web analytics

Holy Communion, effective participation and virtual reality

I have written extensively on “remote consecration” (the presider being in one location and virtually present by digital technology to the person receiving bread and wine). This is topical now because of COVID lockdowns. For many years now, I have been arguing that this needs careful theological, pastoral, and missional reflection – but that did not really happen. Instead, there have been rather knee-jerk reactions (for and against) which may now incautiously impact the life of the church into the future.

I am delighted, then, that Tim Harris (Bishop Missioner to the City of Playford in the Diocese of Adelaide, and Lecturer in the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University) has published a paper in St Mark’s Review: The heart of the matter: Holy Communion, effective participation and virtual reality — some guidance from historical Anglican sacramental understanding.

Some extracts from my recent article in St Mark’s Review (255:1)

From the introduction:
It started with a passing conversation over the feasibility of sacramentally effective Holy Communion via online ministry. For me, it has been resolved through an Anglican understanding that effective communion is ultimately located in the receptive heart of the believer. The capacity to “lift up our hearts” is not diminished by material distance. This, I believe, was the consistent and officially sanctioned position reflected in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (1662 BCP) and can be traced in the deliberations and consensus of the preceding one hundred years. Sacramental presence is identified in the right and worthy reception by the righteous, an effective participation bestowing the full spiritual benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection upon the heart of the believer. Virtual engagement is no barrier to genuine and effective koinonia. Face to face physical presence is of course much to be preferred (and reflects the incarnate reality of the gospel), but as circumstances require, a ministry of offering holy communion may be provided via the means of online communication

And in conclusion:
Is communion dependent on physical and material engagement and reception? It seems to me the doctrinal position reflected in the 1662 BCP allows for spiritual reception of God’s grace in the hearts of faithful believers, such that the material elements are signs, not the spiritual reality to which they point. The means by which “sign” and “thing signified” correlate or are otherwise identified elicited a range of notions and terms, but the reality or truth of that communication is consistently affirmed.So how might this assist us with my opening question? Is it feasible to consider a sacramentally valid ministry of Holy Communion through the medium of online ministry, with the gathering of a virtual community? We want to avoid perceptions of an artificial spiritual/material dualism, and the physicality of the embodied community of faith is both profound and much to be preferred. Gatherings of at least three or four are strongly encouraged, whether in households or missional cells. Notwithstanding these factors, well-established Anglican sacramental theology locates the spiritual reality of communion in the heart of a genuine believer, and where physical eating and drinking of the consecrated bread and wine is not possible, for whatever reason, assurance can be given that true communion occurs nonetheless, through the grace of God.

Tim Harris’ facebook page

I have read the fuller paper, and encourage you to do so. Those looking for concrete examples may be disappointed. This paper is more an examination of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (from the (1662 BCP perspective) than a look at specific ways and issues of remote consecration. Systematically starting from theology seems to me the better route, and in a future post I will engage with some of that – giving you time to access the paper, or at least mull over the points above.

The paper is starting from theological foundations seen through 1662 BCP lenses. If a 1662 BCP perspective is used to frame some of the concrete issues of remote consecration, this will lead to some particular questions.

And there ſhall be no Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be a convenient number to communcate with the Prieſt, according to his diſcretion.
And if there be not above twenty perſons in the Pariſh of diſcretion to receive the Communion: yet there ſhall be no Communion, except four (or three at the leaſt) communicate with the Prieſt.

Instructions at end of 1662 BCP Holy Communion

Can the priest lead this virtual service by himself (1662 BCP assumes the priest is male)? Or shall there be “no Communion, except four (or three at the least) communicate with the priest” physically in the same location as the priest? In other words – if the priest is in lockdown by himself (or living with people who do not want to join him in Communion), could, according to 1662 BCP, this priest lead communion? Does it have to be at least three others communicating with the priest in the priest’s locked-down household? Would others communicating in their locked-down homes but visibly communicating on Zoom be counted as “communicating with the priest”?

Is Zoom (or its equivalents) the only valid medium for a 1662 BCP framework virtual Communion? If people communicating in their lock-down homes cannot see each other – in other words if each lock-down home is watching the priest individually, say on YouTube or a facebook livestream – might that be possible in a 1662 BCP framework virtual Communion? In what sense is a livestreamed individual priest on the screen, and no visibility of other communicants “genuine and effective koinonia” that “”Virtual engagement is no barrier to” (quote from Tim, in the introduction, above)?

If a livestream of an individual priest is acceptable in the 1662 BCP framework, might it be possible to simply use a video recording of such an individual priest? Of a priest who has died? [eg. “I really like the way Archbishop Donald Coggan led Communion – I will receive communion in front of a recording of Donald Coggan leading Communion”]. Does there need to be a priest on a screen at all?

if any remain of that which was conſecrated, it ſhall not be carried out of the Church, but the Prieſt, and ſuch other of the Communicants as he ſhall then call unto him, ſhall, immediately after the Bleſſing, reverently eat and drink the ſame.

Instructions at end of 1662 BCP Holy Communion

So, if there is bread and wine remaining, ie not consumed at the time of (virtual) communion – what do you do with this? And (possibly ignoring that 1662 BCP requires the bread and wine “shall be provided by the Curate and the Church-wardens at the charges of the Parish”) it is to be noted: does it have to be wine (following the thesis of the fuller text – and we will return to this in future – might it be grape-juice, Ribena, milk, tea)? Does it have to be bread?

I hope this is not seen as irritating details – these trees distracting from the theological wood. I see it more that papers, like the one to which this post responds, need to lay the theological foundations for (and also, often, draw theological conclusions from) the sort of specific questions, because it is in the specifics that the theology is ultimately expressed.

In any case: to be continued…

Meanwhile, do read some of what I have written previously about remote consecration:
Remote Consecration Part 1 (3 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 2 (5 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 3 (5 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 4 (4 minutes reading time)
Spiritual Communion

image: my creation – if you use this, please credit.

Similar Posts:

2 thoughts on “Holy Communion, effective participation and virtual reality”

  1. Peter Carrell

    All questions need considering, Bosco, but there is also a set of questions (in my experience of our Lockdown last year) which could be called “pastoral”:

    Why can’t we do this – the Eucharist is important feeding and it is a long time since I have been fed!?

    Surely the power of God is not limited by (on the one hand) government imposed rules for remaining separated in our homes and (on the other hand) the lack of physical connection between people/priest/elements when every other connection is being made (sound, video) through tehcnology not available in 62 or 1662 AD?


    And, to be clear, I think ALL questions on this are great because they mean we are thinking and conversing about an important matter, and I don’t think any such question admits of an easy answer, whether considered from a sacramental or pastoral perspective.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Good points & questions. I have (at least) a couple of follow-up posts in mind (if I get/make time, the next could be Friday) which may pick up some of your good points. Blessings.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.