For a while most Christians in the US will not be gathering for worship. For eucharistically centered Christians this has presented a problem. The Eucharist seems to require (i) the sacramental elements of bread and wine, (ii) a community of at least two or three, (iii) a priest or bishop as celebrant. It thus involves the notion of priest-in-community. When in lock-down and quarantine these things are separated.
There are a variety of solutions being offered: Suspension of the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritual communion with on line broadcast, broadcasts offering formal morning or evening prayers, and even “drive by” communion or services where everyone is separated by the personal space of their own cars.
I have less often heard of clear instruction to our congregations about how to conduct formal Sunday or daily worship at home, where a smaller congregation without a priest can exist, even in times of quarantine. While the daily offices and the simpler forms of daily prayer can be conducted by an individual or small group, there has been very little instruction on how to do so. That is odd, given that those services do not require some artificial community with a worship leader present by web broadcast. The Daily Office does not require priestly presence, and arguably does not require community. It certainly does not require the Church/ Temple. I think we need to have a teaching webinar on conducting the daily offices.
But about the Eucharist the problem of priest and common space making a temple or “tent of meeting” remain. Many of us live in households of two or more people, many of us can find bread and wine to offer up, but not many of us live with priests and thus are able to form a temple or tent of meeting. All the solutions to this problem in a time of quarantine are “work-arounds.”
I have been thinking of another way to engage the issue. It has the problem of unraveling some of the basic norms of church life, but here it is:
I propose that we revisit the spiritual connection between the Eucharist, the Passover Seder, and the Shabbat Seder, perhaps drawing something from those sensibilities for a reach back into a family community and for a new grasp of common prayer and thanksgiving.
Might it be possible to instruct communities even as small as two or three, gathered together, to share a meal that celebrates the union of that small cosmos to the great cosmos of all people, in which the holy texts are recited, thanksgiving and prayers offered, forgiveness sought, and peace shared. Of course. WE can do that even now under the rubrics. But then could those present to offer all those things, with bread and wine, to be a reflection of the Great Thanksgiving, which is the offering of God in Jesus Christ. Could this small community lift that offering and then breaking the bread, pouring out the wine, and sharing it together share a Holy Eucharist? That is, might we instruct people in how to be a Eucharistic Community within their own family or small community structures?
If we break down the requirement to have all four – elements, community, priest and temple (common space that includes both priest and lay people as well as bread and wine) – we can work a way to share communion even while we are quarantined. And in modified quarantine, where we are limited in the numbers who can gather and while we need to practice social distancing, we might still gather for communion even while there is no priest in the same space with us.
Is the Church willing to forgo all things of its own – including its requirement that the priest and people together in once place are necessary if the eucharist is to be celebrated? This is not about instituting “lay-presidency” of the eucharist. It is about instituting a localized presidency in times of need.
I don’t recall the reference, but I do remember that during the Second World War someone from England who was in a prisoner of war camp wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury and asked if they might celebrate Holy Communion in the camp without a priest. I believe the Archbishop said yes.
We may not be separated from the blessing of priest-in-community Iife for long, but as time goes on if we might think of the Eucharist not as the grand ritual of even our smallest parish eucharist, but rather as an extension of our gathering at our own tables for possibly the high point of our life together as community. Could a household Holy Eucharist be our Shabbat Seder? I believe we could.
And, we could still retain the priest-in-community as a reflection of family or small community. When we come together (as we I believe we would want to do) for community larger than the small separated out community of family or quarantined group, the priest would serve as the “parson,” as the master or mistress of the house, and preside. More, the priest would offer (hopefully orthodox) teaching and preaching to accompany the larger gathering. I don’t see family or small group eucharist without the priest as in any way an abdication of the priestly ministry in the church. Rather I see family or small group eucharist as a natural extension of the Shabbat Seder / Last Supper/ Communion origins for the larger gatherings we call church assembly.