By Matthew S. C. Olver

Part one of this essay considered questions of administering Holy Communion during the pandemic as well as the question of whether or not to hold public worship. Today I consider the responsibilities of clergy and the faithful and offer some practical resources and suggestions for worship in these disruptive times.

Responsibility of bishops and priests

The first thing I would say that we should not do is substitute the Daily Office for the Holy Eucharist. At the same time, the Office may be the only practical option for most lay Christians on Sunday mornings. Clearly, these are two things that are challenging to hold together. One of the few places where I think the 1979 BCP really failed the church was to treat the first part of the eucharistic liturgy as an interchangeable “Liturgy of the Word” with Morning or Evening Prayer. To quote Fr. John-Julian, “Just as the Holy Eucharist is primarily an ACTION, so the Divine Office is primarily a READING — a literary liturgy for the literate” (Elements of Offering, 65). The Office and the Mass are two different sorts of rites, each with a different purpose. The Office is a meditation on and a praying of the Scriptures centered on the recitation of the Psalter. It has characteristics of praise, but that is not its primary quality or intention.

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The Eucharist, on the other hand, is what catholic Christians understand to be the most doxological act they can do when they gather for “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (1979 BCP, p. 14). To clarify the proper distinction between the Office and the Mass, we do well to answer again a basic question: What is the Eucharist? Alexander Schmemann’s classic discussion of sacrifice in the first chapter of For the Life of the World sets a beautiful vision in clear and non-technical prose that summarizes the basic assumptions behind sacrifice for Jews — assumptions which were inherited by early Christians. Schmemann’s summary goes like this: God made the human creature first as a priest; that priest is placed in a garden of creation, depicted in Genesis with intentional parallels to the tabernacle and temple. What does a priest do? A priest offers sacrifices. What are sacrifices? A sacrifice is the offering to God of what the creature understands to be a gift from God. This offering is made as a way of acknowledging that God is not like me at all, but is in fact God — That from whom all things flow. In this approach, sacrifice is the most fundamental, the most primordial expression of doxology to the God of the universe.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice not because it involves the death of Jesus — though it certainly is a sacrament of his death. The Eucharist is a sacrifice not because we lose anything in the process — in fact, just the opposite, though we offer everything to God in the Eucharist.

The answer to the question that I provide to my students goes something like this: In the Eucharist, we offer to God everything that has been given to us: bread and wine, as symbols of all of creation; our selves — our souls and bodies — as St. Paul enjoins us in Romans 12:1 as living and spiritual sacrifices; and in our verbal praise and thanksgiving, we offer God that which he first gave to us, namely, everything. And he returns it to us as that which we need the most: Jesus himself. And we, in turn, are to offer ourselves back to God in our living and in our dying, to be the Body of Christ that we have received, and to show forth in our lives what we have received on our lips. In the eucharistic action, we ask the Father to make our sacrifice one with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ which, as Chrysostom reminds us, is inexhaustible and thus what Jesus still pleads on our behalf as our great high priest and mediator on his heavenly throne in the majesty on high. And it is only when our sacrifice is united with that of Christ that our sacrifice could be acceptable and pleasing to the Father.

As I heard one student say in dismay when they heard that they could not attend Mass on campus starting today: “We need more Masses, not fewer.” I agree (and we aren’t celebrating any fewer Masses at Nashotah, I should add). My point is that the Daily Office and the Mass both have necessary roles in the spiritual life of the Christian. One should not be substituted for the other.

Recommendations

1. The first thing that bishops and priests should do: Do not decrease the number of times they celebrate the Eucharist. In fact, if they can celebrate more frequently, they should This may very well mean that practice of what the Latin church calls a missa privata becomes normative in many churches as long the pandemic rages. This is a not a priest alone, as many assume, but one where a server (maybe the priest’s colleague, spouse, or child) stands in for the congregation to say their responses. In fact, there is nothing that restricts priests from even celebrating at home, if they cannot make their way to a consecrated space. The intention here, however, is important. If priests are celebrating at home in some selfish reflective act in order to get what we want (i.e. just to receive the benefits of Communion), then we should reconsider. But if it is to offer to God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the midst of and for the great need that surrounds us on every side, let God be praised!

What, then, of the faithful?

We must recall that the turn to more frequent reception of the sacrament (even daily reception at places like Nashotah) can have the possibility of treating the sacrament as a magic panacea for all ills, or as a substitute for all the other things that should mark our spiritual life.

The rise in more frequent Communion can also lure us into thinking that what God offers us in the sacrament cannot be accessed without the sacrament. True, this is the normative place to receive this gift. But as the rubric in the Ministration to the Sick clearly states, if one is prevented from receiving even both the physical elements, one is not prevented from receiving what God offers us in Communion:

If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth (BCP 457).

Thus, we must encourage those who cannot come because they themselves are sick, or because their minister deems Masses open to the public too great a risk, to engage in the practice of Spiritual Communion, as the BCP teaches. The recitation of the Office is not given to us by the Church as an alternative way to receive the gift given in the Blessed Sacrament. A different gift is given in the Office. We need both. Pastors: we would do well to encourage both the meditation on Sacred Scripture in the Office and the act of Spiritual Communion.

2. The second thing that bishops and priests should do: make every effort to enable people to participate in the Eucharist in a spiritual way when they cannot be physically present. Thus, making the Mass available to view via streaming is a pastorally wise and charitable thing the pastors can and should do, coupled with clear teaching about Spiritual Communion and instructions on how to engage in this way.

Two words of caution are in order when it comes to streaming worship. We need to keep before us that live-streaming is an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances. Many who read Covenant would be those who mocked big-box evangelical churches for encouraging on-line worship before all of this. The Church is both a spiritual and a material reality. There are reasons to ask if it will be hard to bring people back to their physical place of worship after all of this. As pastors, we must keep this before us as we prepare our sermons and consider how to respond.

The second word of caution is about the nature of the sacraments. The sacraments are material, personal encounters. Hence, the Catholic Church has stated clearly that confessions over Skype or GoogleHangouts are not properly sacramental. Hence the Pope just reminded the faithful not to be distressed over not having access to the confessional: “It’s very clear: if you don’t find a priest to hear your Confession, talk with God, He is your Father, and tell Him the truth: ‘Lord, I’ve done this, and that, and that . . . I’m sorry,” and ask Him for forgiveness with all your heart, with the Act of Contrition and promise Him: “Afterwards I will go to Confession, but forgive me now.” Similarly, the Church does not envision other sacraments, such as the Eucharist, to take place electronically. Bread and wine in front of your HD monitor while watching a live-streamed Mass does not the Eucharist make. The BCP rubrics are quite spare. Thus, the fact that they are explicit and unambiguous that “the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon” the bread and the wine in the institution narrative should remind us that this is not a gray area: we are not permitted to consecrate the Eucharist at a distance. The purpose of the rubric is not only to indicate intentionality (this bread, and not the stuff 10 feet away in the sacristy). But in this strange, new world, is also a reminder that this is a material act between persons, a sacrificial meal, and in which computers can have no hand.

3. Depending on the size of your congregation, it is possible to develop a method for distributing the sacrament safely to people on Sundays in their homes. However, there are reasons for caution. First, depending on the method of distribution, extreme care should be taken not to desecrate the Sacrament.  Second, we must not forget that frequent reception of the Eucharist has not been the norm for most people for most of Christian history. Thus, deprivation from receiving Bread and Wine may actually be the most spiritually appropriate response for this season of deprivation across much of our lives. Pastors must carefully weigh these matters. Third, such distribution may not be wise or even possible in many places. The Bishop of Dallas, for example, has direct that parishes may notcreate a practice of on-going, weekly distribution of communion. Clergy may, once, on one Sunday, with great sanitary care, distribute communion to parishioners after a congregation-less service,” most likely around Easter. 

One example I heard about how such a distribution could take place is this: the priest of a smaller parish called everyone in their parish and asked if they would like the sacrament brought to them. A list was made of all those who did and inside envelopes was placed enough hosts for each member of the household by someone who had thoroughly cleansed their hands and all surfaces (inspired by the consecration of the fermentum by the bishop at the Mass of Collegiality during Holy Week). The priest celebrated the Mass on Sunday and consecrated all the bread that was to be taken to the parishioners. Then the priest (and a few Eucharistic ministers) went directly to people’s homes (having cleansed their hands carefully and kept the envelopes in brand new ziplock backs to avoid contamination). The parishioners were provided with a liturgy to do at home adapted from “Communion under Special Circumstances” (from the 1979 BCP, p. 396-399), plus a bulletin and the lectionary readings. See examples here and here. If this sounds a little odd, it’s not that different from what Justin Martyr describes in his First Apology 65: “And when the presider has given thanks and all the people have assented, those called by us ‘deacons’ give to each one of those present to share the bread and wine and water over which thanks have been given thanks have been given, and they take [them] to those not present.” 

4. The fourth thing that bishops and priests should do: encourage and enable our people to be praying the Daily Office, not in place of the Eucharist, but alongside it. These are the two lungs of the spiritual life that fan the flame of private devotion that should also characterize the life of the faithful. Make a brief YouTube video to explain how to pray the Office, navigate the lectionary, and so forth. But let us not neglect to pray the Scriptures in the form the Church has given us in the Office.

5. The fifth thing that bishops and priests should do: Beg God to have mercy and bring this pandemic to an end and to preserve life. Pray the Supplication (see below) and encourage your people to do so. The Supplication is provided for times just such as these. If you are able, you can offer the Eucharist with a special intention for the deliverance of God.

6. I would also encourage you to cry out for the assistance of the great cloud of witnesses, even if this has not been part of your piety up until now. The Memorare is an especially fitting request for the assistance of the Blessed Virgin:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.[/End Quote]

See also the set of prayer resources from the prayer book tradition, provided by Bishop John Bauerschmidt here on Covenant as well as this even longer collection of texts.

The Supplication

For use in the Litany in place of the Versicle and Collect which follows the Lord’s Prayer; or at the end of Morning or Evening Prayer; or as a separate devotion; especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.

O Lord, arise, help us;

And deliver us for thy Name’s sake.

O God, we have heard with our ears, and our fathers have declared unto us, the noble works that thou didst in their days, and in the old time before them.

O Lord, arise, help us;
and deliver us for thy Name’s sake.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

O Lord, arise, help us;
and deliver us for thy Name’s sake.

V. From our enemies defend us, O Christ;
R. Graciously behold our afflictions.
V. With pity behold the sorrows of our hearts;

R. Mercifully forgive the sins of thy people.

V. Favorably with mercy hear our prayers;
R. O Son of David, have mercy upon us.
V. Both now and ever vouchsafe to hear us, O Christ;
R. Graciously hear us, O Christ; graciously hear us, O Lord Christ.

The Officiant concludes

Let us pray.

We humbly beseech thee, O Father, mercifully to look upon our infirmities; and, for the glory of thy Name, turn from us all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and confidence in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness and pureness of living, to thy honor and glory; through our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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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Lorna Harris

Really enjoyed your contribution.

Thanks so much, Lorna! Grateful for your feedback.

Hi Father, as restrictions increasingly isolate clergy, where the Eucharist continues to be permitted to be celebrated, it is likely that it may well be required to be celebrated by the priest alone without even server. This has effectively come down in my own Diocese now, and without any guidance on how to adapt the Prayer Book to such circumstances. The Diocese of Chirchester has an ad clerum where clergy are told to say only the parts of the mass that they would normally say and omit the people’s parts, but to maintain the blessing and dismissal, etc. It feels… Read more »

The Bishop of Chichester’s letter is quite marvelous, in part because it is so practical. I would follow it closely. I agree about the absolution and blessing. Given that the confession is optional, I think it would be fine to omit the general confession, assuming that you have made a serious examination of conscience before celebrating. The blessing is also optional and thus I think could also be omitted, since there is no one present to receive it. I am hesitant to say more about situations where it has been prohibited, except this: I’m not sure that a bishop can… Read more »

In the Canadian BCP, the confession and absolution are not optional. Would one perhaps simply cross oneself facing the altar during the absolution rather than facing the camera/people and making the sign over them? In the office, I’ve seen clergy simply using the alternate form of assurance of the forgiveness of sins for Deacons/lay officiants, which makes sense, but again in the Canadian BCP there is no option for that. That said, p66 makes clear the communion may not take place without at least one other person, and that rubric has been ejected. Rather than the above would it make… Read more »

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