The 2021 Bampton Lectures: “Four-Dimensional Eucharist”
By Jessica Martin

Review by Micah Latimer-Dennis

I spent the Sunday mornings of last year on both sides of a computer screen. Halfway through the year, I transitioned from watching worship to helping lead it. I was happy to make the switch. Serving in the altar party, I no longer had to wonder what it was I was doing.

The screen seemed less important on the other side. The cameras strapped to the pillars reminded me, sometimes, of the oddity of what was happening, but I found it far easier to feel I was worshiping when I was at church.

Occasionally, though, even on the recorded side of the screen the strangeness breaks through. In her recent Bampton lectures — a series of lectures at the University of Oxford dating to 1780 — Jessica Martin describes one such moment.

Raising a consecrated host before a camera in an empty cathedral, she recalls thinking, “It’s come full circle — the year might as well be 1521. But the rood screen is an electronic one.” The resemblance to late Medieval practice is uncomfortable. Once again the laity could see but not eat the Bread. Proximity to the Sacrament was reserved for clergy.

It’s one of many illuminating and unsettling observations Martin gives in her lectures, collectively titled “Four-Dimensional Eucharist.” The talks explore Christianity’s central rite in the context of the COVID pandemic and the wider context of contemporary life. As her title suggests, she’s particularly interested in how worship is affected by the rift between life on and offline and, beneath it, between seeing the world as simply material and seeing it as open to something more.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the first pair of lectures, “The Point of Eucharist” and “Flat Eucharist: Schemes and Screens,” were given to an empty University Church in Oxford. Parts three and four, “The Eucharist as Theatre: Place and Space” and “The Eucharist in Time,” had an audience present alongside the digital livestream.

The lectures are four meditations on what it means to celebrate today the meal the Lord instituted. Each returns to the question I had to keep myself from asking last year before a screen: What are we doing when we celebrate the Eucharist? They proceed by observation and allusion more than argument.

Before her ordination to the priesthood and ministry in a multi-parish benefice, Martin taught English literature at Cambridge. She now serves as residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. The lectures reflect the breadth of her experience. Poems by John Donne and Osip Mandelstam open two lectures, but contemporary culture comes in too — avant garde music, video games, and, more than once, Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Though the range of references sometimes feels stretched, Martin’s use of cultural and sociological terms for a rite usually described in strictly theological language is welcome.

The talks defy easy summary. But a strand running through all four is her worry about how the ritual works today. The community of sacramental Christians in the United Kingdom is shrinking, as it is in the United States and Canada. And those in this community are, like those outside it, subject to the same pervasive uncertainty about how matter and the immaterial interact.

Of course this uncertainty has roots in debates about the Eucharist, and the continued inability of Christians generally and Anglican Christians specifically to agree on what happens at the altar makes the rite ambiguous. And this has a direct consequence: “we have no idea how to catechize,” or teach about religion.

Martin worries that the connection between word and meaning in eucharistic ritual today is broken. This isn’t to say that God doesn’t meet us at the table. But those who eat and drink (when they’re able to) at the Church’s feast come with a “split sensibility.” Arguments about the rite, and our ambivalence about the material world’s connection with the invisible, keep many from coming to communion undivided. Screens split in a different though analogous way: worship is divided between those on and in front of a screen. To those outside the Church, the rite may be more readily accessible online, but its meaning is more obscure.

It’s no surprise Martin doesn’t offer a solution. She comes closest to a response in the fourth lecture. Earlier in the lectures, ritual is described as a door between matter and spirit. It exists, Martin says, “in the subjunctive mood.” Bread may become God; the painful end of one man’s life may become the hope of the rest of humanity.

In the final lecture, the focus shifts to time. Just as musicians use repetition to evoke endlessness, the repeated action of Holy Communion is the place where the present and the permanent meet, she says. The repeated enactment of Christ’s sacrifice does more than show what once took place. In remembering his life, death, and resurrection, we are met by him. And in this remembering the gaps and holes and wounds of our own pasts are met too. What happened on the road to Emmaus keeps happening. Remembering the broken body changes those present.

As churches return to in-person worship, alongside questions about the logistics of worshiping safely will be questions about presence and absence. The recording equipment in many churches won’t go away simply because the threat of contagion has. And of course the ambivalence many Christians feel about what words prayed over bread and wine can do won’t go away either.

Listening to Martin’s lectures half a world away, I found myself hoping that whatever shape worship takes, the cost of presence would be remembered. Too often this past year it has felt as if worship only worked when our separation was temporarily forgotten. When that separation is behind us, its cost should be remembered. Christ is present to us in the Sacrament because he was broken. As his body comes together again around the altar, I hope we remember the cost.

Micah is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. A native of Chicago, he lives in Toronto with his wife.