activity with results, reporting on the discussions among the bishops as if this were a news story, when the reality is nothing newsworthy has happened at the House of Bishops meetings.

Yet behind the scenes, there is very much a looming news story, and one that gets too little attention: Will the pandemic upend the results of the liturgical reform movement? Will we see a return to ocular communion? To occasional communion, marked by social distancing, sterilized portion control cups for the wine, and hand sanitizer at every turn? Or something totally different, like drive-through communion?

It’s too early to tell, but outcomes are already skewed by the reluctance of the bishops, and church leaders generally, to recognize that the changes wrought by the pandemic are the new normal. At every turn, at every level, persons within the church talk about spiritual communion as a temporary solution until the church can regather.

But the reality is that, even with a vaccine, COVID-19 is here to stay, and there is no such thing as a 100% effective vaccine. Moreover, the extended shutdown of churches will undoubtedly lead many Christians who primarily value church as a social outlet to find other ways to fill their Sundays. And the anti-vaxx movement and notions that the pandemic somehow is a political issue all but guarantee that we will not not achieve herd immunity, or replicate the results of the great efforts of the late twentieth century to eradicate childhood disease. As a result, the elderly and those with elevated risk factors must confront the fact that they may not be able to return to in-person worship during their lifetimes. Thus, any temporary solution to the theological crisis confronting the church is at best a stopgap solution that ultimately be replaced with a long-term remedy.

Unfortunately, the Episcopal emphasis on Holy Communion may further implode what already appears to be a dying denomination. And efforts within the church to respond to the realities of the pandemic appear mired in the usual navel-gazing, turf wars, fear of change, inertia, lack of accountability, wistful longing for the good old days, and other factors already driving the church further and further towards existential crisis.

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