The Eucharistic Feast: participation, representation and sacramental integrity in the time of social distancing

Apr 26, 2020 by

by Charlie Bell,

The coronavirus pandemic arose somewhat out of the blue, posing substantial challenges to a national church that had to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. One key tension of this period has been between continuity and change, with questions raised about what is fundamental to ‘being’ the Church of England. This paper offers a response to this question by suggesting that ‘new ways of being Church’ must be grounded in what the very nature of the Church is in the first place. From an understanding of the church’s Biblical origins, history, organisation and liturgy, it draws a line to the right ordering of the Church of England’s sacramental life and ministry in a time of social distancing and isolation, and provides some answers to the question – how might we be, truly, the Church of England in the time of pandemic?

The Church of England, like other constituent members of the Anglican Communion, and sister churches around the world, has been faced with significant challenges in response to the recent coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic which reached the UK in mid- March. The Archbishops described the challenge as ‘unprecedented peacetime measures to control the spread of the virus, with restrictions on public gatherings, transport and working’, and thus envisioned the Church of England becoming ‘a radically different kind of church rooted in prayer and serving others’.1 Whilst the situation which the church finds itself in may be new in terms of the specifics of the lockdown measures imposed, it is by no means unprecedented in historical terms (as described below) that the Church, in its many manifestations, has had to adapt to restrictions being placed on the public celebration of the sacraments and the meeting for corporate worship, for example in times of persecution such as the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan.2 However, what appears to pose particular theological questions in this current situation is the presence of virtual communication methods, which enable some form of community experience, yet in a way which clearly lacks the physicality of gatherings envisaged in New Testament witness (for example the early community being described as having ‘come together as a church’ to ‘eat the Lord’s supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:18-20) and within the Letter to the Hebrews) and throughout Christian history.

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