Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

Reformation Day, October 31

On this day 495 years ago, Martin Luther either did or did not post 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. Whatever the historical reality, this day is celebrated by Lutherans and many other Protestants as Reformation Day. We Anglicans are uncomfortable with it because we’re not sure we’re Protestant (The Episcopal Church removed “Protestant” from its official title some years ago). Whatever.

I preached this sermon on Reformation Sunday at Luther Memorial Church two years ago.

And because I’ve been thinking a great deal about eucharistic theology, a quotation from Luther’s Confession concerning Christ’s Supper (1528):

See, then, what a beautiful, great, marvelous thing this is, how everything meshes together in one sacramental reality. The words are the first thing, for without the words the cup and the bread would be nothing. Further, without bread and cup, the body and blood of Christ would not be there. Without the body and blood of Christ, the new testament would not be there. Without the new testament, forviveness of sins would not be there. Without forgiveness of sins, life and salvation would not be there. Thus the words first connect the bread and cup to the sacrament; bread and cup embrace the body and blood of Christ; body and blood of Christ embrace the new testament; the new testament embraces the forgiveness of sins; forgiveness of sins embraces eternal life and salvation. See, all this the words of the supper offer and give us, and we mebrace it by faith.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 37, p. 388)

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Open Communion, Closed Communion–the debate rages

There’s a lively debate among Episcopal clergy in the Madison area about the words we use in our service bulletins to invite people to communion. I won’t share the particulars of the debate nor why we are currently engaged in it. Here’s what we say at Grace:

We welcome all baptized Christians to take part in the Communion: coming forward to kneel or stand at the altar rail, receiving the bread in an open palm or guiding the chalice to receive the wine. If you would prefer not to receive, you may come forward to the altar rail, crossing your arms on your chest to indicate your desire for a blessing.

We’re not the only ones engaged in this debate. Today appeared two essays that address the issue. One is by Richard Beck, from the Churches of Christ tradition. Beck has written extensively about open communion:

Is communion dangerous?  Should people be warned about their participation?

Yes and yes. But those answers, in light of what we’ve just discussed, do not mitigate against the practice of open communion. In fact, I’d argue that open communion is better positioned here relative to closed communion given the particular warnings we need. More, I’d argue that the fact that communion requires a warning presupposes its openness. Why warn if communion is closed and safe?

So, yes, open communion is dangerous. People do need to be warned, as Paul warned the Corinthians, that if you take this meal of inclusion while shaming, humiliating and excluding others then you’ve brought judgment upon yourself. You’re being a hypocrite as your ritual actions in the Supper are not being supported by your lifestyle. In taking the Lord’s Supper you are professing that you have “equal concern” for others, that you give “greater honor” to the least of these. Thus you bring judgment upon yourself when you shame and humiliate others, when you fail to discern and care for the many parts of body of Christ. Especially the most shameful parts.

The other is by a Lutheran, Russell Saltzman, who wonders why Lutherans can’t take Catholic communion and posits that the reason is women’s ordination.

September 26: Lancelot Andrewes “For Holy Communion”

Today is the commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes. Here’s a biography.

FOR HOLY COMMUNION

O LORD, I am not worthy, I am not fit,
that Thou shouldest come under the roof of my soul;
for it is all desolate and ruined;
nor hast Thou in me fitting place to lay Thy head.
But, as Thou didst vouchsafe
to lie in the cavern and manger of brute cattle,
as Thou didst not disdain
to be entertained in the house of Simon the leper;
as Thou didst not disdain that harlot, like me, who was a sinner,
coming to Thee: and touching Thee;
as Thou abhorredst not her polluted and loathsome mouth;
nor the thief upon the cross confessing Thee:

So me too the ruined, wretched, and excessive sinner,
deign to receive to the touch and partaking
of the immaculate, supernatural, lifegiving,
and saving mysteries of Thy all‑holy Body
and Thy precious Blood.

Listen, O Lord, our God, from Thy holy habitation,
and from the glorious throne of Thy kingdom,
and come to sanctify us.

O Thou who sittest on high with the Father,
and art present with us here invisibly;
come Thou to sanctify the gifts which
lie before Thee,
and those in whose behalf, and by whom,
and the things for which,
they are brought near Thee.
And grant to us communion,
unto faith, without shame,
love without: dissimulation,
fulfilment of Thy commandments,
alacrity for every spiritual fruit;
hindrance of all adversity,
healing of soul and body;
that we too, with all Saints,
who have been well‑pleasing to Thee
from the beginning,
may become partakers
of Thy incorrupt and everlasting goods,
which Thou hast prepared, O Lord, for
them that love Thee;
in whom Thou art glorified
for ever and ever.
Lamb of God,
that takest away the sin of the world,
take away the sin of me,
the utter sinner.

–From Lancelot Andrewes, The Devotions of Bishop Andrewes, Vol. I (accessed at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

More on the debate over communion without (before?) (instead of?) baptism

A great deal was made several days ago over a post at the Cafe by Andee Zetterbaum:

The question we need to be asking isn’t what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it’s what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:

The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepoverThe grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents

The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won’t allow him to be baptized until he turns 18

The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend

The anti-church spouse

The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson’s baptism

The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas

The ‘spiritual but not religious’ 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace

The homeless person who wanders in off the street

Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals

What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?

So I wasn’t going to say anything more on the topic. I’ve made my position clear, and I think at this point there is more heat than light in the conversation. There are those who think open table is crucial to our mission, our proclamation of Jesus Christ, and our self-understanding as inclusive and welcoming communities. There are others who see the practice as an affront to scripture, to two thousand years of Christian practice, and an offense to the sacraments.

Then I read this by Jesse Zink, who visited an “official” Protestant church in China last year:

One Sunday I visited one of the major, sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. The congregation stood while the pastor prayed over the communion elements. Then, just before the distribution, the pastor made an announcement. “If you are not baptized, please sit down.” About a third of the congregation did so. They watched while the rest of us received communion that was passed through the pews. None who sat down seemed offended. No one stormed out in a huff. This was how things were. They were not baptized yet but looked forward to the day when they were.

So what’s the difference between this church in Beijing and your average Episcopal congregation, where I can never imagine something like this happening?

One difference—and there are many—is that folks are beating down the door of this church in Beijing. I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into that service. The sanctuary could probably hold 1000 people and it was standing room only that morning. In the Episcopal Church, perhaps, we’re so desperate for folks to come in, we don’t want to do anything that will turn people away.

I know it won’t change any minds, but still.

“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”

Bishop Morlino of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, has instructed his clergy to limit the sharing of wine at communion with the laity. Here’s the article.

His decision comes after the Archbishop of Phoenix announced a similar change. Stories about that are here, with a riposte from Anthony Ruff here.

I’m hesitant to comment about development in other denominations because of “the mote in my own eye.” But as a pastor, and as a historian of the period in Christian history when the debate over reception of communion in both kinds burned hot, I find this sad. I won’t debate the legal merits of the decision or even the theological basis (of course Jesus Christ is fully present in both bread and wine). What bothers me is the implicit sacerdotalism and clericalism. To worry about spillage of wine or that some might receive it irreverently seems code language implying that only priests can approach the sacrament. The sharing of the chalice by lay people with lay people is an important symbol of the fact that we are all the Body of Christ and that we all are equally worthy (or unworthy) to approach the holy.

And then there are Jesus’ words:

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:25-26)

All baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion in both kinds at Eucharists at Grace and other Episcopal Churches and we encourage lay people to become chalice bearers.