March 28, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
In the midst of this pandemic, which has overtaken the human race so quickly, and for many, unexpectedly, I wish to say that, like so many others, I am praying for the sick and for those who have died. I am concerned especially for those in this diocese who, in increasing numbers, are falling ill or are afraid.
I invite us all to do what we can to support our fellow citizens whose livelihood is draining away. Let’s support them as they seek ways to offer their skills and expertise in ways which are both safe and can be compensated. Let’s also be mindful of prisoners, the homeless, people living in group homes and nursing homes, and all others who are not in a position or don’t have means to protect themselves from infection.
I wish to express my gratitude and admiration to all the people in this corner of God’s church who are embracing the discipline of isolation by staying at home. This is a spiritual discipline as well as a practical necessity. It is spiritual because we have a God-given obligation not to cause harm to others if we can possibly avoid it. In this case, that means avoiding becoming the occasion for the spread of COVID19.
As we all know, sheltering in place denies us the great blessing of gathering in our churches. The unavailability of public worship in the physical presence of others is painful for everyone, myself included. When we emerge —as we will— from this crisis, we will surely have a new appreciation of what it means to be together on the Lord’s Day. The temptation will be to resume going to church before it is safe to do so. I am urging all of us to resist that temptation. Our cathedral, which had planned to continue live-streaming Morning Prayer on Sundays with clergy, readers, organ and a skeleton choir all physically present in the chancel, decided to shift to an absolutely remote approach. That is, we would all exercise our worship leadership roles out of our own homes by way of zoom technology. This was a difficult but necessary decision, not only for the safety of the people directly involved, but in order to model staying away from public spaces, even in small numbers. I find it almost unthinkable that we shall move out of Lent into Holy Week and Easter season in isolation from one another. But this is the price we must pay to protect others and ourselves.
I have been able to officiate at (now totally remote) Morning Prayer for the cathedral for a few Sundays, and will certainly continue to do so as we move into Holy Week and Easter. But I have only been available so far because local visitations have had to be cancelled. I have been unable to visit St. Paul’s, Greenville and St. James, Piqua. We will look for ways to make this up, either remotely until this time of physical absence is past, or by rescheduling normal visitations (as well as area confirmations) once these become possible again. In the meantime, please check the cathedral and diocesan websites for on-line service times and information about access. There are also a number of churches doing creative things on-line. This is a good thing, and I encourage us all to take advantage of them. One benefit of resorting to virtual worship is that the distances that make it harder for us to experience one another’s worship have been rendered irrelevant for the time being. A list of diocesan congregations offering on-line worship can be found on the
But virtual worship raises some interesting questions and temptations. The weekly celebration of the eucharist has become central to our worship over the last fifty years. So it is no surprise that I have been asked if we might not celebrate the eucharist remotely. Let me share with you some reasons why this is not a good idea.
To detach holy communion from physical presence flies in the face of incarnational theology. By incarnational theology I mean the belief, absolutely central to Christianity, and certainly to our Anglican tradition, that God’s word, the second person of the Trinity, became flesh in Jesus. That means that our embodiedness, and the physicality of the entire created order, has been declared good, once and for all, forever. The very term “body of Christ” reminds us both of Christ’s physical union with us and our physical union with one another, as it is restored to its original purity in Christ by our embrace of our connection to one another at its deepest level. The celebration of the eucharist in physical proximity, however infrequent, is the enactment of that embrace. There is no such thing as virtual physicality. Either our bodies are present to one another in real space, or they are not. Attempting to celebrate communion “virtually” leads us down another path.
The eucharistic act cannot be reduced to the reception of the consecrated bread and wine: it is a common act of repentance and trust in God through hearing God’s word, whereby we offer ourselves to God in order to be returned to ourselves as the body of Christ. Countless parishes in the Episcopal Church know well that there is no failure of grace or of weekly renewal as the body of Christ in the absence of a priest or regular reception of the sacrament. Why? Because they know that the sacrament is God’s affirmation of their faith, not the prerequisite of their mission.
Christian history is full of times when believers could not freely or safely gather. We often rediscover in such times that we are Christ’s body by God’s grace, not by our will, and that our ability to live that reality out even in separation and sacramental drought is an opportunity for real renewal.
Zoom and similar platforms are no substitute for real presence, however comforting it is to see one another’s faces. The argument that a zoom meeting provides the basic conditions for a sacramental gathering is faulty. Some advocates of virtual communion argue that two people side by side each other in a pew are not necessarily present to one another. But in fact they are present to one another whether they like it or not, in a way they can never be virtually, because physicality is the fundamental basis of our vulnerability to one another — it is the vulnerability we cannot “turn off.” Our physical presence to one another is inseparable from and is the very substance of the sacrament of the altar — which is, by the way, why in our reformed tradition a priest cannot celebrate the eucharist physically alone. Tuning into a virtual eucharist does not overcome this fundamental reformation (and ancient catholic) objection to private communion. Virtual communion is essentially private communion, however public the image of any participant on the screen may be.
Some proponents of virtual communion appeal to the tradition of spiritual communion as an argument for zoom communion. It is just the opposite. The possibility of spiritual communion reminds us that the riches of God’s forgiveness and grace, signified and conveyed by the sacraments, is not dependent on our reception of the sacraments. The sacraments assure us of God’s grace, but they only feed us if we receive them in faith or at least approach them in hunger. If we are deprived of the sacraments, it is precisely our faith or our longing for the presence of the crucified and risen one that makes up for it. This period of time when we are denied normal church may well help us get more in touch with our hunger, not only for God but for one another, and by hearing and reading God’s word to renew the essentially physical basis of our relation to one another as the body of Christ.
All of which is to say that the Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer) is the way our tradition has always drawn close to God when we could not draw close to one another bodily, or were constrained to do so without the prerequisites for a legitimate celebration of the sacrament. A fast from communion goes hand in hand with honoring the gift of physical presence to one another, even as we grieve its temporary loss. Acknowledging that loss, and submitting to its strictures, may well sanctify our loneliness, and renew our zeal for life together in Christ.