If you haven’t read them, start here:

Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 1 (3 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 2 (5 minutes reading time)

So far, I’ve been reflecting on churches moving to online mission and ministry, and the different styles churches are using. This post looks at the canonical agreements – do they apply in our digital context? [If you’re not a regular on this site, and have arrived here with a prejudice that liturgy is a pharisaical obsession with rules, and do not read the above two posts preparing for this one – you may very well have that unhelpful, mistaken prejudice reinforced in this post!]

In the next post I’ll kick off some theological reflections – especially the need to discuss the possibility (or not) of remote eucharistic consecration.

Let me stress as I begin this post: I plead that we not, especially at this time, encourage a litigious culture. Liturgy rules, in my mind, are like grammar rules (I have written and spoken about this often). The rules help us to run services well, to have quality services. Liturgy rules are also our agreements; they safeguard where there are power differentials – laity are protected from clericalism; we are reminded that we are episcopally led, and synodically governed.

In this Covid-19 context, canonical debate has mostly been around priests or bishops presiding at the Eucharist with no one else there, and whether or not remote consecration is a canonical option.

NB. I am no canon lawyer.

Roman Catholicism requires that normally the priest or bishop presiding at the Eucharist has at least one other person present: “Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful” (Canon 906).

Anglicanism has similar agreements. The Book of Common Prayer, foundational to Anglicanism, has:

And there shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be a convenient number to communicate 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.

The Order of the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion

In The Church of England, on 31 March, the London College of Bishops issued a paper, The Eucharist in a time of Physical Distancing. It is worth reading in full as it expresses well our experiences. However, for the purposes of this post, I wish to highlight that in this document the bishops purport to grant permission for clergy to preside at Holy Communion with no other person present. I say “purport” because it is not at all clear that bishops have such authority.

The Church of England’s official website (thank you to the person who sent me this – you know who you are) also says:

Bishops may wish to give authorisation to those priests who seek it to celebrate services of Holy Communion at which other participants are not physically present. It should be made clear that such authorisation will not extend beyond the period of the current Corona-virus related restrictions.

The Church of England

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Church of England bishops do have the authority to change teaching and practice in this manner – but if not, great care needs to be taken that clericalism is not increased by bishops usurping power that is not theirs.

Clarity and precision of approach is also sorely needed when we come to discussing remote consecration.

In the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, the agreement of the Church is clear:

In accordance with Anglican tradition there shall be no celebration of the Eucharist unless at least one other person is present to receive communion with the presiding priest.

A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa page 517

Again, I have seen people indicate that “my bishop has forbidden me from celebrating Eucharist alone”. According to me, the bishop does not have the power to either forbid or condone such a celebration – this is a synodical decision as binding on the bishop as it is on the rest of the Church. The most a bishop can do is indicate that (what I started with for this post) this bishop would not allow a complaint against a priest to proceed in our current situation (Title D Part C 6.4.1). Such a determination (as the canon indicates) may be appealed.

But wait! There’s more!

This being the Anglican Church of Or, there is a 2016 alteration to our Constitution [Part G2]  (a change I was against) which means that services can be “authorised” by a bishop if such a service is not contrary to our Formularies (synodically agreed teaching and practice). Now, as I have stressed often, it is unclear whether this allows bishops to authorise a service for which there is already a Formulary, or whether they can only authorise a service for which there is no Formulary.

Some would say that bishops cannot, for example, authorise a different Ordination rite as there already is such a Formulary. Others would say a bishop is allowed to by our Constitution.

I have (too) often stressed that the liturgical agreements of the Anglican Church of Or are difficult to find, confused, and confusing. If a bishop can authorise then…

A bishop could possibly authorise the celebration of Eucharist by a priest who is alone (that might need some agile wording to sidestep the Prayer Book page 517 Formulary quoted above). Perhaps of more interest, a bishop could possibly authorise a priest to remotely consecrate (good luck to finding a Formulary that this is clearly against!) Remote consecration will be part of my next blogpost in this series. See you there.

For further reading:
Bishop’s Policy on Eucharist during Lockdown

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