Holy Communion in Contagious Times by Richard Burridge; ‘Drink this All of You’ by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard
THE pandemic resulting from the Covid-19 virus has led Christian churches around the world to reconsider their usual communion practices, and to adopt a variety of expedients for its duration.
In the first part of his book (News, Comment, January 21; Letters, January 28, February 4), Richard Burridge documents and examines just seven alternative proposals that have been made and sometimes put into practice in response to this situation: abstinence from communion in total, spiritual communion, one priest celebrating alone, several priests simultaneously celebrating alone, lay presidency, communion driving and taking/sending consecrated elements to individual homes. In each case, he notes problems or objections to the practice.
Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard in their Grove pamphlet (News, January 21); attempt to cover similar ground, but much more briefly, and with a clearly preferred option in mind: the use of several individual cups rather than a single common chalice for the distribution of consecrated wine, an option not considered by Burridge .
In the second part of his book, Burridge goes much further and explores the world of the internet and the “cyber-church” and virtual reality. That seems to be where his real interest lies. It finally turns to the treatment of questions raised by various authors on live streaming, or the broadcasting of pre-recorded services, that is, the reality of online communities and the possibility of sacraments in this context.
Here, he seems less concerned with meeting needs in times of contagion than advocating for some sort of parity between online and physical presence. He devotes considerable space to it, challenging objections to the acceptance of authentic reality in such virtual experiences and mounting a strong theological defense against them. In doing so, however, he seems to overlook the fundamental physicality necessary for truly deep human relationships and overlooks the importance of physical contact and human touch as a medium in sacramental interaction. This fatally distorts his argument.
Touch is the deepest action people do with each other and it is the only thing that should be refused in the face of a contagious disease. Normally, we receive the baptism of another person; and we receive communion in the same way. No alternative arrangement can ever completely compensate for this loss of personal contact, and there is no “correct” practice to adopt in the event of a pandemic, as all have strengths and weaknesses.
Live streaming is nothing more than a high-tech version of traditional eye or spirit communion; and taking bread for oneself at home or taking an individual cup at church jeopardizes the reception of Communion from the hands of others. Some of these steps may be unavoidable in times of contagion, but they are not identical to full sacramental practice.
The danger lurking behind the adoption of any emergency provision, however, is what I have described in the past to my students as the employment of “deserted island” theology, that is- that is to argue from the exceptional to the normal instead of the other. way around. “If we were cut off from others and lacked, for example, a priest or bread or wine, what would we do? Well, why can’t we do that anyway? What may be appropriate in an extreme situation should never be misused to justify its practice in more regular times.
The Reverend Dr. Paul Bradshaw is Emeritus Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
Holy Communion in Contagious Times: Celebrating the Eucharist in the Everyday World and Online
Richard A. Burridge
Waterfall Books €25
Church Times Bookstore £22.50
“Drink this of you all”: individual cups during Holy Communion (W250)
Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard
Grove books €4.95