By Curt Norman
Churches across the United States are returning to in-person worship following more than a year of gathering primarily online. Physical distancing created a particular dilemma for Episcopalians. The Book of Common Prayer states that the principal act of worship for the Church is the Holy Eucharist (p. 13). How would a Eucharist-centered people endure a time like no other without the nourishment which provides both solace and strength?
The involuntary fast from Holy Communion started the church talking about the validity of eucharistic worship in online assemblies. Considering the advent of hybrid worship, how the church engages this conversation matters.
Once ecclesiastical lockdown began, some Episcopal faithful advocated for so-called virtual communion. But Presiding Bishop Michael Curry stated in his “Word to the Church” in late March 2020 that the Sacraments “… are physical and social realities that are not duplicatable in the virtual world.” Yet the question remained: what is a Eucharist-centered community to do when it cannot receive the sacrament physically?
Episcopalians yearn for the benefits of Holy Communion: the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life (BCP, pp. 859-60). We trust, too, in Christ’s ability to reach the faithful through the sacrament despite barriers of illness and, dare we say, pandemic. The following rubric from the prayer book’s Ministration to the Sick undergirds this hope:
If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP, p. 457)
The emerging hybrid church would do well to connect these theological dots in light of the historic importance of the relatively obscure practice of eucharistic adoration, more specifically the somewhat extracanonical rite of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book. Benediction is a service of sight and sound. It offers the benefits of Holy Communion without the recipient needing to use the senses of touch, taste, and even smell (except that of the incense), much in the same way a sick person benefits from the sacrament without physically receiving it.
Thus, praying Benediction in an online format may be the closest the church can come to offering valid eucharistic worship virtually. Benediction and Adoration may also be the anchors which keep the church’s eucharistic theology from drifting in a sea of virtual virtualism. And while Benediction remains somewhat “niche” within Anglican circles, it remains a historically well-grounded practice, worthy of a contemporary revival.
The early church believed strongly in real presence, which led to the practice of reserving the sacrament so that those who could not attend the celebration of the Eucharist because of illness, infirmity, or imprisonment could receive the sacrament when visited by a deacon.
As John Hardon, from whom I’m drawing in the next several paragraphs, surveys: from the practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament evolved private and public prayers in the presence of the body and blood of Christ, as well as early monastics reserving the Eucharist in their cells. While the initial idea was for the monk/nun to give themselves Holy Communion, their strident belief in and reverence for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist prompted them to cultivate additional devotions involving the sacrament. They carried the Blessed Sacrament with them as they went about their daily lives, a practice which continued even when monasticism changed from solitary to communion life. The carrying of the Blessed Sacrament was sanctioned by the custom of the fermentum. Traced back to A.D. 120, fermentum involves a particle of the eucharistic bread transported from the bishop of one diocese to the bishop of another diocese. The bishop who was the recipient of the fermentum could consume the gifted eucharistic bread at the next solemn Mass celebrated as a sign of unity between the dioceses.
The church gave liturgical structures to eucharistic adoration beginning around the 11th century, after Berengar of Tours (999-1088), archdeacon of Angers in France, began to raise doubts of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In response, Pope Gregory VII appears to have been the first to speak dogmatically about Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, writing:
I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.
In the 13th century, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi, stressing how the love of Christ desired to dwell physically with humanity until the end of time. Thomas Aquinas, commissioned by Pope Urban IV, composed a liturgy for Corpus Christi which we know as the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Eucharistic adoration in the Church of England had become quite common by the end of the 14th century. Yet in the wake of the Reformation in England, reserving the eucharistic elements grew rare, especially when Articles XXV and XXVIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles denounced transubstantiation and discouraged the worship or carrying in procession of the Eucharist.
The Oxford Movement pushed back against Article XXV. Anglican Tractarian John Keble believed that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist engendered natural piety among the baptized. The Anglican Sisterhood of St. Margaret, founded in the mid-1850s by John Mason Neale, is credited with reviving the practice of continuous reservation of the Eucharist so that the faithful could make visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Members of the Sisterhood, themselves, made daily visits to the Eucharist, all of which eventually led the community to introducing what was considered then the distinctly Roman Catholic rite of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
In 1975 Anglican Theologian John Macquarrie wrote:
It is true that Benediction has now less prominence than it once had in Catholic worship, but it would be sad indeed if this service were to be undervalued for it is a very helpful item in our spiritual heritage and it has special contributions to make toward building up the life of prayer and devotion in these busy noisy times in which we live.
Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are still not prominent in the Episcopal Church. But as the Way of Love leads us into the virtual mission field, it is imperative to remember that Christianity is an incarnational faith. Pondering anew the theology and history of the Blessed Sacrament increases our reverence for what it means to be truly and genuinely present with God and one another. Incorporating Benediction and adoration into our personal and corporate prayer lives deepens our assurance of how Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, especially when we find ourselves distant from the Church, physically or otherwise.
The Rev. Curt Norman is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saginaw, Michigan. He currently studies congregational development in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation.