theological quandary

I have been brooding on the theology of the reserved sacrament again. Or rather, the lack of theology.

I find myself in the awkward position of having to support and encourage a pattern of worship I’m not sure I understand. Indeed, I’m not sure that the church as a whole has come to an understanding of this — though I hope I’m mistaken. What are we doing when — week after week, as a normal pattern of worship — our main service is Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament?

I have asked this before. So let me be more specific.

1. In Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament, how does a person’s self-offering relate to the offering of the eucharist?

When we celebrate the eucharist, I assume (and teach) that we offer ourselves to be broken and transformed in and through the offering of bread and wine, and the receiving of communion. At a celebration of the eucharist, there is an authentic correspondence between our self offering and the liturgical action. Things really change.

But when the service is from the reserved sacrament, the bread and wine have already been offered and transformed. How does our self-offering fit with that? How is it liturgically expressed? Are we in danger of losing the sense of self-offering in the eucharist if we are not clear about the differences between celebrating the eucharist and receiving pre-consecrated bread and wine?

Or am I just missing something about the theology of the eucharist?

2. What does it mean for the same congregation to receive communion time and again from the same celebration?

This is thankfully not our practice in Dunoon — apart from the few who come on a Thursday to enable the celebration, who then receive again on Sunday (for the once a month service from the Reserved Sacrament). But recently, I learned of a church which very seldom sees a priest through the winter. The last priest there in the autumn consecrates lots and lots of bread and wine. The congregation then take communion from what is reserved each week until a priest comes again.

I do not know what this means.

Dear readers, will you please help make sense of this for me? And will you help us have this conversation more widely in the church? I know that it’s a hard thing to do on a blog, but unless you want to play with Wiki’s, it’s the best forum we have.

Please pass this post on to all of your theologically savvy friends. I welcome responses in the comments or by email.

I am also linking a sermon I preached last year, when I tried to explain the custom of Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament to the congregation in Dunoon. (And do stop to admire the irony of my preaching a sermon that was pastorally necessary, when a year on I still don’t really understand a bit of it.) I am not at ease with the sermon, and there may be things in it you can correct, but it offers some perspective for those new to this (all you city dwellers spoilt with endless priests, for instance.)

I used to think this was a fairly marginal issue — and that Communion from the Reserved Sacrament was rare as a main Sunday service. I now think that it is becoming a normative pattern of worship in many parts of our church, and I’m not sure we know what we’re doing.

14 thoughts on “theological quandary

  1. Hi Kimberly
    I went through a similar quandry regarding the reserved sacrament when as a deacon I administered the reserved sacrament at churches within the South Ayrshire Team, and later during the vacancy in south Ayrshire whilst I was still the curate, lay members occasionally administered communion from the reserved sacrament on a Sunday morning. Like you, I found the theology difficult to get my head round, and had various questions. I still do.

    That said – I think you hit the nail on your head in your sermon, “…coming together…to recieve God’s gift of himself…” For many, and to a certain extent myself, there is something so powerful in this – that physicality of moving forward to recieve and accept God’s gift, or to raise one’s hands or open ones’s mouth to recieve. Its a physical act, and a physical representation of God’s love for us somehow making the experience of that love more real and tangible. Its an association of the senses, a bridge between the eternal and the temporal. Not presiding, not celebrating, simply receiving in faith.

  2. Mother K, like you I am puzzled about the theology of the reserved sacrament. In my world I think it should be for emergencies only. If it is because there is no possibility of a priest, couldn’t it be done like the Romans do? Saturday night vigil mass? Just a thought.

  3. Thanks, oldcynic (that so does not match my image of you…) — the comments on the physicality of it are helpful.

    Ruth — that’s quite a sensible idea, though I’m not sure how most piskie’s would respond. Would you still have some sort of service on Sunday, or would vigil mass be enough?

    The question at hand isn’t actually how I manage things here. The island, where it is sometimes hardest to get to, is quite happy with non-eucharistic services when I’m not there. The small congregation simply wait till I come. The ‘home’ congregation, who have a priest three Sundays out of four and a mid-week eucharist are the ones who have a service from the Reserved Sacrament on the one other Sunday (and we began to discuss those differences
    here
    .)

    But whatever we do here, this is happening all over the place. Thus the desire for a clearer and more conscious theological position.

  4. Sigh.

    As regards the practicalities, yes, the island congregation is happy with a non-eucharistic service, though there is, I think, a general will to work on that service to improve it – which is right and good. One thing appreciated is the fact it allows involvement for a wide range of different people and gifts. This is also very good.

    I think one thing which tends to slip out of sight, generally and not specifically, is that all Christian worship should be an offering of ourselves to the Father through the Son and that inevitable implies the suggestion what we allow ourselves to be broken and re-formed. Another is the VERY wide range that non-Eucharistic services can take. We (ie we all – as a denomination) could do a lot more to explore the possibilities.

    I see the value and importance of regular communion, but, to me, to say that each act of public worship has to be a communion is to undervalue, dreadfully, the importance of meeting as a group, of corporate prayer, of hearing the word and hearing it expounded. To say nothing of undervaluing our personal devotional life.

    I think your understanding of the Eucharist/RS is essentially correct. One would hope that for each Christian however sick, confined, distressed, there is always a self giving as well as a receiving, of course. Also we have always to remember the paradox that actually there is only one Eucharist. It is the fixed point upon which we are privileged to touch.

    That said, I do agree wholeheartedly with the incoherence of repeatedly receiving form one Eucharist – and it makes me especially rueful when, eg, the Eucharist of Advent 4 is received on Christmas Day.

    Are we looking the the wrong place? Should we actually be looking for more LOMs? Do we actually need to offer more education to our parishes, and hope and pray that God calls those with the abilities to lead and comfort and embody him to some degree to make a further self offering?

    Granted some have serious flaws (don’t all our priests?) and in some cases these are so serious as to debar them from this service. But it has long struck me that often it is other things holding them back.

    The Growing Season was an excellent start – but we need more formation.

    As regards the Mass of the Vigil – personally it would be a huge relief. Wow eee I could spend Sunday on things (like sports) which can only be done on Sunday. However, it splits congregations. Those at the vigil do not meet up with those worshipping on Sunday. It is most useful, therefore, in larger parishes.

  5. Kimberly, if you go to coin.org.uk and join 2020, you will find an ongoing discussion on this – you will recognise names from Thinking Anglicans.

  6. When I administered Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, both as Reader and as Deacon, I did so largely without thinking much about the theology, or about when and by whom the consecration had been done. I was just deeply honoured to be authorised to bring the gift of Christ’s body and blood to those who needed it, a feeling which I still experience when I take Communion to the sick and housebound.

    There is now, however, a profound difference: the housebound are participating by extension in the celebration of the previous Sunday, with its key elements of offering, setting apart and sharing. They are thereby still identified with and incorporated in their local worshipping community. I’m no church historian, but this, as I understand it, enacts the practice of the early Church, when the surplus consecrated elements were taken on the same day to those unable to attend the Eucharistic service. Any further bread and wine left over was then presumably consumed. Ministering, as I have recently had to do, in vacant charges, I have been very uncomfortable with the fact that I was sometimes not required to consume the Reserved Sacrament kept from previous Sundays. This seems to weaken (to say the least) the bond with the worshipping community gathered for a particular celebration.

    Using the Reserved Sacrament consecrated several weeks or months previously can also have the effect (pace Oldcynic – [greetings, join the club!]) of encouraging a pious ‘receptionist’ attitude towards the Eucharist, as if it were meant to be the subject of private devotion, rather than participation in shared celebration. I suspect that this may be one of the motivations of those who support Reserved Sacrament because they feel they need Communion every week.

    Maybe, as Rosemary suggests, we’re undervaluing the potential of non-Eucharistic worship to foster and strengthen the spiritual life of the community. Could shared prayer and reflection on the Word be an almost equally powerful way of bonding the people of God?

    Maybe, too, we should think more about Ordained Local Ministry. It’s an arrangement about which I have serious reservations, and I don’t think the SEC as a whole has properly worked through the theology, but has latched on to it as an emergency solution.

    Nevertheless, I would like to hear you, Kimberly, develop the ideas about growth you hinted at in the last two paragraphs of your sermon last September 2. Like it or not, shortages of candidates and money are going to force upon the Church some radical thinking about recruitment and training in the near future.

  7. Thanks, Kimberly, for starting this ball rolling (and for the excellent teaching sermon), and thanks too to your other contributors. I’m not sure I have much to add to this debate, other than the observation that theology – particularly liturgical theology – and praxis are often intertwined to the extent that it can be very difficult to say which ‘comes first’.

    So, on the one hand it might be observed that the current situation in which the SEC finds itself means that for pragmatic reasons some congregations need to hold communion from the Reserved Sacrament on some Sundays, and so any theologising follows from this pragmatic necessity. On the other hand, though, one might explore further the feelings powerfully articulated by Oldcynic – the desire for a sacramental bridging of the space between God and humankind – as a variation on Schleiermacher’s identification of the ‘feeling of absolute dependency’ as an important theological resource: in which case, this specifically theological need is responded to in practice by the Church’s provision of communion by whatever means is possible in a particular location.

    (In parentheses: I also agree with Eamonn that we need to think more in the SEC about the theology of OLM – but I suspect that that’s for another blog!)

  8. I would like to think that OLM recognises that people may be called to embody the priestly role in a situation without having the level of leadership skills needed for high-level leadership. They may have the teaching skills, the personal life of prayer and devotion, the ability to learn and to teach – but not the administrative gifts to run a large parish team, or to cope single-handed with exceptionally difficult pastoral situations, or to handle people who have the ability and perhaps the will to cause havoc, unless they are supported by others. I would like to see an OLM providing local leadership, with the recognition that they will always be needing the care and guidance of, well of more forceful personalities.

    If we ever start thinking that their ministry is in any other way ‘different’, or that they need less education, or that they are in any way lesser in thier embodiment of the priestly role, boy are we in trouble.

  9. Thanks, all. There is lots here that’s interesting. But so far, Mike wins the prize for calling Schleiermacher into play. A very clever ploy to make me laugh, and to begin to draw out the theology of Old Cynic’s comment. Theology Conferences and pastoral matters mean I’m not going to respond to much of this for another few days. Hopefully a few others will join in by then.

  10. Wow. Me and Schleiermacher in the same sentence! Although, in response to Mike’s comments – is there really a division of the pragmatic and the spiritual in this debate, or has the pragmatic need arisen because of a voiced spiritual need? 2 sides of the same coin perhaps?

    And to Kimberly – I’m pleased you think me neither old nor cynical 🙂 Its an irony thing relating to my days as a mad charismatic. I’ll tell you the story sometime…

  11. Coming very late to this – couldn’t face participating from Austria using only my phone! – can I thank Old Cynic for putting so clearly into words what it means for me to receive the Sacrament – the physicality is very important. And yes, I think we need to think further about OLM.
    And perhaps you need also to consider where the laity are – because for many the knotty theological problems which you wrestle with will not even be a blur on the horizon.

  12. Chris, it is because for many the knotty theological problems are not a blur on the horizon that I am trying to encourage this conversation — among clergy and laity alike.

    It is very easy for a church to make changes in a local context for good reasons without anyone anticipating the consequences of those changes. Sometimes it is worth stepping back and thinking, ‘what’s going on here? what direction is this taking us in? Is this the direction we want to go in?’

    And that is true of any number of issues. Sometimes the change is for the best, sometimes it leads us away from where we want to be. Our conversations and reflections are part of how we discern which way we are going.

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