Applying to today – can we share communion during the pandemic?
So, this is the bit that you’ve been waiting for. What do I think about sharing communion during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Is it okay to do it? Whilst the conclusion is specific to this situation, there may be further implications particularly as we care for the housebound and isolated in the future. However, I did not want to rush to this point and simply give an opinion. Hopefully you will be able to see my working out and why I have reached this conclusion. Indeed, by doing this, even if you disagree with my conclusions, hopefully you will have found food, encouragement and challenge in what I have written. I hope as well, that you will have seen that this is something it is okay to differ on. Decisions here as on may other things do not necessarily touch on the Gospel itself.
First of all, I think that we can rule some things out as they simply do not do justice to what communion represents. The idea that I simply sit by myself, eat bread, drink wine and think of Jesus clearly fails to do justice to the idea that this is God’s people together sharing a meal that sustains them on the journey.
I also would strongly advise against serving communion in one kind. Whilst that might not be immediately a problem, it may become an issue again when we return to meeting together if there are still concerns and restrictions in place. The idea of just sharing the bread and withholding the wine is rooted in an ideology that separates priest from people and links to a theology that treats the bread and wine as a re-offering of Christ as sacrifice in the elements. There is indeed a redundant skittishness in the fear of wine being spilt or taken away. Finally, in terms of the physical representation and enacting the Gospel, it is striking that the bread is what symbolises are unity as a body whilst the wine specifically is about receiving from Christ’s cup the blessings of the covenant won by his death.
Therefore, whilst there is a beautiful imagery in the sharing of one cup, I note first of all that many churches are already relaxed about sharing multiple wafers or a few bread rolls. They say the words “Though we are many we are one because we share in the one bread” and that doesn’t seem to cause a problem with them using more than one loaf. Furthermore only in the smallest of church gatherings are you likely to stick with one literal cup. Rather those who share a cup are likely to have a number of challises that are share around. Therefore, when there are hygiene and health concerns, I would rather have individual cups so all can drink than withdrawing the cup altogether.
Thirdly, I believe that the idea of watching a priest on face-book going down to the church building and doing the eucharist is an anathema. It takes us back to the days when the priest performed the mass as a sacrifice whilst the people watched at a distance.
Having said that, I believe that it is possible to share communion together even whilst spread out and dependent on the internet. Here is why. I believe that church is about gathering God’s people together and so we should make every effort to help people to gather. However, exactly because we live in the now and the not yet, things will never be ideal. There are limitations to our ability to fully participate in the gathered assembly. For example, those with hearing and sight loss will struggle to see or hear everything. Sometimes the architecture of our buildings make it difficult for everyone to see and hear everyone (indeed, a large church of more than 150 is unlikely to be a place where everyone knows and relates to everyone). We do what we can to reduce the impact of these barriers, we provide large print words, sound systems, projection screens and loop systems. Even still, there are members of the church family who are housebound. I hope that we pay attention to how we link them into the gathering of God’s people.
I am not Gnostic, I believe the physical gathering, the body experience is important and so we should work as hard as possible to make that possible. However, I recognise that until Christ returns there will be no ideal gathering. Indeed, given the Old Testament emphasis on the people all gathering at the Temple, and what exactly it means to be part of the one body, whilst the local church may be responsible for overseeing our communion services, what it represents is not so much our connection to the local church but our connection through Christ to the church, worldwide. We eat the meal in this way now, proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. In this life, our communion meals will always fall short. We always eat with longing, hungry expectation of the better feast to come when Christ returns for his bride. Then we will eat all together.
Furthermore, I believe that the distinction of scattered exile as curse from the scattered spreading out as multiplication and blessing pushes against the insistence that we exclude people from sharing in the bread and wine due to isolation. Exile cut people off from the Tree of Life, exile cut people off from the sacrifice, meals and festivals at the Temple. Is the message we seek to send to church members that this time of physical isolation is through punishment. Does this isolation mean spiritual death as we withdraw those outward physical representations of life and nourishment?
Therefore, my recommendation is that we should find a way of sharing communion. It isn’t the most ideal format. We would prefer to be sharing in one bread and one cup all together. We will continue to hunger and thirst for that but until then we should do everything we can to get as close as possible to the experience of physical gathering.
Practically, I suggest we try to use conferencing systems where there can be interaction and where we can see each other whenever we break bread together. I also propose that each household gets bread and wine/grape juice (or equivalent) and shares together.
I appreciate that this is a long way short of ideal but that is also the nature of life together now. As we hunger for a better day than this, we should all the more hunger for that better day still.
 I use the word “necessarily” because it is possible to interpret and apply second order issues in such a way as to have an impact on first order, gospel issues.