Eucharist in the Time of COVID
Beloved in Christ,
Since the time of the apostles, the Holy Eucharist has been the principal act Christian worship, a fact that our tradition recovered in and through the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It has become deeply ingrained in our spiritual lives and imagination as Episcopalians. I have heard from so many of you about how much you and your people miss regular celebration of, and participation in, that sacrament. As we pass the nine month mark of the pandemic, and enter fully into the Minnesota winter, I have also begun to receive a number of questions about Eucharistic practices that are or are not allowed in this season. I write today to offer what I hope is a welcome invitation to theological reflection, as well as some practical guidelines for sacramental worship.
It is important to bear in mind that Holy Eucharist is primarily the work of the gathered community of disciples. It is a sure and certain way of incarnating the reality of Jesus’ promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” The sacrament of the Eucharist is only possible through God’s gift of koinonia, the community of believers who give and receive God’s love with and through one another. For that reason, in the Anglican tradition, priests have never been permitted to celebrate the Eucharist alone, but only when at least one other person is present. The Eucharist without the physical presence of the community of disciples is nonsensical. God’s gift of communion can only be known in and through community.
Many in our diocese have made the decision to essentially keep a Eucharistic fast, and not celebrate the Eucharist until it is safe for the majority of people to participate once again. This is a commendable approach and invites us to fully embrace the rich resources we have that allow for deep and meaningful encounters with Jesus that do not depend on the sacraments. Recovery of the Eucharist’s centrality means we often forget the wide variety of other ways our tradition has developed for grounding our common life in God’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ. The daily office, dwelling in scripture together, sacred study, and contemplative prayer practices are often underused resources in our tradition that can enrich our experience of God’s presence and love when our ability to gather to celebrate the sacraments is limited.
Others, however, have determined that continuing to offer the Eucharist is an important part of tending to the spiritual life of a faith community. This is also a commendable a valid approach, and the focus of this communication.
With the disruption of our ability to gather, a number of novel Eucharistic practices have emerged around the Christian world: virtual communion, drive-in Eucharists, delivering communion to people’s doorsteps, and even mailing the sacrament to the faithful.
The challenge presented by many these practices is that they risk separating the act of receiving the Eucharistic bread and wine from the work of the gathered assembly. When the reception of communion is removed too far from our obligation to, and participation in, the community, it centers a spirituality of consumerism and displaces the spirituality of community. The cultural waters we swim in push us to see life as a matter of getting our needs met and fulfilling our own desires; in contrast, the way of Jesus invites us to die to ourselves for the sake of becoming a beloved community. As Christians, we share not only our lives, but our very identities, as we belong to one another in the Body of Christ. It is important that our Eucharistic practices reinforce that reality.
The Book of Common Prayer authorizes a form for “Communion Under Special Circumstances” (BCP, 396), which is most commonly used for communion with the hospitalized and the homebound. This form, however, is less about taking communion to someone as much as it is about bringing them into the gathered assembly. The assembly celebrates Eucharist together, and then lay or ordained representatives of the assembly share that communion with those physically unable to be present as a way of bringing them into the koinonia. By having representatives who were present in the assembly deliver communion to those unable to be present, the focus of Eucharist remains centered in the gift and reality of the gathered assembly.
With this in mind, and after consulting with a number of other bishops and the Presiding Bishop’s office, I want to encourage those of you for whom it feels like a fit to make broad use of the already authorized rite for Communion Under Special Circumstances. Below I have tried to clarify what is currently permitted, and suggest a few ways our faith communities might make use of this rite in a way that allows for creative approaches to our current limitations, while staying grounded in the sacramental theology we have inherited.
Spiritual communion is the practice of observing a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, either virtually or in person, and being assured of receiving the spiritual benefits of communion without physically consuming the bread and wine. This concept is well established in our tradition, and authorized by the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, 457). You can use this prayer for spiritual communion:
In union, blessed Jesus, with the faithful gathered at every altar of your Church where bread and wine are offered, and remembering particularly my own faith community, I offer praise and thanksgiving for creation and all the blessings of this life. I also give thanks for the redemption won for us by your life, death, and resurrection, for the means of grace and the hope of glory, and for the blessings given me: [please add particular blessings for which you wish to give thanks].
I believe that you are present in the Holy Sacrament. While I cannot receive communion at this time, I know that you are always with me. Help me embrace you with all my heart, soul, and mind. Give me the strength and courage to participate in your work to heal and redeem your world until I come to your glorious Kingdom and unending peace.
After a livestream or recorded liturgy, clergy and/or Eucharistic Visitors are permitted to go people’s homes to pray the short form for Communion Under Special Circumstances, outside at people’s doors, with masks and physical distancing observed.
A drive-up communion would entail everyone who would like to receive communion at the same time, and either standing outside or in their cars, pray the form of Communion Under Special Circumstances together.
If these practices are adopted, it is, of course, critical to observe mask wearing and physical distancing, and to deliver the sacrament in a way that does not require multiple persons touching it (i.e., using compostable cups or prepackaged communion wafers, etc.).
Grace and peace,
The Right Reverend Craig Loya
Episcopal Church in Minnesota