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Spiritual Communion

With or Without Bread and Wine

It’s been great to finally get some traction with a discussion on the possibility or not of remote consecration and eucharist in our new digital world, a discussion that I’ve been seeking for at least one and a half decades. Three bishops are involved in the discussion: Bishop Tim Harris, Bishop Peter Carrell (here, here, and here), and Bishop Kelvin Wright.

This is the fifth 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, this third post, and this fourth post.

Here is a response from Tim to some of what I wrote:

A helpful engagement with my article regarding the possibilities of virtual communion by NZ liturgist Bosco Peters. Bosco identifies good questions at the other end of the question over the nature of participation in a virtual context. My initial response is to explore the pastoral eldership relationship of the presbyter/priest that is expressed through the ministry of presiding at the Lord’s Table. One aspect of that relationship is to provide assurance and to highlight the importance of receiving rightly (ie. ‘you who truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbour’). My other reflection is that the ministry of the presbyter-priest is also a ‘means of grace’, while God is the actual bestower of sacramental grace. Hence the pastoral assurance that may be given in circumstances that prohibit the physical reception. As I note in my article, physical gathering is always to be preferred and reflects other aspects of the gathering of God’s people in Christ being a tangible expression of mission and ministry. I’m not wanting to regularise virtual communion where physical gathering is possible, but I am contending that a ministration of Holy Communion is valid and effective where circumstances require.

Bishop Tim Harris facebook post

I want to highlight a significant difference between Spiritual Communion (without bread and wine) and the attempt to justify Spiritual Communion with bread and wine as being identical to Eucharist celebrated In Real Life.

Spiritual Communion is the understanding that one cannot participate in Holy Communion, but desires to participate. And that desire means that God gives the spiritual benefit as if one had received Holy Communion.

Staying within the parameters set by Tim (as this post continues to respond to his paper), I continue to use BCP 1662 as the theological lens for this discussion. The Order for the Visitation of the sick in BCP 1662 has:

But if a man either by reason of extremitie of sicknes, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of Company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christs body, and blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the body and blood of our saviour Christ profitably to his Souls health, although he do not receive the sacrament with his mouth.

The first point is that you receive the spiritual benefits precisely because you desire something you cannot receive. Once you are able to receive (say, in the BCP 1662 context, you return to health), your desire needs to translate to actually turning up at church in order to “receive the sacrament with [your] mouth.” There is no question of, once you are better, not bothering to go to church where the Eucharist is being celebrated that Sunday because you can just as easily stay home and “eat and drink the body and blood of our saviour Christ profitably to [your] Souls health” spiritually at home.

Tim is turning this point upside down. He is arguing that Spiritual Communion with bread and wine is the Eucharist. BCP 1662 is saying Spiritual Communion is only possible because it is NOT the Eucharist, it is NOT “the Sacrament of Christs body, and blood”.

Bishop Peter Carrell reinforces Tim’s point that our COVID context is exceptional. I would say that Hard cases make bad law. I would also suggest that the context is nothing like as exceptional as might be suggested. With Christians living in extremely isolated areas (both in New Zealand and Australia), there has been no serious discussion of consecrating bread and wine in front of a Television, DVD or Video player, radio, or cassette recording of “presbyteral administration”. People not being able to receive communion for lengthy periods of time is not new. In fact, in many Evangelical Anglican contexts, quarterly Holy Communion was not unheard of.

For the second reflection on the BCP 1662 quote above, do note that, even at the point of death, with the dying person still able to receive the sacrament by his/her mouth, the priest could not go ahead and celebrate Holy Communion if there were not the agreed number of people present to receive with the priest and the dying person. No exception! Holy Communion – let our individualistic culture take good note – is not (at least using the BCP 1662 lens of Tim’s paper) possible with a priest at home alone recording a video and a communicant alone in front of a screen with bread and wine.

Virtual Eucharists and remote consecration may very well have a robust theological justification, but a plain reading of BCP 1662 is not that justification. In fact, a plain reading of BCP 1662 strongly argues against Virtual Eucharists, remote consecration, and digital presbyteral administration of Holy Communion.

To be continued…

As well as the previous posts in this series, this first post this second post, this third post, this fourth 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

image source: I created this image – please credit (and include clickable link) if you use it.

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