When public health measures necessitated the closure of places of worship in Canada back in March of 2020, local parish leaders entered into a flurry of activity to tend to difficult and immediate pastoral needs, and to reshape the worshiping and gathering life of their communities. Creativity abounded in some very lovely ways as the internet was engaged as never before to lead worship, hold pastoral conversations, dig into discipleship formation, and offer prayer. For many, the loss of the capacity to celebrate the eucharist struck hard and the grief that ensued was tough. A growing number of voices started to advocate for permission to adapt Holy Communion for remote or distanced safe practice, and debates sprang up about the nature of such words as real, virtual, presence, communion.
The conversations, sometimes energetic, sometimes polarized, pointed to a number of realities in the experiences of congregations, clergy, and lay leaders these days. That the celebration of Holy Eucharist has become the principal dominical act of worship, every, or almost every, Sunday in most communities in the Anglican Church of Canada, though it may seem like ‘it’s ever been thus’ is actually relatively new in the last two generations. That there continues to be disparity in the provision of such eucharist-focussed worship in many communities in rural, northern, and Indigenous communities runs parallel as a reality that confronts a fundamental divide of privilege across our church. That there is much that can be adapted to livestreaming and YouTube recordings has become now enough of a given that we can work on better perfecting techniques to better communicate the messages we want to be about.
So very much in these pandemic times is disorienting. What better time to reorient our attention to some of our foundations – to test to see if they still stand, to find there some strength, to learn anew what we think we’ve always known, all for the sake of continuing to shape our discipleship under Jesus for the sake of the world.
The Faith, Worship, and Ministry committee approved in June a proposal to invite approximately sixty Anglican leaders – laity, deacons, priests, bishops, professors, administrators – to reflect and write on a topic related to eucharistic worship and theology. The following are excerpts from the letter of invitation and explanation:
The present pandemic situation has created the context in which faithful adjustments in the lives of local Anglican parishes with online worship, pastoral care, and discipleship formation becoming a new ‘norm.’ Whether transitory or with longer reach, the present context and these responsive ministry and technological innovations are a rich field in which significant theological questions are seeded. We need to nurture those seeds. … We are looking for:
- writers to be self-consciously reflective, contextually specific, and to root their reflections in actual pastoral and worshipping experience in these present days;
- contributions that employ theological reflection across a broad disciplinary approach: ethics, liturgics, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, pastoral theology, ecumenics, apologetics, and other approaches;
- theological method that calls upon and speaks to Canadian expressions of the Anglican and catholic traditions of theological reflection, including the engagement of scripture, tradition, and reason, and integration of insights and questions from pastoral-liturgical-spiritual experiences as the ground of good theological reflection;
- questions as much as insights: the best work of theology is often to cast the right sorts of compelling questions for wider consideration, without necessarily having to answer those questions in the way of a solution; …
At this time of writing (September 29, 2020) we have received 40 submissions, including one from an ecumenical partner (United Church of Canada) and four from Anglican Communion partners.
We recognize that the very nature of these pandemic months has meant that many who had wanted to contribute have simply been unable to find the time to do so. It is also worth noting that of those approached, a small but significant number of people – particularly in Indigenous and rural contexts – indicated that the questions were really not a priority for them. In offering this collection of reflections we do well also to remember the privilege that permits time for reflection and writing. Fully one third of those approached with invitation declined due to the combinations of their own pastoral busyness and pressures in ministry in which this project is rather less than critically important. But what we do have here includes young laity and clergy in rural, small city, and large city contexts across all of the Canadian Ecclesiastical Provinces.
There are those who might expect or hope that, through this project, the Faith, Worship, and Ministry committee would be offering positions on particular eucharistic practices and weighing in on their validity. Such was not the aim of the project. Rather, it was our intention to invite a ‘going deeper’ set of considerations. In other words, instead of an approach that would directly address issues of pastoral and sacramental practice for the specific and unique time that is this pandemic time, we felt it important to invite reflections into the foundational matters of what our eucharistic and sacramental theology is in the life of the church, and to do so during the specific and unique time in which our ‘normal’ way of ‘doing church’ has been suspended. In so doing, we hope to construct a base of written reflections from which to create resources to further engage local catechesis and theological-spiritual formation. As with all things of the Reign of God, and sacramentality in particular, we did not set out to solve a puzzle about God’s ways and the church, but to invite the church to reflection within the mystery of God and God’s desire for the world and the church.