During my first year of studying theology, a lecturer asked us to make a list of all the things that we thought must happen in the context of the eucharist. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics — all were invited to make their list, and compare notes. I should confess: I forgot the sermon. I didn’t choose not to include it. I just forgot. And before you get your hopes up: I would not forget it now.
But I find myself thinking about the question again in a new context. This time it is not ‘what must happen for a eucharist’ but ‘what should happen when Christians gather on a Sunday?’
Now ideally, those questions would be one and the same. The eucharist is at the heart of Anglican practice and theology, and I wish that we could assume that every Anglican congregation could gather for the eucharist each sabbath day. But we can’t. There are too many congregations who must meet without a priest on a Sunday, and the question is, what should happen then?
Why do we gather, and what do we do once we get there? What is possible, desirable, and necessary?
I asked someone today how Dunoon came to decide to have communion from the reserved sacrament as the main pattern of worship when the priest wasn’t there. The answer was that it was just assumed that there would be communion. The question was how you could do it without a priest. Others may have different memories of the process in Dunoon, but this person will not be alone in their assumption. There must be communion — so how do you do it without a priest?
In Rothesay, the pattern is to sing Mattins when the priest is not there. No priest means no eucharist. No eucharist means no communion. That seems as obvious and as inevitable as ‘Sunday means communion’, and it is probably the more time-honoured pattern.
But whatever we choose, we need to be clear what we are doing and why. Someone somewhere once said to me, ‘oh but we had to have Reserved Sacrament. There’s no choir, so Mattins wasn’t an option.’ And that is where confusion starts creeping in. Choral Mattins (sung well) is a lovely thing. But those of you who have sat bubble tests will know that
‘choir : mattins :: priest : eucharist’ is a false analogy. They are not related in the same way.
So, I’m inviting you into a game of imagination. I would like you to try to set aside all your default settings. Clear your mind of past experience, and start with a clean slate.
It is Sunday.
An Anglican congregation is gathering for its main act of worship.
There is no priest.
What should happen?
What shouldn’t happen?
What beliefs, values and preferences shape your response?
You might also consider whether the worship pattern for the rest of the week is relevant. What if there were weekly communion at another time? Or — at the other end of the scale– what if there were hardly ever a priest? What should happen then?
I’m going to be off line for a few days. I know this is a busy week for lots of us. But I hope you can find some time to make suggestions.
More and more congregations find themselves having to make these decisions, and I’m not sure that as a church we’ve really thought about it enough.