By The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
I have often told the story to newcomers in our Basics classes, that I found the Episcopal Church through the rite of Morning Prayer. This part of the Daily Office was the way in which my “Intro to Worship” cohort began each morning class at my very Evangelical college, at our desks, candles lit, praying the Office in community before the morning’s lesson began. For one whole semester my liturgical and theological world expanded to include a tradition that was simultaneously a foreign land and a new home. Around this time I also began worshipping regularly at a local church whose roots were the same as my college, deeply Wesleyan. What was different in this parish from my prior church experiences was the regular administration and distribution on Sundays of Holy Communion. As a nominal Evangelical, I had never been in a church that regularly celebrated Eucharist. The experience was both transformational and something akin to addictive. I craved the ritual, and the experience of coming together with my faith community around the table and around the Body and Blood. When I left college, enriched by these experiences, I was gifted a Book of Common Prayer by my professors, and I began my long journey within Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church. I’ve never looked back. In the Episcopal Church I found these two spiritual anchors – the Daily Office, and weekly Eucharist – at every faith community I attended. So it is that these past five months have been the longest I have gone with out receiving Eucharist in my adult life. I am will to guess the same is true for many if not most of you.
In some corners of the wider church, this absence from the sacrament is likened to a fast – a time of intentional abstaining from the central meal of our faith. Such fasting is framed as being a part of an intentional choice, an act of love to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. However, as one of our members pointed out, such a long absence from the Eucharist, especially when we haven’t chosen that absence, but, rather, experience it as being pushed on us by forces beyond our control, feels more like a famine. I can empathize. While the option to gather outside for Eucharist is currently available to us, as Saint Paul says, so applies here, “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” To gather now, even outdoors in the lowest risk environment, still presents life and death risks for some. Right now your vestry and I are not willing to put any lives at risk. Example after example of gatherings happening indoors and out of doors, resulting in the spread of Covid-19, are evidence that when we gather in person we are not able to ensure the safety of all. And, in the case of worship, members of the Body of Christ should not have to discern between a desire to receive the sacrament and their own safety. As such, until the pandemic is deemed passed or the vestry changes their view and the risk is deemed low enough, we will not be gathering for worship. Fast or famine, we are not able to come to safely offer Eucharist for all who want it.
You might wonder, because in the wider church, especially outside of the Episcopal tradition, there is a wide variety of so-called communion practices happening during the pandemic, why we are not offering communion in one of these innovative ways. While the Episcopal Church makes some accommodation for celebrating and distributing communion during the pandemic, I found the following from a former liturgics professor at my alma mater, The General Theological Seminary, to be a helpful explanation for the current liturgical position we’ve taken at St. John’s. We will be studying Eucharist in Advent and using the Rev’d Dr. James Farwell’s book, The Liturgy Explained as one of our resources for that study. In the midst of the ongoing debates around virtual communion and communion during Covid, he wrote this:
Like many other sacramental theologians schooled in the fundamentals of the liturgical renewal, I take the Christian assembly to be a constitutive element of the sacramentality of Eucharist. Receiving it in body as one of, and alongside of, an assembly of bodies gathered at one shared altar as an (eschatological) new community that felicitously undermines our social adhesion with biological family and affinity groups is central to its meaning, not peripheral. Our gathering is not an addition to sacramental presence in bread and wine, nor the circumstantial occasion at which it is permissible for a priest to confect some presence with magic hands and magic words. Therefore “Virtual Eucharist” doesn’t do it. Whether it “really is” or “isn’t” the Body and Blood of Christ is the least of my concerns and misses the point. “Digital presence” of bodies in separate rooms is not Eucharistic embodiment. Nor does lay presidency in homes, nor drive-through administration, nor disinfected mail-out wafers sufficiently attain the ritual proxemics necessary to Eucharistic performance in bodies with the Body. That embodied gathering is co-extensive with the significance of full sacramental presence. It is why when we take the Eucharistic elements to the sick, we do so FROM the assembly’s communion, before the rite concludes. The exception in this case proves the rule.
To be sure, as our Associate Rector kindly reminded me, it is in the Eucharist at the point of the “Epiclesis” (that moment in the Eucharistic Prayer when the Celebrant bids the Holy Spirit to descend upon and sanctify the elements of Communion) that we are called to be fully present alongside the bread and wine as we pray “Sanctify us also, that we may faithfully receive…” Lest you think this a lot of theological jargon, the central point is worth repeating – being together, literally, in the body, is not an accident, but rather central to Eucharist. As if to prove the point, is the reality that, for the majority of us, the desire to receive Eucharist is on par with our desire to be WITH one another, in the flesh. Episcopalians have long affirmed that the Eucharist is more than a disembodied, spiritualized, communing with God and each other. We have long affirmed that Eucharist becomes the very “real presence” of the Body of Christ. While we may debate how that happens, it is true that the Body is discerned both in the bread which we break and in the congregation gathered to receive that broken bread.
What is also true, though, is that despite the centrality and even necessity of Eucharist, our faith is also nourished through the spiritual connections we share and through the discipleship life in which each Christian is called to walk. When I left college, I knew that even when Morning Prayer was not offered in a church building or even when I couldn’t find other Christians with whom to pray the Office, I still had access to the rite and the benefits bestowed by it, on my own, in my solitary spiritual life. Even more, I knew that through the Daily Office, through regular prayer and study of scripture, I was not alone, in fact I was NEVER alone. Through these acts, like the gathering for Eucharist, I was in fact connected across time and space with Christians in every age and in every place who were praying, studying, and growing in faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Which is to say that even when Christians have not been able to come to God’s table to receive the Body and the Blood, we have still found the spiritual nourishment we needed in the wilderness, even in a famine such as we are experiencing. The feeding of the five thousand, the story we have only just heard two Sundays ago, the story of Manna in the wilderness, the story of the widow’s jar of flour never running out, are just a few examples of God’s provision, of God sustaining God’s people in places of deep physical and spiritual need. Indeed, the strong tradition of the Daily Office prayed on Sundays in places like Saint John’s as was the case up until this decade, is proof that Episcopalians have long been sustained and nourished by the rites and liturgies of daily prayer and scripture, especially in times of necessity when sacraments could not be celebrated, and, even when they could.
This is not to say that the Eucharist is any less central, necessary, or important to our spiritual life. It is not to pretend that a famine is anything to be enjoyed or celebrated. But it is to say that God will supply, that though we crave the Body and Blood, to know not just in our hearts and minds, but in our very bodies, the real presence of God, we are even now being sustained and given the food we need in this dry and trying time. As a priest, being apart from the celebrating and sharing in Eucharistic life for such a long season, has been one of the most trying times of my faith and ministry. While I could show example after example of how transmission of Covid-19 happened when churches gathered, even with precautions, I hope it will suffice to say that at this moment, we cannot safely gather ALL of us together. Again, as Farwell writes,
…what we enact in Word and Sacrament is the basileia tou theou [Kingdom of God] in which love of God and neighbor are the conjoined keystone. And love of God and neighbor are now served by NOT GATHERING. Service to public health IS LEITOURGIA right now. … Not to gather is the Way of Love. Along that way, let us continue to pray for one another and for the day we may gather again. In the meantime, the Resurrected Crucified One still reigns and moves among us.
And, while we are apart, know that your clergy join you, your vestry joins you, I join you, in a collective yearning for that day when we shall ALL gather together again at God’s table, shoulder to shoulder, side to side, in the flesh, and voices and breath mingling in the shared space and air, rejoice to again receive that which is life and health for all who will take it, the bread of heaven and cup of salvation.