Almost as soon as the current Corona virus restrictions were put into place, the discussion started: what about Holy Communion/ Eucharist? (How) can we still celebrate it?
For some in a non-conformist tradition, there is scarcely an issue to consider here. A very relaxed attitude to a memorial act requires no new theology, merely a pragmatic response to the impracticality of ‘sharing’ it when not physically together.
But for those in the Church of England (and perhaps other Anglican traditions), with its mixed understanding of the sacrament, there was much to be chewed over. A limited sample of the discussions would be those by Ian Paul and Lindsay Llewellyn, as well as countless threads on social media.
Some of the questions they wrestle with are seeking to get to the heart of the matter: what does it mean today to invoke Jesus’ words ‘this is my blood’ or to follow Jesus’ command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.
But I have been wrestling with a quite distinct question which is this: what is at stake? I need to tell a brief story in order to explain.
Last summer I attended a conference on Hebrew poetry, at which Rabbi Shai Held gave a paper on Psalm 88. He espoused a particular reading of it, with a specific verse serving as the crux interpretum. I was unable to accept his reading of the psalm and expressed this to him afterwards.
His response was immediate: ‘What’s at stake for you?’ He pressed me further: ‘Why does it matter to you to stick with your own reading of the psalm?’
I was a bit taken aback but managed to think on my feet and offer a rationale for my point of view that took account of my background and perspectives that shaped it. It was one of those eye-opening moments, when I saw with clarity that my point of view was not a simple deduction, nor an objectively argued point, but an outlook borne of particular needs, hopes and desires, tinted by the lens of my own personal life experience.
After a pause, I returned the favour. ‘So, Shai, what’s at stake for you? Why do you want to read the psalm your way?’ I’m not sure he was expecting that, but graciously responded and did his own thinking on his feet. He then seemed to have his own moment of revelation, as he made a connection between his reading of the psalm and his personal history.
So the interpretation of the psalm was not a detached ‘academic’ exercise. We both clearly recognised that we were personally involved and invested in the process. For each of us, something was at stake.
So, back to Holy Communion during the lockdown.
I was astonished at the rapidity with which questions were being asked (and continue), particularly amongst the evangelical circles where I tend to have most contacts. My surprise arose for two reasons:
- a ‘low’ or ‘evangelical’ theology of Holy Communion (or ‘Lord’s Supper’) would not normally emphasise its necessity. Indeed, Communion services tend to be less frequent in the churches with ‘lower’ traditions. This is in contrast to the ‘high’ Eucharistic theology of the Catholic tradition which might regard the sacrament as a means of grace for which there is no alternative;
- it is only within the last hundred years that regular weekly parish communion services became common place. Some older folk will still recall when Matins and Evensong were the mainstay of Sunday worship. And there have been significant traditions, scattered through church history, of receiving Holy Communion only on a few occasions in the year.
Hence my astonishment at other people’s felt need to ask the question about Holy Communion during the lockdown. My immediate reaction to the situation was that it’s not a big deal if we don’t have any Holy Communion services for, say, a few months. And other people have better articulated a theological rationale for that perspective, including Julie Gittoes’ frank piece in this week’s Church Times.
But the matter I want to focus on is what is at stake? What shaped my immediate reaction? I need to understand the context and perspective from which I approach the issue, if I am going to think deeply and honestly about it.
As an illustration of that mode of thought, here is my rough answer: I am cautious and conservative by nature. I am strongly influenced by Reformed theology that is keen to distinguish itself from Catholic sacramental theology. I like stability, clarity and simplicity and am thus averse to new practices and ‘messiness’. Theologically, that means that I tend to give greater weight to matters of ‘order’ than to (pastoral) ‘accommodation’.
The detail of that is not too important. What matters is that it illustrates the kind of self-reflection that is demanded if I am to critique my own thinking – noting the purposes and motives that it serves – and thus legitimately critique others’ thinking too.
So my question to anyone who has thought about celebrating Holy Communion during lockdown is this: why does it matter to you at all? What is the heart of the matter? What is at stake?
To answer that question (for yourself) might provide a new window into your needs, hopes and desires, as well as your theology of the sacrament.