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Remote Consecration?

This is the fourth post in response to the paper by Bishop Tim Harris: The heart of the matter: Holy Communion, effective participation and virtual reality — some guidance from historical Anglican sacramental understanding.

Please first read this first post, this second post, and this third post.

I think that Tim’s suggestion of using bread and wine at home whilst “able to watch and observe a priestly-administered Eucharist” (either live or on a video – Tim doesn’t specify) for Spiritual Communion is the strongest concrete suggestion made in Tim’s paper. It deserves careful reflection.

Let me give a parallel drawn from baptism. If a person is firmly clear that baptism is a once-only event, then such a person can commemorate this once-only baptism in a variety of ways. This commemoration of once-only baptism can include, for example, being sprinkled with water (asperges – say, early in the Eucharist). There is nothing significant about the amount of water that is used in such a commemoration. A person firmly clear of the once-only nature of baptism can, for example, be fully immersed (say) in the Jordan River as a commemoration of their baptism. There is no question of this being a “second baptism” (a theological oxymoron for those of us convinced that one can only be baptised once). There is no confusion. Such a commemoration (in my Jordan River example) can include readings, prayers, acknowledgement of the baptism received years earlier; it can be a rich, powerful, grace-filled, spiritual reality. But, I underscore, there is no confusion with baptism. Performing a second baptism is sacrilege. Commemorating a once-only baptism (and with water) can be a moment of grace.

The key to the above paragraph is that baptism is UNREPEATABLE. The issue with the eucharist is that, by its very nature, it is repeatable; it is repeated.

When I was training for the priesthood at our church’s seminary, St John’s College, Auckland, a group of theology students decided to celebrate an Agape Feast (a non-eucharistic fellowship meal). They decided that it would include bread and wine. Struggling to choose who would lead it, they then decided that they wouldn’t lead this themselves but invited a priest to have the honour of leading. When the meal was over, they were overcome with scruples and confusion. With a priest leading, and having bread and wine as part of it – had they actually celebrated the eucharist? They now called people in to help reverently consume everything remaining (as required in a eucharist – crumbs and all) in case they had celebrated eucharist.

Anglican theological imprecision about consecration and the nature of the eucharist (often a positive) combined with an exceptional event and made possible by the repeatable nature of eucharist, here, in the presence of the best theological lecturers our church could offer and with a community of people who were devoting their lives to daily, deep theological reflection, resulted in a celebration that those participating in could not, upon reflection, be assured whether this might be sacrilege or a moment of grace.

Is the celebration at home with bread and wine in front of what Tim refers to as watching and observing a priestly-administered eucharist (either live or on a video), is this a eucharist or is it not? Is this sacrilege or a moment of grace?

To be continued…

As well as the previous posts in this series, this first post this second post, this third post,
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
I encourage you to read
Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist and

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4 thoughts on “Remote Consecration?”

  1. Peter Carrell

    In part, at least, by way of answer to your question, is the question whether any such event (your Agape meal then, a virtual communion in, say,Melbourne this weekend) is according to the agreed/common teaching and practice of the church.

    In my understanding, there is no such agreed/common teaching and practice in either Australian or NZ Anglican churches. (Or anywhere else in the Communion?).

    Nevertheless, the question(s) at issue are being asked in a time when it is difficult to get the church’s synodical representatives together, so we may also be in a time of evolution towards a common mind which one day will be endorsed by the appropriate synodical agreement. Or not!

    1. Thanks, Peter,

      The point I would add to your helpful comment is that these questions have actually been asked for a long time.

      This site has existed for a decade and a half, and these questions have been posed here from the beginning. How do we fruitfully exercise mission and ministry in the digital world? Who has oversight of mission and ministry in this digital world (including if/when things go badly)? Can sacraments be administered in this digital world?

      Bishop Tom Brown (Wellington, NZ) and Bishop Christopher Hill (Guildford, UK) sponsored this discussion at Lambeth Conference.

      I was discussing the appropriateness etc of sacraments in the digital world a decade and a half ago on this site. I was suggesting virtual synods at that time – including possibly being the first to consider holding the Lambeth Conference virtually.

      One can see Covid as forcing/dragging the church to face and enter the third millennium; some of us have been trying to get church here for a long time.

      Reformation churches embraced the printing press – it seems that they embraced the printing press so tightly they could not let it go when new technology came along.


  2. The image of the conscientious students scarfing down every remaining crumb of an agape meal out of a kind of misguided scrupulosity is very funny. It also shows a kind of magical thinking we have around sacraments. Reverent disposal of elements used in the transformative community event becomes eating the magic bread because thats what the book of spells tells us to do.

    This issue of virtual eucharist has some similarities with the question of how much water should be used in baptism ( a question which only arises from a magical idea of baptism) So a handful of water isn’t enough for a legitimate baptism but a tub full is. So where on the spectrum between handful and tub full do we cross the line?

    So similarly the question here is, how close does a priest have to stand to the elements for a legitimate eucharist? In the old days, of course, the priest usually touched the elements during consecration but this is currently unfashionable. The priest often stands about a metre away, behind the altar. So what if the priest was 2 metres away? What if the priest was halfway down the church? Or at the other end of it? What if the priest was outside the church or a kilometre away? Currently we say that a kilometre is too far, but at what point on the spectrum from 1 metre to 1000 metres is the magic boundary crossed?

    Of course, these questions are absurd. What matters in any sacrament are the two major dynamics of every relationship: intention and consent. What does this community intend? What does it consent to? And if a community is gathered virtually, I for one cannot understand why they cannot intend eucharist and consent to its happening.

    1. Thanks, Kelvin.

      You are asking the sort of questions that I have been posing on this site for a decade and a half now. Suddenly, because of Covid, others realise we should have been discussing this stuff. Great!

      Yes – you might mock the action of the students at the best-endowed seminary in the Anglican Communion, but in doing so you are highlighting the lack of similar reflection by the theologians employed by our church to form our priests at that time.

      To continue your line of questions towards the ones I have been posing here. You appear to limit things to “if a community is gathered virtually”. Does that mean one can only do this on Zoom, with a community gathered virtually? Or can a person do it at home, alone, watching a priest/bishop on a screen? Does that priest/bishop have to be a “live” administration (to dovetail with Tim’s terminology)? Or can this be a recording of a priest/bishop administering? If the response is: it must be live – then we are back to your pushing the questions: how out of synch may the livestream be – can there be a minute lag between priest alone at home “administering” and the communicant home alone receiving? If a minute, why not five? Why not an hour? Why not a recording? et.

      If all communion requires is intention and consent – why have a priest or bishop at all? Why have bread and wine (and not chocolate and Coca-Cola, as aside questions)?

      Thanks for joining the discussion.


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