Anglican leaders offer a diverse set of responses and recommendations about Holy Eucharist in the time of COVID-19
Leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada have never experienced—at least in their lifetimes—a Holy Week quite like this one.
With Canadians quarantining themselves in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and all public worship suspended, clergy now face the challenge of how to conduct worship during the holiest time of the year for Christians. Perhaps the biggest point of debate, however, extends beyond Holy Week: the question of how—or whether—to celebrate the Eucharist.
In answering that question, Anglican bishops across Canada have tended towards two main responses. On one hand is the idea of holding a “virtual Eucharist” online based on the Christian tradition of Spiritual Communion, in which individuals unable to physically receive the bread and wine may receive Christ through their desire for spiritual union.
On the other hand is the idea of a eucharistic fast.
Many church leaders are currently offering spiritual guidance by livestreaming worship and prayer online. In a March 23 essay in which the Rev. Eileen Scully, director of Faith, Worship and Ministry, reflects about decisions made by some bishops to hold eucharistic fasts, Scully suggests that the Eucharist is a qualitatively different matter.
“One of the most difficult realities that we face as worshipping communities is that suspension of gatherings for worship does mean the suspension of celebrations of the Holy Eucharist,” Scully says.
“Whereas musical and theatrical performances can be moved online, the Eucharist is not about performance by one for the many and cannot move into that mode…. Efforts to replace the community’s physical-and-spiritual gathering with practices that try to offer a eucharistic communion online, though well-intentioned, do not reflect our sacramental theology, which is deeply about the physical-and-spiritual together.”
Instead, Scully says, the current moment can be “a time of eucharistic fasting, in which we join with the whole communion of saints in longing for the bread of new life and the wine of the age to come.”
Liturgical practice in each diocese, however, is ultimately up to the discretion of the diocesan bishop. As a result, the question of the Eucharist has sparked much debate among Anglicans who have put forward different solutions.
In the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, bishops have asked for a voluntary fast for the duration of isolation measures for COVID-19.
“Our worship is really focused on the Eucharist,” Archbishop and Metropolitan Anne Germond says. “But the way we see it is that the Eucharist is something that we do together in community. It’s not an act of a priest on his own, even if there’s a virtual community out there somewhere.”
In many northern Ontario dioceses, she adds, there are small congregations who hold Eucharist infrequently, perhaps only once a month. One only celebrates the Eucharist twice a year.
“We just felt that, as so many people are suffering and struggling in so many different ways, that this was one way we could stand in solidarity with many people,” Germond says.
She cites feedback from Ontario bishops suggesting that Anglicans in their dioceses are “embracing the fast,” putting personal preference aside to honour the request of their bishops.
Other ecclesiastical provinces, however, have taken less sweeping approaches. Bishops in the province of Canada, for example, decided not to come to a unanimous decision, but are instead each setting out guidelines for their own dioceses. The bishop of Montreal and all three Newfoundland bishops have taken the stance of calling for a eucharistic fast in their dioceses, Archbishop and Metropolitan Ron Cutler says.
Meanwhile, the bishops of Quebec and Fredericton, as well as Cutler in his own diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, have left the decision up to local parish clergy.
Cutler estimates that 85% of parishes in his diocese had moved to online worship based on a service of the word, with the remainder offering some form of virtual Eucharist. However, he expresses some discomfort with use of the term “eucharistic fast.”
“Fasting is a traditional practice during Lent,” Cutler says. “But we tend to fast from things that we think draw us away from worshipping God, rather than a form of worshipping God.”
“I’d be a whole lot more comfortable in saying we’re in exile right now, or we’re having a eucharistic famine,” he adds. “This is not really a choice. This is something that we’re having to adapt to. I don’t think that’s just semantics. I think it goes deeper than that.”
In the province of B.C. and Yukon, bishops have taken what Archbishop and Metropolitan Melissa Skelton describes as a “blended” or “all-of-the-above” approach, with many dioceses and parishes filming or livestreaming Eucharists.
Within her own diocese of New Westminster, Skelton has not put forward the idea of fasting from the Eucharist.
“I don’t think the church should ever fast from the Eucharist,” she says. “We just have to do it in a different way, and maybe a way that feels not as satisfying as we would normally do it.”
Instead, Skelton says she wants “all the tools that the Anglican tradition offers” to approximate the Eucharist as much as possible.
From Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, the archbishop has led filmed Eucharist celebrations while retaining all norms for physical distancing and sanitization. These video Eucharists include only the celebrant and one other person, usually a deacon, standing at least two metres apart. Wine is consecrated and drank by the celebrant.
One other person stands at a safe distance, filming the sacrament with a zoom lens. The cathedral itself is a large space with very high ceilings. All other parts of the worship service, from readings to sermons, are pre-recorded on video and edited in.
“Those watching don’t get to receive the bread and the wine, but they get to witness that which they long for,” Skelton says. “They get to participate as much as they can from a distance, and they get to choose that occasion to invite Jesus into their hearts, their minds, and their actions. It’s not the same as everybody gathering in person…. It’s what we can do under the circumstances, and I’m really proud of it.”
The situation in the province of Rupert’s Land is similar. While some Anglicans within the province have embraced the notion of a eucharistic fast, others have favoured the livestreaming of Eucharist celebrations.
Archbishop and Metropolitan Gregory Kerr-Wilson in his diocese of Calgary has given permission for clergy to film celebrations of the Eucharist and share them online. Those uncomfortable with doing so, he says, may instead take the approach of a eucharistic fast.
“It’s a surreal time…in terms of how we live our life in the church,” Kerr-Wilson says. “People have to figure out as we go along how they’re going to best provide the pastoral care and ministry and the best witness to our faith in the midst of the pandemic.”
Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, says that there is an ongoing discussion across the church regarding the Eucharist—one she believes is likely to continue even after the pandemic, particularly for the Faith, Worship and Ministry committee and doctrine and worship committees within dioceses.
“I do think that after the COVID-19 situation has calmed down and people are back to regular practice that this may well be an area for some further reflection…because it has raised such conversation, and it would be good to do some further thinking and praying about and writing about,” Nicholls says. “That’s the task of the church at all times—to say what new questions arise because of our experience.”
Regarding her own personal opinion, the primate tends to be skeptical regarding the filming of Eucharists for people to watch at home.
“There’s something important about being physically gathered together as a community in which everyone participates,” Nicholls says. “It’s not something you just watch on a screen…. The idea that we can do this at such a distance makes me concerned about people’s sense of this just being something that [they] watch, and so that’s why I would be very hesitant.”
Nicholls and Skelton note that the centrality of the Eucharist to worship is a fairly recent development in Christianity, one that followed the liturgical renewal movement.
Both archbishops recall that in their early years of attending church, Sunday services consisted of morning prayer three times per month, with the Eucharist often taking place only once per month.
“The degree to which people long for the Eucharist…has told me that the work of the liturgical movement to place the Eucharist in its central position has really made a difference, because people really miss it,” Skelton says.
One of those longing for the Eucharist is the primate.
“I miss not just the bread and wine itself, but I miss that whole gathering as a community and as God’s people together, praying together, in communion together,” Nicholls says.
“But it will make me appreciate that much more deeply when it is restored, and in the meantime to ask: how do I spend my time with God in new ways?
“The whole idea of fasting in Lent, the whole idea of giving something up…is to turn our attention in new ways to our relationship with God, and this is certainly doing that.”
Germond expresses a similar attitude for those taking part in eucharistic fasts.
“We realize…that something really incredibly meaningful and beautiful, which our Lord commanded us to do in memory of him, has been taken away for us,” she says.
“But part of that missing is that we know that one day we will be able to share it in again. And so we look forward to that time and are hopeful that that time will come soon.”