Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Holy Communion anew

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
5 July 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

On Easter Day, I was among the 13,000 people who watched the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrate Holy Communion at home

This was the Anglican Communion’s first ever digital only Easter Day service and was “premiered” on YouTube and Facebook.

The Archbishop celebrated Holy Communion at his kitchen table with cooker, toaster and radio behind him

However, there was, obviously, no way that he could distribute the elements to those watching on-line

He had to consume them himself

I was intrigued as to the theology behind this celebration which was addressed, in part, by an amended Eucharistic prayer which stated

“Since I cannot receive you sacramentally, I ask you to come spiritually into my heart”

In these straightened times, Eucharist theology had to be adapted to enable a digital celebration

This was a fairly radical departure from the Eucharistic norm

Holy Communion is, at its heart, a common meal where we meet together just as the disciples met together in the Upper Room two thousand years ago

But this meal has manifested itself in a myriad of different styles throughout the ages

As one commentator remarked

“How is it that such diversity was generated from within what was simply the pattern of Jewish table fellowship 2000 years ago?”

This is a difficult question to answer across the centuries, but easy to answer in our present age

We have created, yet another, diverse tradition because we are in the midst of a pandemic

We have no option, first to go on-line and then to offer a very restricted service in Church, as we do today

In a sense, we are half in and half out

Clearly, although the elements are consecrated, they cannot be consumed without risk of infection

A common cup would be madness as would the sharing of one bread

However, although this is far from the ideal, this does not undermine the celebration

First of all, this is not without precedent

A service without consumption of the elements is not unique, even in our current age

I have been reading an excellent account of the Eucharist by the former Archbishop of Sweden Yngve (Ingwin) Brilioth,

Writing about the Anglican Church in post war England, he noted that in some Anglo Catholic Churches there was:

no communion of the people”

And went on to say … “The priest alone receives”

Whilst acknowledging that this was not ideal, he pointed out that

“The worshippers must be content with their spiritual communion and use the service as a focus for their devotion and their prayers”

This was the point that the Archbishop of Canterbury was making in his on-line celebration

As he said in the Communion prayer:

“Since I cannot receive you sacramentally, I ask you to come, spiritually, into my heart”

But I take issue with my learned commentator about the Eucharist, without consumption of the elements, simply being a “spiritual communion” with which we “must be content”

It is indeed so much more

The elements at the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, are understood to be the very body and blood of our Lord

As the president of the Eucharist, I pronounce at the very beginning of the institution

“The Lord be with you”

And then in the words of consecration, I say

“This is my body, this is my blood”

These are not just hollow words

Just as the Holy Spirit descends on the elements, so our Lord is present in our midst

And Christ’s presence with us at the Eucharist, is Christ’s presence with us as a worshipping community

That is why, as a worshipping community, we are described as the “Body of Christ”.

The elements at the Eucharist act as a mirror 

We bask in that reflection and the reflected glory inspires and sustains us in our Christian lives

As St Augustine of Hippo said:  “You are the bread on the altar. Be what you see”

I have one final image which might help us understand our celebration of the Eucharist in our present times

I was discussing the restrictions on the Eucharist with a parishioner whilst I was writing my sermon

As with so often in parish life, the Gospel is opened up and enriched by our conversations together

So often, we understand not individually, but collectively

She reminded me of the story in Luke’s Gospel of the woman who was healed when she touched the hem of Christ’s robes

She did not touch his body but simply touched the hem of his robe

We too, in these straightened times are unable to touch the body of our Lord

However, like the woman in Luke’s Gospel, we too don’t have to touch the body

All we have to do is touch him at the very margins

And if we do, we too can be recipients of God’s loving grace and mercy

And so in this time of pandemic, when we depart from the Eucharistic norm- some of us in Church, others listening at home

We not only make our Communion, spiritually, but experience Christ’s presence amongst us and his healing in our lives, through the consecration of the bread and the wine alone

As the Prayer Book says, and as the woman in Luke’s Gospel knows

If we simply offer ourselves in penitence and faith then we too may 

“eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ”

However and wherever we celebrate Holy Communion, it can never be diminished.