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Picture of bread being broken at communion

Coronavirus and Communion

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Posted by Marc Lloyd, 20 Mar 2020

In these extraordinary circumstances, Marc Lloyd reflects on how our doctrine of the Lord's Supper is exposed.

I want to reflect here on some of the issues related to Holy Communion raised by the precautions and rules which the Church of England introduced or emphasised around administering it as the coronavirus began to spread, and by the subsequent suspension of public services. Despite centuries of theological reflection and bitter warfare over the Supper, the church still doesn’t have agreed answers to all of these.

I am all for following sensible medical and scientific advice. For some, these practicalities could be a matter of life or death.

Theological debate about precisely how the Supper should be celebrated might seem trivial in the extreme at such a time, and indeed at any time, when there is a lost world to be won. But even if there are many vastly more important and urgent questions, it doesn’t mean that these things don’t matter. Jesus told us to do this in remembrance of him, so we rightly want to know exactly what we should do and how. The Eucharist is traditionally at the centre of the church’s worship and cult drives culture, so in many ways there is little more important than the body and blood of Jesus given to us.

However, the essence of the meal is really quite simple: bread and wine are to be eaten by Jesus’s people in remembrance of him. Reformed theologians have sometimes been relatively indifferent to some of the details. Calvin thought, for example, “whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; the wine red or white – it makes no difference” (Institutes 4.17.43).

Since we are thinking about what changes might be made to Communion in times of necessity, it is interesting to note that Herman Witsius thought that if need be, for example, in America other food and drink may be used rather than bread and wine (The Economy of the Covenants, 450). This would seem to be far from what Jesus commanded, but what is the alternative? Surely an imperfect obedience is better than disobedience. But equally there may be times when we simply cannot do what Jesus commanded and therefore we should not try. God surely knows our hearts and does not demand of us the foolish or the impossible.

Must we eat and drink?
I am sure there is value in people watching videos of the Eucharist, but there are also dangers. It does seem a bit like a return to the Middle Ages where the laity largely watched Mass from afar and were not very involved. We do feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, and the rubric for the Communion of the Sick in The Prayer Book makes it explicit that physical eating and drink is not strictly and absolutely necessary in all cases. Even if the sick person isn’t able to receive the bread and the wine, by believing in Christ and remembering his death with thankfulness “he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he does not receive the Sacrament with his mouth”.

But we surely cannot think that someone who watched a minister take Communion via the internet is receiving the Supper or the full benefit which she would obtain if she ate the bread and the wine? Doubtless that person still has Christ, but not in the manner which she would by full participation in the Supper. The senses of touch and taste and smell would not be engaged so the Word comes to us only verbally and visually rather than tangibly. When the word of God is preached and the Supper is enacted, the same Christ is offered to us. But there is a fuller impact when we are able to eat in faith physically as well as spiritually.

We should trust the sovereignty and providence of God. If for a time we cannot receive the Supper, God knows and he remains able to feed and sustain his people on the Living Word. He will not allow us to starve even if we cannot eat the Eucharistic bread.

May this famine of Holy Communion increase our taste and hunger for it! Who knows how long we will have to go without?

Calvin famously thought that ideally the Supper should be celebrated at least weekly. Although the notion that familiarity breeds contempt here must be false (I am happy to kiss my wife more than once a month), maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder. Maybe after our enforced fast, Evangelicals will put word and sacrament back together in the weekly Lord’s Day service of covenant renewal.

The physical elements of the Eucharist
There has been a lot of focus on the bread and the wine in the history of the church and much debate about the precise mode of Christ’s presence at the Eucharist. The Reformed view is that we feed on Christ in our hearts by faith. This is a spiritual feeding, Calvin argued. that is in the power of the Holy Spirit, who unites us with Christ, whose physical body is in heaven. The whole Christ is given to us in the Supper, but not physically and not in the elements.

Communion in one kind
The temporary regulations about Communion in one kind announced last week might remind us of a Reformation debate. It is likely that the practice of only the bread being distributed to the laity in the mediaeval church originally arose as a result of the doctrine of transubstantiation. If the wine was literally the physical blood of Jesus, could the foolish laity really be trusted with it?

And interestingly, there may also be a connection here to the theology of beards. Priests in the Middle Ages were clean shaven so that they didn’t get Jesus trapped in their beards. Portraits of the younger and older Cranmer show him firstly clean shaven and later with a glorious beard. If you know that Jesus is in heaven not in the bread and wine, you don’t need to shave!

One cup or many
The Church of England legal position is that more than one chalice may be used but that individual cups are illegal. And surely one loaf and one cup would best represent our unity as the Body of Christ? The Bible explicitly makes that point about the single loaf or bread, though less clearly about the cup.

We might suspect that some people dislike the idea of individual cups because some consecrated wine will inevitably be left in them. The Reformed view is clear that the bread and wine are set apart for a holy use. But there is no change in their substance. The Edwardian Prayer Book made this point especially clearly as the curate was allowed to take home any left over bread and wine for his own use, and you wouldn’t take home God to have him for your tea!

Posture at Communion
The C of E guidance last week said that Communion should be taken standing up to avoid touching the Communion rail.

Food on the go can have an odd feel to it, but perhaps it might remind us that we are a pilgrim people. Jesus’ disciples reclined at the table as they enjoyed the Last Supper. If we think of the Supper as a meal, sitting would seem the most natural posture. But having said that, we know the Supper is intended to be a special ritual meal, not an ordinary one.

Kneeling at Communion has proved controversial in the past. The Puritans disliked it and the so called black rubric spelled out that no worship of the bread was implied by it. 

These are extraordinary times and a certain amount of irregularity is to be expected. But let’s pray, amongst many other things, that God would graciously use these things to bring us to greater unity and truth in the meal Jesus gave us. 

Marc Lloyd is the Rector of Warbleton, Bodle Street Green & Dallington, and Rural Dean of Dallington.

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