Like many of my Pray Tell colleagues (and all those who write in any capacity on issues related to liturgy), I set aside two completed texts this week because the fast-changing reality of our lives made them irrelevant. I suspect my world is paralleled by many others: on Tuesday there were ominous warnings of what was to come (blog number one bites the dust); on Wednesday conferences and events were cancelled (blog number two bites the dust); on Thursday the university ceased all gatherings and classes and announced that, with a gap of a few days, the remaining classes of the term would go online, and on Friday came the dreaded (but not unexpected) news that all Anglican liturgies throughout our metropolitan grouping of dioceses were to be suspended (and on Saturday, the Roman diocese announced the same for Sunday masses). In an instant a pattern of life centred on teaching and corporate prayer changed.
In the big picture, this is the reality of someone whose personal health and livelihood is not compromised – the reality is very different for those in nursing homes, with compromised health, living on the streets, dependent on gig work (including many liturgical musicians), indigenous peoples in the north of Canada without adequate healthcare or places to ‘self-isolate’, and on and on. Earlier in the week the students joked that this was going to be an ominous week of daylight savings, a full moon, and Friday the 13th – how innocent last Monday seems from the perspective of the last few days…
How does this affect the liturgical life of the church, particularly for Anglicanism in North America? Social media has been overwhelming – in volume, in wisdom, and in stupidity – including suggestions for liturgy. The good news is that the liturgy of the hours, the daily office, is not completely gone in Anglican circles. While the ‘draw’ has been the musically beautiful and stylized 1662 choral evensong (especially in Church of England cathedrals), many parish communities join together for at least an occasional morning prayer and monthly evensong, and the liturgies of morning, evening, midday prayer (and often compline) are laid out in the books intended to be the common prayer of the whole church. Sometimes this tradition of prayer continues because of the obligations of clergy to pray the office, more often it is because there is no priest in a parish (especially here in Canada) and thus a lay or diaconal officiant gathers the church to pray morning prayer on Sundays in the absence of a priest (or occasionally out of preference for morning prayer).
There have been endless instructions in the last few days guiding the faithful in following and doing these official prayers at home so that they can join in the daily prayer of the church prayed around the world, “from the rising of the sun to its setting…”. Whether that be straight “from the book” or from the innumerable online sites for daily office, many Anglican Christians have had their interest piqued as a way to gather their domestic church together to pray, or to pray along with a livestreamed daily office being done by a small group in the church building. So far, so good – the irony, however, is that in the interest of being hospitable and contemporary, many parishes have removed the breadth and depth of the prayer book (and its supplements) from the hands of worshipping Christians and replaced it with a printed bulletin, or worse, projected words (rarely music) on a screen. What this means is that week after week parishioners only see and sing and do a narrow band of the church’s tradition of praying selected by an individual or a small group. The daily office, the other rites of the church, the words of private confession, the wealth of collects and litanies for all sorts of occasions, the full psalter, the occasional liturgies, the general instructions on the liturgies – these are not in peoples’ hands, literally.
At the heart of the unexpected and unwelcome ‘fast’ brought about by COVID-19, however, is the loss of the eucharistic liturgy as the primary liturgy of Sunday. It is remarkable how fast the Holy Eucharist has become the centre of Anglican weekly prayer – only a couple generations ago the normative (meaning the larger, at ‘prime time’) liturgy on Sunday would have been Morning Prayer. But large sections of Anglicanism around the world, and most especially in North America, have embraced both the fruits of the ecumenical liturgical movement and their own roots in the early church; Sunday = the day of resurrection, the eighth day, the day on which the church anticipates and enters the heavenly feast in its making eucharist to remake the church and on behalf of the whole world.
The 1979 US prayer book begins with a very clear statement: “The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church.” (13) In Canada, the official book situation is a bit more complicated as there are two liturgies, the official prayerbook is the 1962 BCP (note the 300th anniversary of 1662 but a year before the work of Vatican II which changed churches across the ecumenical landscape), and the more widely used 1985 Book of Alternative Services, heavily dependent on the 1979 US book. The beginning instructions for the 1962 Holy Communion states that “It is the duty of every confirmed person, after due preparation, to partake of the holy Communion frequently, and particularly on the greater Holy-days, of which Easter is the chief…in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, and Colleges, where there are many Priests and Deacons, they shall all receive the Communion with the Priest every Sunday at the least…(66) On the other hand, the BAS reflects the clear shift to a eucharistically centred church: “The liturgy of the Church celebrates but one mystery: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday is the weekly commemoration of that mystery of Christ. Christians gather each Sunday to celebrate, in word and sacrament, their participation in Christ. The Lord’s Day is consequently given primacy over other commemorations.” (14)
But now the public gathering of the church on Sundays is suppressed, and Holy Eucharist as the sacramental heart of the church, as mandatum of Christ: ‘do this-take and eat, take and drink’, as the “source and summit” of all our prayer, is suspended. What is the church to do? As the public health situation developed almost hourly, many bishops wrote passionately and eloquently, aided in part by many liturgical scholars doing their best to assist in addressing constantly changing situations. Frayed nerves and differing theologies have exacerbated and multiplied responses around the celebrations of the eucharist, from “everyone receives everything all together or not at all” to “livestream the eucharistic celebration and get out of it what one can from a distance” to the truly bizarre “watch online and eat some bread and drink some wine at home at the right moments…” Wading into this conversation, and clearly biased against some of the choices, I would like to suggest (and perhaps remind Anglicans) that there is a long tradition for celebrating the eucharist without everyone receiving communion, which might be helpful in our temporary eucharistic fasting. So, two theological ramifications of sacramental theology:
First, from contemporary theological conversations, not least from the contributions of Anglican sacramental theologians on these issues, the understanding of the word leitourgia is clear (in its corrected translation); it is a work done on behalf of others. We the church (as the body of Christ) – we do liturgy for others, particularly, but not limited to, the eucharist, “…the weekly commemoration of that mystery of Christ…in word and sacrament, their participation in Christ.” All the newer rites have an obligatory dismissal in varying words, such as “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” an essential reminder that we are to be Christ for the world. But perhaps it is time to also recall the anamnetic pivot (the inbetween paragraph) of most of our eucharistic prayers: “remembering, therefore, his death and resurrection, we offer you…” or “we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, Lord of all.” In ‘normal’ times – when this pandemic is over, when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist again as the Body of Christ gathered together, not every single Christian will be there – not even every member of our particular worshiping community will be there – but the liturgy is no less valid. It is still the Body of Christ, with Christ the high priest working on and through us, offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, anticipating and participating in the fulness of the reign of God yet to come.
Second, with regard to what is called ‘spiritual communion’ – a phrase often associated with the medieval practice of ocular communion by the laity – there has been a tradition since the early church of receiving spiritually when due to illness or other impediment. In situations when the oral reception of the consecrated bread and wine, or bread or wine, is not possible, the historical prayer books, have noted this communion by desire is valid ‘reception.’ Borrowed directly from the 1662, the 1962 BCP reads:
But, if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: he shall be instructed that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor: he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth. (584).
In its modern versions, the more concise instruction is: “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 1979, 457)
The Holy Eucharist, done at Christ’s command and on behalf of the world, the long theology of extraordinary spiritual communion as profiting “the soul’s health” with ”the benefits of communion received” brings me back to the title of this blog, probably long forgotten by readers at this point. The ‘ordinary’ invitation to communion in many contemporary Anglican prayer books is a particular translation of the ancient Greek call: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” Perhaps the far-less common (in Anglican circles) invitation to communion during our unexpected fast might be the medieval Latin call: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Those who know the full liturgical invitation know that what follows is “happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” drawing on Revelation 19:9. The first phrase given quotes John 1:29 and in its very incompleteness, in its missing response, seems particularly appropriate for this time of real absence. Perhaps it may help as we ‘behold’ from afar, on livestreamed liturgies, in our imaginations, in our longing to hear the words of invitation to receive once again, to fully “take and eat” and “take and drink.”