Brief Book Review: Holy Communion in Contagious Times

Holy Communion in Contagious Times:
Celebrating the Eucharist in the Everyday and Online Worlds
By Richard A. Burridge

What did I hope to learn? During the COVID pandemic my congregation, along with congregations throughout the world, was compelled to explore ways of worshipping that did not contravene the public health orders and directives concerning gatherings of any sort.  Congregations familiar with more conventional technology, e.g., books and sound systems, now had to consider how to use digital technology and the internet to reach not only our regular congregants but to reach out to an audience that may not have had much or any experience of Christian worship.

For those Christians in traditions deeply rooted in catholic spirituality and eucharistic worship, the restrictions placed on communal gatherings were particularly difficult to navigate and, in some places, generated public opposition. Further, the use of digital technology raised theological questions about the relationship between physical space and virtual space. We began to ask questions about the work of the Spirit in effecting the sacramental presence of Christ and what, if any, are the limits to that work in time and space.

In reading this book I was hoping to listen in on how the Church of England, in the opinion of Burridge, navigated these waters and what the questions and implications are for the future of eucharistic worship in my own social and ecclesial context. I was not disappointed.

What is the main point of the book? Burridge is exploring the relationship between the “requirements for holy communion in the so-called ‘real’, material, and everyday universe” and “the possibilities afforded by the so-called ‘virtual’ world of online digital services” (pp. 274, 275). His explorations begin with the ways that congregations attempted using existing technology and theological resources to comply with the health restrictions. From this starting point Burridge begins a wide-ranging tour of the digital means, whether simple video broadcasts to avatars. In every step he uses examples and commentary from communities other than his own Anglican context and derives common principles that facilitate conversation.

Why is this book useful? Simple honesty compels me to say that what we have learned and experienced during the COVID pandemic has influenced and will continue to influence how we worship, even when the doors are open and all health restrictions have been withdrawn. The genie is out of the bottle. What is required is thoughtful conversation rather than debate and conflict. My own community, the Anglican Church of Canada, published its own set of essays, Eucharistic Practice and Sacramental Ministry in Pandemic Times to facilitate our own conversation. Other communities from across the Christian spectrum have undertaken their own reflective processes, in some cases stating positions, in others inviting on-going reflection and consideration of theological assumptions.

What did I find most helpful? What I found most helpful in Burridge’s book is its tone. He has a point of view, but he examines other positions and approaches with an irenic spirit. He is trying to understand the historical, theological and pastoral dimensions of worship in a digital age in order to identify how Christians might use new technologies to forge stronger community life. In doing so he asks questions that are germane to Christians regardless of their traditions:

  • How do we understand the role of an ordained or authorized minister in these contexts?
  • What is the relationship between the physical location of the presider and the physical location of the other participants?
  • How do we understand the sacramental intention of the presider in relationship to the intention of the recipients and to the intention of God in Christ and through the Spirit in the sacramental action?
  • How do we who many become one body through the one bread when we are not in a shared space nor receiving one bread in common?

These are just some of the many questions that any thoughtful leader, lay or ordained, will want to contemplate in the years ahead.

Burridge, Richard A. Holy Communion in Contagious Times: Celebrating the Eucharist in the Everyday and Online Worlds. Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2022. 300 pages. $33.00. ISBN: 9781725285774.

REVIEWER: REVIEWER: The Venerable Richard Geoffrey Leggett
Vicar of Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral &
Archdeacon of Westminster,
New Westminster, British Columbia

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