Early in this process, we reached out to friends in theological and liturgical networks in the Anglican Communion, and to some ecumenical partners. We learned about the efforts of the Scottish Episcopal Church to dedicate the summer 2020 issue of their official national theological journal to matters of theology, liturgy, and pastoral practice in pandemic times. This resource is noted as an appendix to our work here. We heard from Anglicans in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, Japan, Korea, and Australia struggling with exactly the same questions that have preoccupied us in terms of how to adapt into new ways of being church. We know of conversations going on within our ecumenical partners here in Canada too. In 2015, the United Church of Canada issued a directive relating to the livestreaming of worship and sacramental practice, arguing against ‘virtual eucharist’ for pastoral and theological reasons. More recently, the United Methodist Church in the United Kingdom issued a similar report. Links to each of these resources can also be found in the appendix.
We are grateful that Andrew O’Neill was able to contribute a paper from his perspective as a United Church partner, and former UCC co-chair of the Anglican United Church Dialogue of Canada. In it, Andrew gifts us with that precious voice that we need from our ecumenical partners: a mirror to hold up to ourselves, with questions that we need to ask of our own tradition, equally as he asks of his own, and that together we ask of our common life in Christ. If our understanding of the eucharist is anamnetic and not just memorial, it truly gathers us across time and space – how much of a leap is it to suggest that God’s sovereignty can also work through the gaps that we perceive acutely in time and space that digital media attempts to bridge? Given that online worship is now a thing that is not going to go away, how can we best prepare to teach and do the sort of good Christian formation online to shape the community’s self understanding eucharistically? And to what more is the Holy Spirit inviting us?
Phillip Tovey is an internationally well respected liturgical theologian from the Church of England. Grateful for the invitation to reflect on his own personal experiences in the early days of the pandemic lock down, he retraces his initial connection to live-streamed eucharists and exploration of the meaning of spiritual communion, with thanks to those closed monastic communities who continued their celebrations of the eucharist and were able in some ways to share that with the world. “So, to my surprise, I am not part of a Eucharistic community 173 miles away, where I have found a home.” It might be worth picking up with Phillip in the coming months to learn what lessons he has taken from that experience back to his usual Oxford community.
Ruth Meyers and James Farwell are on the faculties, respectively, of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the Virginia Theological Seminary. Meyers reminds us of the fundamental teachings about the eucharist as including all aspects of the liturgy: gathering of the community, word proclaimed and broken open in homily, prayers, meal, songs, reminding us that the anamnetic character of the eucharist is not contained just within the Great Thanksgiving but characterizes the whole of the celebration. As with others in this collection, she is critical of reductionistic approaches that project a limitation of the eucharist to just the reception. Farwell explains his own objections to virtual eucharist and his hesitancy about spiritual communion, bidding us to exercise the spiritual discipline of patience. Juan Oliver, a prominent Episcopal Church liturgical theologian and author, shares with Meyers and Farwell concerns about the reification of the eucharist, and takes us through biblical and historical foundations with a focus on the eschatological realities of eucharistic worship as ‘rehearsing the kingdom.’ He asks that, “instead of virtually packaging the clerical elements of our usual eucharist, hoping for the best,” we might consider that, if we must gather virtually, what does the virtual platform permit us to do very well, namely the necessary corollary to the meal, that is, to focus on the Word. In so doing, we can help to build up the spiritually robust capacity, when we come together again, to do so with a deeper consciousness of our part in ‘rehearsing the kingdom.’