By Matthew S. C. Olver

As the liturgy professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, I receive a pretty regular stream of requests and questions from people all over the place, whom I’ve never met. They range from, “Where should I buy my alb?” to “Should there be a cross in a gospel procession?” Now, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its disruption of our lives, I’ve received a number of questions about public worship in this period of social distancing.

Many bishops and dioceses have sent all manner of instructions, suggestions, and directives, and parish priests are in a difficult situation as they try and figure out how to approach this pastoral challenge, especially when it comes to worship. Between the first draft of this essay and when it was actually published, the situation on the ground has changed enormously. In fact, I think my own thoughts on what to do have evolved in the last few days. In what follows, I offer practical suggestions and some theological considerations for how to proceed.  There’s much more that can and should be said about matters of pastoral care, but here I will limit our discussion to public worship and the question of the Eucharist.

Communion in one kind

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If you are going to have a celebration of the Eucharist, distribution to anyone beyond the celebrant should be only in one kind (if this is even possible anymore). At this point, I think this is almost a no-brainer, though there are reasons why this might raise real alarm. In many places, public worship has been forbidden by local authorities or bishops, but it is still possible to gather in some locales.

The refusal of the cup to the laity during the medieval period was, of course, one of a number of Reformation concerns. And the rubrics of the 1979 BCP and the 2019 ACNA BCP give identical directions that are a direct response to this historical situation: “The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people” (1979 BCP, pp. 338, 365). There are further directives instructing that all communicants be given the option of receiving both elements (1979 BCP, pp. 407-8).

Rubrics are written to address normative situations; they almost never envision extreme circumstances. Hence, the Presiding Bishop’s statements (here and here) where he writes the following: “…bishops having charge of a diocese have my support as Presiding Bishop if, in light of the public health situation in their diocese, they decide — for a designated period of time — to suspend the administration of the common cup to the congregation in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and/or to cancel in-person gatherings for public worship.”

The idea that the denial of the cup in a worldwide health emergency is somehow a canonical violation is, I hope, a position that most people have set aside.

This denial of the cup to the laity is one that has a great deal of historical precedent, of course (whether or not one agrees with the medieval motivations). Theologically, it is important to keep in mind that this is categorically different from, for example, a Eucharist celebrated with different elements (such as Mountain Dew and Doritos). The reason for this is the doctrine of concomitance, which teaches that the whole Christ is present in every particle of the consecrated bread and wine. To deny this would imply that if one receives more bread or wine, he or she would receive more of the Lord, which is clearly absurd (and impossible!).

However much or little one receives of the consecrated species — Bread, Wine, or both — one receives Christ, full stop. This is an important fact to keep in mind when illness of any sort keeps us from receiving one of the elements. Whether we receive a large or small amount, in one kind or in both, we always receive the fullness of the sacrament and all that God offers us. While this doctrine does not necessitate communion in one kind, it makes it clear that reception in one kind is unlike the use of elements other than bread and wine in the Eucharist.

That said, in a situation where communion is only given in one kind, remember that the priest always celebrates with both bread and wine and receives in both kinds. No priest should ever feel free to celebrate without both elements. During this period of time, all others in attendance would receive only the bread. It also seems wise that (in addition to the priest’s hands being thoroughly washed and cleansed before the liturgy and before touching anything), that the bread be given in the hand and without the priest touching the communicant’s hand. This helps to preclude hand-to-hand transmission of the virus.

It also seems prudent to suspend reception on the tongue, as some bishops have mandated. As any priest who had administered on the tongue will tell you, one’s fingers still come in contact with the tongue at least one-third of the time, as much as one tries to prevent it.

But what about those with Celiac disease, who cannot receive the consecrated bread? Our practice at the House has been to provide an uncontaminated chalice from which they can receive (i.e. not the one used by the priest, since the celebrants here usually incorporate the practice of the co-mixture: breaking off a piece of the bread and placing it in the chalice at the fraction). However, at present, sharing any common cup seems imprudent. If gluten-free or low-gluten hosts (such as these with the imprimatur of both the Catholic Church and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland) are not part of your church’s practice, small individual cups may be the best route for those who cannot receive the bread.

Suspending public worship

Our board has suspended all public worship at the seminary. In its place, two priests come to the chapel each morning and stream spoken Morning Prayer and a service of Holy Eucharist to the students via Facebook Live. If you know anything about Nashotah House, you can imagine that this was not received without complaint. Our common life orbits around the Office and Mass, every day of the year. Thus, this has created an existential and practical crisis for many (along with many requests for clandestine Masses!).

By this point, I think most of us with pastoral duties are facing the various kinds of responsibilities we share, while also facing the conundrum they present when considered together. Instead of presenting a coherent picture of ministry during this time, our responsibilities seem to create conflicts of interest:

On the one hand, priests rightly understand ourselves to be under authority to faithfully preach the Word of God and administer the Holy Sacraments. In a time of anxiety, fear, and even death, are not these the things the Church—nay, the world!—needs most?

Furthermore, pastors and priests have a moral obligation to minister to our flocks, even, I think we would all agree, at the risk of our lives. Consider St. Peter Damien (ora pro nobis), the Belgian minister to lepers in Hawaii. Last week, the Pope, rejecting Italian authorities’ call to stay inside, went to two churches in Rome to pray for an end to the pandemic.

On the other hand, our pastoral obligation to those in our care also includes the protection of their mortal bodies and, for that matter, the public good. It is clear that (miracles aside), the more people are together in large groups, the more likely the virus will spread. The most recent directives from state and federal authorities are not identical. But basically, experts agree that any group gathering makes for a seriously increased risk of spreading the virus.

In normal circumstances, I fear no sickness from a common cup. However, I also never receive from the chalice if I’m ill, which seems charitable and prudent. It also seems prudent and pastorally sensitive to ask people not to put themselves in harm’s way unnecessarily. While we would all agree that not only is it a good thing to gather on the Lord’s Day, but in fact, “meet, right, and our bounden duty,” the duty to worship together is not the same sort of duty as, say, the duty to confess Jesus as Lord in the face of the call to apostatize. To stay home out of concern for one’s wellbeing and that of others is a categorically different kind of act than the rejection of the faith. And, as is the case in much of this country, any such gatherings have been prohibited by civil authorities and affirmed by ecclesiastical ones. Hence, many Catholic dioceses have issued dispensations for Sunday Mass attendance for precisely this reason. Thus, we have a pastoral need to make the clear moral distinction between a proper openness by the Christian minister to risk for themselves and the very different question of encouraging people to gather for worship when this is precisely the activity that puts them, and the wider community (especially the most vulnerable), at the highest risk.

In tomorrow’s post, I will consider the specific responsibilities of bishops and priests as well as offer some concrete suggestions and resources.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the director of St. Mary’s Chapel, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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