The UK is in lockdown and has been since mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Churches remain shut. Yet services, continue. For although the church buildings themselves are no longer open, ministers are ‘streaming’ services from their vicarages and manses to the homes of their people.
At Chelmsford Cathedral, where I worship in my retirement, Morning and Evening Prayer are streamed each day at 7.45 a.m. and 5.15 p.m. respectively, while on Sundays at 10.30 a.m. there is a live streaming of the Cathedral Eucharist from the home of one or other of the ministry team. ‘Extraordinary’ permission has been given to all priests in the diocese to preside at the Eucharist alone. “This”, wrote the Dean of the Cathedral, “is highly unusual, but we are living through highly unusual times. Even if we cannot share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we can still make our communion together.”
This is the context in which I wish to raise the question, ‘Is this a time for “irregular” common?’ Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper when we do not gather together as a church?’
Theologically speaking, the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance: it is, as the Apostle Paul said, something the church does when it comes together (1 Cor 11.17, 20). Communion can never be a private act of personal devotion. We celebrate together Jesus’ broken body and his life outpoured. This is what underlies Paul’s statement that “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10.17). Nobody makes his or her communion alone. The act of breaking bread and drinking wine not just a ‘vertical’ dimension, but also a horizontal dimension – for as we gather at the Table we strengthen our relationship not just with God, but also with God’s people. So, whenever I used to take communion to people in their homes or in a hospital (the ‘shut-ins’) I always sought to bring along with me at least one other representative of the church.
However, as the Anglican bishops have recognised, these are extraordinary times, when extraordinary measures need to be taken if God’s people are to be sustained on their journey with bread and wine. Without such measures then in this lengthy period of lock-down, there would be weeks without a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Even for Baptists, who on the whole limit communion to once or twice a month, this would be a travesty of Christian worship. “Infrequent communion”, declared John Calvin, “is an invention of the Devil”.
But from my Nonconformist perspective, I would argue for a further ‘irregular’ practice whereby members of a virtual congregation might share in the service by eating bread and drinking wine in their own homes – even if, as far as Anglicans are concerned, the bread and wine has not been physically ‘blessed’ or ‘consecrated’, could it not be viewed as an aid to ‘spiritual communion’? Are there not times when to meet the needs of people our traditional theologies of the Lord’s Supper need to be put to one side? I gather there was an attempt to do this many years ago as part of a BBC televised worship service but it got bogged down in all sorts of theological problems. However, in my view theology should be there to serve the people of God. Whether or not this ‘irregular’ form of communion conforms to the church’s teaching is surely not the issue: ultimately what counts is whether we can enable people to meet with Jesus and gain the strength they need for living out their faith in these challenging days of the coronavirus pandemic.