By Kevin J Moroney
When the coronavirus made it apparent that public church services all over the world could no longer occur, church leaders scrambled to provide continuity through live streamed services.
As we settle into our new normal, we are discussing exactly what we are doing and what is appropriate during this time of separation. These discussions are all the more pointed as we realize that our time apart will be much longer than initially assumed.
This paper is one liturgical theologian’s attempt to reflect on what it can mean to be the Church for an extended period of time when we will be gathering virtually. I do not believe that there is only one way to respond to this crisis. It is important to respect those who have made different choices. This is a time to work together, particularly with our bishops, rather than split into parties.
In his books, Early Christian Worship and Two Ways of Praying, Paul Bradshaw shows how the history of Christian worship has always been informed by two broad traditions: that of the town or city, and that of the desert or wilderness. The city gave us constructed sacred space, trained clergy, large gatherings, and celebratory Eucharists. Most of our Sunday worship today is shaped by that tradition. The desert was more lay-oriented, people praying the psalms through the day for spiritual formation. Our prayer books and the Daily Office bear witness to this.
What unifies the two traditions is the presence of Christ. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, identified four modes of Christ’s presence: the minister, the sacraments (all, not just the Eucharist), the Word, and the assembly (no. 7). During this time without reception, it is crucial to embrace the truth of Christ’s presence, not only in the Eucharist, but also in the Word and assembly.
I believe that virtual attendance truly constitutes an assembly of the baptized. The Association for Theological Schools, which accredits all our seminaries, accepts virtual class attendance toward credit hours; and I have received enough feedback from the members of the church where I currently serve to conclude that they truly are a part of a streamed service. With that said, virtual attendance does have an impaired quality compared to physical presence, a real but not full presence.
The main point is for us to worship in Christ’s and one another’s presence, as we are now able, and it is no theological novelty to suggest that Christ is truly present in each way we worship. Some of us are seeking that presence by moving toward the desert with Morning Prayer, and some of us are seeking that presence by following Holy Eucharist services. In each case our leaders are wrestling with how to know that presence in the face of non-reception. In this we are united, and I believe this is also where we see the larger questions at play.
Those who celebrate the entire rite of the Eucharist virtually have asked whether the sacrament might somehow be distributed. First, I urge us not to practice drive-by communion. We are committed to social distancing. Replacing the altar rail with a car window still allows the possibility of communicating the virus along with the sacrament. Secondly, virtual consecration is not possible under the rubrics of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (pp. 334 & 362), which require the celebrant to physically touch what is being consecrated. Thirdly, what is called Spiritual Communion is provided for in a lengthy rubric on page 457 of the Prayer Book for someone who “desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to drink the Bread and the Wine …” So while Spiritual Communion exists, the Prayer Book does not intend it to address our present crisis.
Some may draw on the spirit of the rubric to support spiritual communion and I am not judging that, but I must add that the rubric does not say that or anything like “some other appropriate reason.” We may eventually want to consider adding something like that, but in this time I have a concern that it can unintentionally rationalize away the lament of not receiving.
As we move through this time, and theology meets practice, rubrics may change. But unless and until that happens, we will always return to the question of how to worship without receiving Communion for an extended period of time. For those who are currently praying Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion, decisions will have to be made about switching to the Eucharist at least on days like Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, I suggest including a prayer that both celebrates our ability to gather virtually and laments the separation that makes sacramental Communion impossible.
I offer the following for use and modification (with the approval of your bishop):
Celebrant and people together, in place of the Post-Communion Prayer
Lord of the Feast, we thank you for gathering us as your people. We call to remembrance the many times we have been fed at your table and we lament our distance now. Be present Lord Jesus as you were present with your disciples, be known to us in the breaking of the bread, and may your Holy Spirit sustain us and all your Church until we can gather together again. We ask this for the sake of your love. Amen.
For those using Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion, I offer this modified General Thanksgiving:
God of all mercies,
we your children give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your presence,
that as we lament our separation during this time of disease,
we may continually show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. AMEN.
It may be that, as we move through this crisis, we develop ways to communicate our people in ways that are safe. Until that time, I suggest themes of gathering, presence and lament as ways to acknowledge the disruption while remaining faithful to the worship of both city and desert.
The Rev. Canon Kevin J Moroney, PhD is the associate professor in the H. Boone Porter Chair of Liturgics at General Theological Seminary.