by Ken Howard
Communion while Social Distancing
Where can I go to escape your Spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
Psalm 139:7 (New English Translation)
This post is part of a blog series on
“Keeping Congregations Connected in the Face of COVID-19”
Click here for the previous post
I invite you to suspend your preconceptions and join me in a theological Eucharistic thought experiment. Or, borrowing from my Jewish origins, a midrash on the midrash by the author of Psalm 139.
Imagine you are a clergy person officiating at the celebration of Holy Communion. You arrive at the point in the liturgy where the rubrics call upon you to hold your hands over the bread and wine and speak the words of consecration.
What is the correct distance between your hands and the elements? Do you have to be in contact with the bread and the wine? What if you only touch the chalice and paten? Does it work if your hands are an inch away? Two inches? Three? A foot away? How about a yard? What if you took four steps back from the altar? Would it still work if you said the words of consecration while standing at the back of the church and holding your hands in the general direction of the altar? Would Communion still “work” while social distancing?
Of course it would. Some of the locations might be “irregular,” but all of them would still be valid.
Because the real presence of Jesus Christ when we celebrate communion is not brought about by the “magic hands” of the celebrant, but by the strange work of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus told his disciples that he would be present as body and blood whenever they ate bread and drank wine in his Name, he neither prescribed a specific liturgy by which it had to be done nor described either the physics or metaphysics of how it would work. How is simply an undefinable mystery. He. Just. Said. He’d. Be. There.
The rubrics, the canonical rules, the theological rationales, even the clergy and the Church itself are inventions of the Church. Well-intentioned (mostly). Sanctified by the Holy Spirit. But not mandated by Jesus. And if the presence of Christ in communion is the work of the Holy Spirit, then having communion while social distancing is not an impediment, and we can impose no limits on the Spirit.
In fact, the Church has recognized from its earliest days (if sometimes in the breach), that the Spirit does not belong to the Church, but the Church to the Spirit. It has always proclaimed the “priesthood of believers,” always held that the efficacy of the Sacraments does not depend on the worthiness of the celebrant but on the work of the Spirit, always taught that the Sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace,” and always made allowances for “communion in extreme circumstances” by lay people (e.g., to a dying soldier on a battlefield when clergy is not present).
These things being the case, why rule out remote celebration of communion when “two or three [or 100] are gathered together” by internet video connection over the worldwide web. If we believe that God is always and everywhere present, why should it matter that the celebrant and the “celebratees” are in another location, another city, another country, or another planet? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is taking the opportunity of this crisis to loosen our death grip on our ecclesiastical traditions.
It seems to me that withholding communion during a pandemic lock-down because a priest cannot be physically present in the same building is akin to withholding food during a famine because a trained chef is not available to prepare it in person. It is still possible to partake of Communion while social distancing.
The bottom line for me is this (riffing on Phyllis Tickle): If the inspiration of the Holy Spirit enabled the early Church to create itself in the first century, then recreate itself every 500 years thereafter, certainly it can be empowered by the same Spirit to tweak its traditions enough to allow Communion to be celebrated while practicing social distancing.
Or to put it more personally, if the Holy Spirit has the power to work through the unworthy hands of a fallible priest like me, she certainly can figure out how to work through Zoom.
Author’s Note: This blog post is based loosely on a paper written in 1993 for a seminary class entitled “20th Century Theology.” The assignment: “Assume a disaster which made it impossible for the church to gather together. How would you celebrate the Holy Eucharist? Defend your answer biblically, theologically, and canonically.” The author received an A-minus.
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