By Thomas Plant
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep cleavages within society and the Church. The suspension of public liturgies and physical distancing requirements have brought about crises of pastoral care, which are exacerbated in sacramental traditions. When the majority of lay people cannot receive the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, should they be celebrated at all? Should we find ways to expand participation in the Eucharist, perhaps via virtual consecration? Is a focus on seemingly abstract matters of sacramental theology really a good use of time and energy during a crisis, or is it just so much fiddling while Rome burns?
But now is precisely the time to revisit our eucharistic theology and with it, our understanding of the sanctity of time and place. Our understanding of the Eucharist dictates our understanding of the nature of matter as a whole, and in turn indicates proper Christian pastoral and political responses to the pandemic.
Current discourse about participation in the Eucharist is being limited far too narrowly to the reception of Communion, which is undeniably important, but unduly constricts our vision. The last major shake-up of the Church of England’s eucharistic theology happened during the First World War. Prior to this, such practices as reserving the sacrament for the sick and offering the Mass for the dead were regarded as Roman perversions. Nowadays, many Anglicans take such practices for granted. The crisis of the war prompted a shift, whereby they came to be seen as vital spiritual channels for the dying on the battlefields and their relatives at home.
Importantly, these were not just pragmatic measures for the extension of the sacrament to the maximal number of communicants. Rather, they extended the idea of participation in these celebrations to non-communicants, exemplified by those who are least able to receive the physical matter of the consecrated host: the dead. It clarified that participation in the Eucharist exceeds the bounds of oral reception.
Christians in a pre-industrial age participated in the Eucharist by broader means than reception of Communion alone. The people who attended Sunday service, and even those who did not, were those who baked the bread and made the wine, who harvested the crops and ground the wheat. Before the Reformation, this was marked even more by the blessing of those activities by the Church.
The visible contribution of the people by singing in robed choirs, by serving at the altar in guilds formed to that end, by making vestments and candles or giving money for the local poor and for the building and upkeep of churches, blurred the boundary between profane and sacred, nave and altar. Even infrequent or non-communicants would contribute to the eucharistic life of the Church, each in their way. The self-sacrificial offerings of money, time and labor were part of the eucharistic action, weaving the lives, gifts, and trades of the people into Christ’s oblation, far beyond the confines of the time of divine service or space of church walls.
Over time, the Eucharist was separated from the wider activity of a world which shared in God’s work and goodness. It had been seen as a participation in Christ’s offering of all creation through the Church. But it came to be a gift-token of the heavenly feast to be received by the faithful individual, and eventually a mere commodity.
This idea that the Eucharist is about consumption alone is the presumption which drives critics, among them clergy who identify themselves as Catholic, to demand that priests abstain from “feasting” on the sacrament during lockdown in order to share the enforced fast of the laity. These have either lost sight of or are ideologically opposed to the older metaphysics of the Eucharist as a participation in Christ’s offering of all things to the Father and, as such, the highest form of Christian prayer. The necessarily lone celebrant who understands his role as pleading Christ’s body and blood for the salvation of the world is condemned to the status of a misanthropic lone diner.
The consumerization of the Eucharist also feeds directly into the ubiquitous mantra that “the Church is about people, not buildings,” which seems so obviously true that many were surprised when the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement to that effect was met with ire.
Few have managed to articulate that ire beyond a general sense of impropriety: that sacred spaces, hallowed by prayer, matter in some way. This is met by the stock response that prayer can happen wherever we want it to, and domestic worship is a worthy substitute: even to calls that these expensive buildings, which we risk idolizing, be sold or closed forever.
Relativization of the church building questions the value of lay musicians, vestment makers, sacristans, vergers and flower-arrangers as much as that of clergy. It is assumed that churches are essentially convenient places for producing and distributing the sacramental commodity. But this rests on a utilitarian conception of materiality as bare matter, given value only by human use.
This was writ large on Easter Day when the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite having several chapels at his disposal, chose to cook up a live-streamed “Homely Communion” from his kitchen: Church as breakfast TV. Such domesticity speaks of the Church solely as a vehicle of human interaction, rather than as the vehicle for the elevation of the entire cosmos. Lost is the vision of the canticle, Benedicite omnia opera, in which the entire created order is called upon to praise and bless the Lord. Nor is much sense left to the Caeli enarrant of Psalm 19 in a world where we assume that human voices are enough to sing God’s praise, and the silence of the stones is merely an auxiliary and disposable backdrop.
Our approach to the Eucharist raises the question of what constitutes reality. Do we take the sacramental, iconic view of matter promoted, for example, by Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, or is matter just so much stuff upon which we merely impose our will? Our answer to this question has considerable political and pastoral ramifications. Politically, it informs our attitude to the disenchantment and creeping technocracy of the world, which has arguably played a part in fomenting the crisis we now endure. Pastorally, it determines whether or not we understand God primarily as the Good to whom all things, animate and inanimate, living and dead, are oriented, thereby positioning priests as iconic vehicles of participation and reconciliation in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary, rather than paternalistic dispensers of the Eucharistic product to individuals. This in turn dictates whether we see the poor and sick as capable of giving and contributing to the communal, eucharistic reality of the world and the Church, or see them as mere dependents.
So, now is exactly the time to think about the Eucharist, about church buildings, and even about vestments. When I don my chasuble and enter my makeshift oratory, I merely take up my part in the eucharistic offering, an offering in which the whole Church shares so that the whole world might share in it. Were I to neglect it, even in forced isolation from my fellow baptized Christians, I do not see how I would have anything to offer anyone at all. Crucially, the laity, too, have a part to play in that offering even when they cannot receive Holy Communion. As they pray the Divine Office, prepare and deliver food, provide jobs, serve and volunteer, do their work as teachers and nurses, they are contributing visibly and boldly to the same eucharistic action, and need to be assured of its fruits. Non-communicating masses should not become the norm, but while the lockdown continues, it is the responsibility of the priest to continue to offer the work of the laity in the world to the Father, for it is part of Christ’s work, and it is our hands by which he now makes his oblation.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Plant is chaplain of Lichfield Cathedral School, England, and Fellow of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism, where he is beginning a research project on the comparative Platonic metaphysics of Christian sacramentalism and the Muslim Akbarian tradition.