The Lord’s Supper is a concentrated form of the ministry of Word and Spirit that enlivens and strengthens faith. The Lord’s Supper involves both divine and human action: the risen Lord offers himself in the word of the gospel by his Spirit, and believers participate through call and response, by coming forward and giving one to another, and then eating and drinking in faith. The whole event of the Lord’s Supper communicates Christ, not simply the bread and wine. Without the gospel proclaimed, without the presence of other believers, without faith given by the Spirit, we cannot celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
During this period of physical distancing, I have been cautious with our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I have done this to observe both the directions of our Archbishop and also for theological reasons. 1 Corinthians 11 provides warnings about not treating the supper lightly, including ‘discerning the body’ rightly (11:29). This ‘body’ refers not to the elements on the table but to the gathered community sharing the meal. This is about discerning the real presence of Christ in our fellow believers around the table. The Lord’s Supper is a physical, embodied celebration of our spiritual unity. But while our spiritual unity remains during lockdown, we are unable to physically embody the normal actions of this ritual-meal.
On Easter Sunday we lamented that we could not physically feast together as we prayed words from the Great Thanksgiving, with no one sharing the bread or cup. Similarly, when we were able to have up to 20 brothers and sisters physically present some were able to share in the sacrament, yet we continued to grieve the diminished physical presence of that time. While a computer can do a good job of transmitting video and sound, it cannot transmit the physical experience of hugs, handshakes, face-to-face conversation, food, drink, touch, taste or smell. It is very difficult to ‘break the same bread’ and ‘drink from the same cup’ over the Internet. That is why loathe to suggest that we can properly re-member Christ through this Supper when the members of Christ’s body are physically separated.
Having said this, other churches do frequently video the priest sharing bread and wine despite the wider church not being physically present. To some extent this is understandable, because Christ does promise to be present whenever two or three are gathered in his name. And I suppose we are still gathering, albeit virtually. So perhaps we can ‘discern the body’ through our online connections even though we cannot fully embody this ritual-meal while physically separate. Yet I still prefer patience, because the command to discern Christ’s presence in our fellow brothers and sisters at the table includes ‘waiting for each other’ until we can all eat together (1 Cor. 11:33).
But despite this physical limitation, our spiritual union with Christ and each other remains. Alongside our patience, I encourage you to keep connecting and supporting each other via phone and online, ‘discerning’ the body as best we can. Christ remains present whenever you share with other Christians through prayerful conversation, speaking the word to one another with hearts lifted to the Lord. I have also prepared a liturgy which may assist your practice of spiritual communion at home. You can access it here.