take, eat

Kelvin has been throwing cats among pigeons again, asking us to think about the nature of consecration and possibility of virtual communion.   The question begins with an example of bread being consecrated while held in the hands of eucharistic ministers, and ends with the tease of asking us to think about how great the distance might be for this to still be valid (across islands and ferries, for example).  I imagine you’ve all read his post, but do go there first if you haven’t.

My initial reaction was to shudder in horror.  I haven’t got much beyond that in a day.  But this is where I am so far…

Let’s start with degrees of separation.

I don’t like the model of celebrating in which bread or wine is being held by people around the altar rather than resting on the altar and taken up by the priest during the eucharistic prayer.  I don’t like it, and I wouldn’t want to do it, and I would discourage others from doing it, but I would take the bread to be duly consecrated, all else being equal.  I suspect I might feel about it the way I feel in a presbyterian communion service where there are shot glasses and little squares of bread.  I grant intellectual consent to the validity of what is happening and trust God to be present, even though really I don’t like it.

But I can’t get there with the idea of virtual communion, consecration by video link, or other imagined forms of ‘do it yourself’ communion.

The next bit I can’t state very clearly, but it has something to do with the point of disintegration.  Lets try with an analogy.  For written words to have meaning, there are certain limits on the variety of expression that each word can bear.  So, if I’d written ‘bare’ just then, you’d have laughed or groaned or not even noticed, but given the context, meaning would have carried on just fine.  We can cope with variations in spelling, mistakes, and the vowelless shortening of text messages — up to a point.  But there does come a moment when what you have is no longer a word, no longer a carrier of meaning, but just a jumbled mess — no matter how sincere the initiator of the message may have been.

I suppose it’s a slippery slope argument, but not quite — slippery slope assumes things will just get worse and worse, and while I might well argue that virtual communion would too greatly erode our understanding of the eucharist, what I’m saying here is slightly different.  At some point meaning breaks.

(deep breath, and jump…)

Incarnation is embodiment in space and time.  We may well say that Jesus has two natures, but in his human nature, he was located.  In the eucharist, we play games with that.  God who is here, there, and everywhere, is ‘with us now’ in a particular time and place.  Christ, incarnate by nature, but no longer bound by a particular time or space, nonetheless comes to us in fleshy (bready, grapey) form.  And though God is always with us, and Christ can come any time and any way Christ chooses, still we say that in communion there is a real change in the locus of Christ’s presence.  What begins as bread and wine becomes the body and blood of christ.  What begins as ‘ordinary food’ becomes ‘sacramental presence’.  What begins as Christ’s universal presence becomes a specific type of presence in the sacrament. Something happens.  Something changes.  We are changed.

And the physicality of that is important.  There is an intimacy in communion that is lost when the person who is holding and focusing the community’s prayers doesn’t take the bread and wine in their hands.  I can cope better with a silent eucharist (assuming all who are gathered know the story and are praying it) than I can with words-no-actions.  So maybe that is why I can’t see anything desirable or right in different people taking up bread and wine in different places while a priest transmits the eucharistic prayer through cyber-space.

As a celebrant, I find I can’t get started till everyone is there.  I will wait and wait and wait for the children if Young Church has been delayed, rather than knowingly start with part of the community absent.  What I am doing changes — in ways that I can neither articulate or defend– depending on what is going on in the gathering:  mood, feelings, hunch… Different bits of the prayer live differently each week, and while it is all the same eucharist, the same presence, the same Christ, each celebration is different.

And I don’t think you can celebrate in two places at once.  I don’t think you can celebrate with people whom you have not seen, and engaged with, and shared space with during the eucharist.

So, that’s as far as I am with this.  Not very coherent.

On the white elephant: I don’t think that communion from the Reserved Sacrament is in any way adequate as a main service of worship.  I think that that does indeed erode our sense of what we are doing when we celebrate, and that we should be developing better patterns of non-eucharistic worship for small isolated congregations that do not gather with a priest each week.  Perhaps we need to take advantage of the small scale, too, to encourage regular table fellowship: real meals together that emerge out of worship, and provide a context for the sacramental meal which happens more rarely.

And I know, that’s easy for me to say:  I don’t have to live with it.  But there have been times in my life where I have had to make difficult choices about worship.  I chose to drive 75 miles to church fortnightly to share in the eucharist.  I thought about where I would live, and thus where I would apply for jobs, in relation to where I could worship.  And there will come a time in my life when I do that again.  We choose.   And if daily or weekly communion is essential for us, then that may limit certain other choices we can make.

Well, Kelvin, see what you’ve started?  (but I suppose that was the point)

15 thoughts on “take, eat

  1. I’m reminded by your post of a story that was once told me in a liturgy class. The setting was a church a number of years ago which had recently introduced the peace. Just before the offertory, the invitation to share the peace was given. One member of the church very ostentaciously refused to share the peace and indeed snapped at someone else who held out their hand.

    The point we were asked to consider was whether any Eucharist at all was possible after that moment in that community. No matter what the priest or people did which anything physical at all, Eucharist somehow depends on things which are not in fact physical at all.

    I would still maintain that the scenario which I have raised is less a matter of virtual reality than the use of the Reserved Sacrament.

    By the way, are we agreed that Prayer is in fact a cyberspace?

  2. As for the story — I suspect I might handle it the way I do the arrival of children. You just wait till what needs to happen happens. In this case, perhaps, while singing penitential psalms, and trying to shake hands at the asterisks.

  3. To make/celebrate Eucharist is to link in word and action (“This is my body/do this in remembranceof me” + offering gifts of bread and wine) our present reality with the Upper Room and the ongoing life of the Trinity beyond our sight and human comprehension – the wonderful exchange of historic past, our present reality and the Vision Glorious. I’m not sure that you can do that “virtually” eucharist is made by a physically present community of faith, not just by the Communion of Saints and the Holy Catholic, Apostolic and Scruffy Church throughout the world. You need all 3. IMHO.

    Reserved Sacrament Communion may be a necessity in times of emergency or as an occassional occurence (I have asked Lay Eucharistic Minsters to do this when I have been unavailable and unable to find cover). What I have seen and disagree profoundly with is a Rector of a parish in the back pew while an RS communion is administered by lay People. That, called “empowering the laity”, was as far as I could see a diminution of the proper role of priest.

  4. I think John gives a useful description of how the Eucharist celebrated in the locality takes us directly to the experience of being in the Upper Room.

    If this is so (and it is so for me) then virtual reality is so embedded into our experience that we have simply stopped seeing that it is so. Or perhaps, to return to my theatre comparison, we suspend our disbelief.

  5. Alternatively, we’re spending too much time in front of computers and not enough with real live people where we are?:-)

  6. For me, God is so absolutely there in prayer, I don;t get much of an added sense of his thereness in communion.

    But if there is real communion, a communion of people, a real acceptance of me, and a community, even if it is a just-met community, or a community struggling to hold together, then there is something added. A real meal shared, people interacting in some way even if a troubled way, that to me adds something.

    I think perhaps I do believe very passionately in the church as the body of Christ.

    I ought to be in bed.

  7. By which I mean real HUMAN communion. In truth I doubt human communion more than I doubt communion with God. (Wry smile here, I think).

  8. Nooooo! I am so not. I am an old fashioned Lutheran. The balance is kept between congregation (where in Luther the priesthood actually lies) and whole church, which validates, contains, and encourages the congregation.

  9. I wonder if there is an aesthetic dimension here has well. The problem for me with Presbyterian/ Baptist thimble cups and little squares of bread is it just feels so tacky – a ghastly intrusion of ecclesiastical bad taste. (Like those catalogues you get sent.) Church via a computer screen is a similar aesthetic faux pas. It’s just a horrid irruption of technology into a rite whose balance and beauty has something to do with physical space.

    But maybe it is just about the live event. For the same reason I think broadcast services don’t work – it is not so much about the content communicated as the event experienced.

    Oooh. Accidental alliteration!

  10. well said. I think there is both an issue of aesthetics and sacred space. I can enjoy listening to a broadcast service — either for the hymns or the sermon; but I don’t experience it as worship.

    And certainly, when I lived in a place where I could get to church every week, it never would have occurred to me to ‘listen in’ as a substitute. Instead, there was a combination of extended quiet prayer on a Sunday, and Compline with two or three others during the week.

  11. I wonder whether Duncan’s trouble could be alleviated by the Diocesan Building’s Committee drawing up a standard casing for screens in church in the style of Ninian Comper.

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