David Goodhew writes:
Coronavirus has meant the suspension of many parts of church life. One of the things we haven’t been to able do is meet to share communion. This is a very serious lack. Jesus told us to ‘do this’, yet if we do, there is a real risk of spreading the disease. Can I share with you some thoughts on what we do.
It also matters because there is a wide range of practice amongst churches on the matter. There are roughly three options:
- Some churches are not offering communion, seeing the present as a kind of ‘fast’ from communion.
- some churches stream communion services in which only the leader and their household receive the bread and wine. People viewing such services can see themselves as having ‘a spiritual communion’, whereby they are drawn closer to God through such worship, whilst recognising that they cannot receive the bread and wine since they are not physically present.
- Some churches stream communion services in which everyone watching is encouraged to bring bread and wine/grape juice, which people consume in their own homes.
These are unprecedented times. So it is important to be gracious on this matter. No one has faced a lockdown like this for centuries, nor has it ever been faced with the kind of online resources we now possess.
What is communion and why does it matter?
Depending on which church you are part of, you can find a wide range of views as to what communion is. Without getting into complex debates, let me say this. On the night before Jesus died, he met with his closest followers and broke bread with them. He commended them and us to go and do likewise, promising that as we did so he would be present in a special way. After his resurrection, Luke makes the telling point that his followers recognised Jesus ‘when he broke the bread’ (Lk 24:35). The early Christians regularly met to break bread and drink wine together in obedience to Jesus’ command that they do so (eg 1 Cor 10: 16f).
Alongside that command, we know that Christians down the ages have for various reasons had to ‘fast’ from communion in times of sickness, persecution or war. The New Testament is not clear as to how frequently a Christian should receive communion.
How important is it that we are all physically present at Communion?
There are a range of view on this! Some argue that it doesn’t matter if we are physically present or simply present via online media. I have to say I struggle with that view. I regularly talk with relatives and friends via video-conferencing. It is a lot better than nothing, but there is no way that it equates with actually being in the same room as a person. I am struck by various misunderstandings I have seen arise during coronavirus which, I suspect, would not have arisen had people been able to meet normally with one another. Watching Masterchef is not the same as eating the meal that the masterchefs prepare.
And I have to say I am uneasy about online communions:
- If it is done just by the minister and their household, that feels odd. Why should they receive when others can’t ? Should we encourage people to watch others receiving communion? Isn’t the whole point of communion that we commune with Jesus, not watch other people commune with Jesus?
- We could stream communion services in which everyone watching is encouraged to bring bread and wine, which people consume in their own homes. I am uneasy about this. Communion is a joyful, but solemn experience. The Church of England has always said that only ordained priests can lead communion. We could debate whether that is right, but I would say it is questionable whether anyone at all should act as leader – and in effect if we are having communions at home, that is what is happening. Currently, the Church of England has stated that we are not free to stream communion services in which everyone watching brings bread and wine, which they consume in their own homes. I don’t think we are at liberty to do what we wish on this one – and that is both because I am uneasy on principle, but also because I do believe we owe it to support the wider church of which we are part.
If we continue to ‘fast’ from communion, how long will the fast last ?
Good question. The short answer is ‘we don’t know.’ Clearly, we can only offer communion if we can do so safely. Equally, there is a parallel danger of shutting down key aspects of church life. Christians hold that we receive blessing when we break bread together in Jesus’ name. We should never surrender that blessing lightly
There is a great deal of ‘noise’ in the media and it would be wise not to trust everything we read in the papers. It is important to note that churches in a number of European countries have resumed worship and seem to be able to do safely.
If the virus returns, it could be a while, if it doesn’t, we may be able to offer limited access to communion in a month or two. A separate question is what happens to people who are being shielded for the long term. If we had a scenario where the bulk of people were able to receive communion, but some were shielded, we would need to think carefully about ways of ensuring such people could receive communion somehow. I think we could find a way to share communion safely with those who are shielding at home. If we can get groceries to them, we can get communion to them !
St Barnabas is part of the Church of England. That means we agree to follow Church of England guidance on such matters. We may not always agree with that guidance, but there is a strong and good rationale for respecting the wider church and being wary of just making up our own policy. The churches of the New Testament were urged by Paul and others to see themselves as ‘one body’ and not individual units who did what they pleased.
Beyond that, policy on communion is a matter for the vicar and PCC. Whilst it is important that I put down my thoughts, I am very concerned to hear the thoughts of others. This is a difficult time and a complex issue. So, if you have feelings on this matter, one way or the other, please do share them with me.
What is God Teaching us at this time ?
Wherever you stand on this, I think it is possible to see the current debates over communion as a time when God is teaching us something.
As we struggle with not receiving communion, God encouraging us to be more thankful for the gift that communion is. When we do get back to church, we will receive the bread and wine with fresh thanksgiving. And that should mean a fresh desire to encourage all people to receive communion. If our lives are poorer without it, so are theirs.
Is God encouraging us to rethink how we understand communion ? Whether you are ‘high’ or ‘low’, Jesus said ‘do this’. And he didn’t say that of many things. I think we need to ponder afresh what we are doing in his name.