I am a priest of the church. Since the pandemic started and the bishops of our Anglican churches in Ontario decreed a eucharistic fast, I have not had any desire to celebrate the Eucharist without my community. I can’t even honestly say that I have missed the Eucharist. I miss gathering with my church. I miss the whole package of the singing, hugging, laughing, weeping, worrying, discerning, imagining, giving, serving and praying congregation of people who show up week in and week out. I miss how, in being together in worship, we are better able to hear and receive God’s response to the hopes and needs we offer up. I haven’t been able to tease out the receiving of bread and wine as a separate component of loss from all of the other pieces of church life that we have had to sacrifice.
Debate has been gathering around this eucharistic fast in our communities. When it was first imposed, I think we all imagined that it might last through Lent. We’re now approaching Pentecost, and there is no end in sight to the restriction. Our leaders’ position is an understandable one, and we know that, in consultation with health authorities, they are seeking to guide us with as much care for the well-being of our people and wider community as we can possibly attain. The debate then surrounding that particular decision to suspend the Eucharist, even in our online worship offerings, is by no means framed by dissent or disobedience. So much of what it has meant to be the church—so much of the tangible, physical, sensual nature of the gathered community—has evaporated with COVID-19. The debate is the community’s faithful grappling with how to be the church right now.
I have been listening to that debate but have felt removed from it. Which is why I was surprised to have this spiritual realization fall on me like a ton of bricks one Sunday morning: it is urgently important that we start celebrating the Eucharist again in our communities. How we are going to do this must lean on the promises we have been exploring in our Easter Gospel passages. Jesus tells us that we won’t be left orphaned. He tells us that the Holy Spirit abides with us and is in us, that we have a hope that can’t be taken away from us, and that because of this, Jesus will always be with us. He tells us that his faithful companionship with us is the road to God. These words are as valid in COVID-19 as in all other dark, difficult and uncertain times. Jesus, in that moment, might have had no concept of virtual worship, livestreams and online prayer, but surely we can trust in the Holy Spirit to be powerful enough to now find our way back to our sacramental identity.
Trusting that there is a way for Communion to happen is by no means the same as being able to articulate why it should happen. It may seem foreign to our Anglican piety to imagine the scattered community watching a few selected leaders share in a celebration at which circumstances prevent them from being. There would no doubt be those who would take issue with households lifting up their own bread and wine from afar to be virtually blessed in the prayer of consecration. As Professor Chris Brittain argued in a recent Journal article, this separation of the community from the sacrament could cause a sense of elitism in the communion and, therefore, a division. Which is why the why of what we are doing must be clearly named.
We need to do this because it’s never just about the people who happen to be gathered and who receive bread and wine in that moment.
The Eucharist can be understood as the family meal, the ultimate expression of the gathered community coming together to receive their true identity once again at God’s hand: “the Body of Christ.” This has been the understanding that our Anglican church has emphasized most in recent decades, and there is logic in saying that if the community can’t gather and the bread and wine can’t be safely received by our people, then it shouldn’t happen at all. But that isn’t the totality of our eucharistic understanding. It is not just a meal, but also a sacrifice. The Eucharist is, through the church, offered for the life of the world. It is the meeting of God’s love with, the offering of Jesus’s own life for, the broken state of affairs that is the world’s life. It is a vehicle of God’s reconciling activity across our earthly home. It’s about the gathered community, yes, but God forbid that it remain just about the gathered community. God forbid that the prayers of the people who are able to show up on any given Sunday would be merely about us.
This is what suddenly became clear to me. I need to celebrate the Eucharist because I am a priest and this is my vocation. It doesn’t matter whether I feel I need it or not. When I look at our aching, wheezing, anxious, physically divided world, with no clear path forward, I know that my job is to lift that up. Whether we can be together or not, we need to invite God’s healing power of love in to meet us here. Surely those prayers have power, not because we are all together and COVID precautions are over, but because God is powerful, and God promises to speak into all that we offer. By no means am I suggesting that God has a spiritual scorecard up there in heaven keeping tally of how many prayers are offered for any particular need before acting. I am saying though that prayer matters. I am saying that our eucharistic prayer matters. I do believe that there is a spiritual deficit, a cost, to having had all of our Anglican congregations in our ecclesiastical province suddenly halt our eucharistic offerings. Yes, there are so many ways in which we live into our identity as the Body of Christ, and my goodness, I have seen the kindness, compassion, generosity and sacrificial service of the church flourish in this pandemic. But if we don’t also claim that the difference made by the church’s faithfulness to Jesus’s call to “do this and remember me,” then we run the risk of falling into the social club, “huddled church” trap of thinking that our witness goes no further than just our own little group.
I have imagined what it would look like when we next gather around God’s table. I saw our beautiful St. George’s sanctuary, with my beloved community buzzing with excitement, joy and love, so grateful to see one another after this mandated time apart. I imagined singing our favourite music, and I imagined that procession of broken people, some of them limping—spiritually or physically—their way forward with hands out to receive the bread and wine.
Now the picture in my mind’s eye has changed. I see a small skeleton crew and a livestream camera inviting our community to join in through nothing but adequate bandwidth and the power of the Holy Spirit. I trust this will be enough. I believe that as soon as those words, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” are uttered, it won’t just be our skeleton crew any longer. I expect I will feel keenly connected to the multitudes of people who won’t be able to be with us physically in that moment. That grief and loss will become part of what we offer up to God, and in a very real way, we will be together. The eucharistic prayer will open up into “all the company of heaven,” the way that it does when we are in our sanctuaries full of people.
The broken and limping people will be there, the ones I know personally, and the ones whose stories I can only imagine. God’s response, “the gifts of God for the people of God,” have never been offered merely for those of us physically present, in this or any other moment. The taste of the Kingdom in our mouths is the taste of union with all of the Body, scattered and isolated, and even now God is reaching out across our fractures with a healing love.
 Judy Paulsen, Professor at Wycliffe College, talked about the characteristics of the “Huddled Church” at a Clergy & Licensed Lay Workers Educational Day for the Diocese of Niagara on May 21, 2020.