By Mark Michael
The Eucharist won’t be Zooming into living rooms this Sunday in the Diocese of Western Louisiana, after Bishop Jacob Owensby rescinded an earlier authorization for “virtual consecration” in a letter emailed to diocesan clergy and lay leaders on April 17. “After a gracious conversation with the office of the Presiding Bishop,” Owensby wrote, “I understand that virtual consecration of elements at a physical or geographical distance from the Altar exceeds the recognized bounds set by our rubrics and inscribed in our theology of the Eucharist. I am grateful for the collegiality of the House of Bishops and the love expressed to me, and to all of us, in the conversations I have had.”
Owensby encouraged congregations to continue to use virtual platforms for worship, noting that congregations could decide to conduct Morning Prayer or to celebrate the Eucharist, with those present to lead the service receiving the Sacrament. “Participating in those prayers from home draws us into union with Christ and one another,” he said.
The day after Easter, Owensby had written to the same group of leaders announcing “a new standard for Sunday worship. We will,” he wrote then, “move to what many are now calling Virtual Holy Eucharist.” His earlier letter continued, “the people will provide for themselves bread and wine (bread alone is also permissible) and place it on a table in front of them. The priest’s consecration of elements in front of her or him extends to the bread and wine in each of family’s household. The people will consume the consecrated elements.” Owensby said then that he himself planned to perform “virtual Holy Eucharist” over Facebook Live on Sunday, April 19.
The practice of virtual communion has been widely touted as a pastoral adaptation to the current crisis in American Protestant circles. Some non-denominational congregations, like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church have offered instructions for participating in “online communion” for years. The United Methodist Church hosted a formal discussion of the issue in 2013, issuing a moratorium against it. As Justus Hunter reported in a recent Covenant essay, the bishops of some United Methodist conferences have lifted the ban in recent weeks, encouraging their congregations to follow practices similar to what Owensby had earlier directed.
The Rev. Dana Delap, a team vicar in the Church of England’s Diocese of Gloucester wrote an op-ed in The Church Times titled, “How We Shared the Bread and Wine on Zoom.” Delap, who had formerly served on a churchwide liturgical commission, described her experience of leading her congregation in the practice on Easter Day, in what she described as “the least-worst way to offer holy communion.”
Delap argued that the practice of having the priest and servers receive Holy Communion while the people participated by reciting prayers of spiritual communion is unacceptable for a church that embraces “a priesthood of all believers.” She explained, “If we are genuinely setting God’s people free, then such clericalism is surely an anathema. It is exclusive and excluding. Canon B5 allows clergy to lead worship appropriately in unusual circumstances. Surely, the Covid-19 lockdown is one such context.”
As many Anglicans have noted in online discussion forums, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer clearly require that the Eucharistic bread and wine be placed in the celebrant’s physical presence. The direction on page 334 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, for example, reads: “At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrated.”
In an essay published on Covenant the day after Bishop Owensby issued his directive, Bishop George Sumner of Dallas summarized a series of underlying theological reasons that render the practice inadmissible. Observing that “materiality” is a crucial aspect of sacramental worship, Sumner wrote, “the Eucharist claims the real presence of Christ in this event of really blessing and consuming real elements by a real (bodily) congregation. This does not mean there are not other ways to hear the Gospel and pray. In our era of all-Eucharist-all-the-time, we should not absorb everything into the sacrament.” Sumner concluded by observing, “This pestilence too shall pass, and we need to make sure in the meantime we do no harm to our more normative theology and practice.”