Real Presence? Theological Reflection on Online Eucharists

This paper was prepared for an online conference on Saturday 25 September 2021 organised by the Scottish Episcopal Institute. Four Scottish Episcopal priests in pastoral ministry discussed the theological implications of celebrating the Eucharist online during a pandemic. It was a good, collegial discussion, with many people joining us, and all four papers will be published in the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal. The questions we raised were important, concerning our faithfulness to Christ and to the people who are his Body, and so it seems good to share my paper here.

The coronavirus pandemic caused the government and devolved administrations to impose lockdowns which resulted in the closing of churches in the UK, effectively outlawing attendance at the Eucharist and reception of the sacrament. Done for good public health reasons, this was a situation previously only imposed by repressive regimes, but the presence of the internet meant that clergy and congregations were able to respond in creative ways to maintain their worshipping life. A key factor for the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) was that the Eucharist is central to our worship, in some congregations it may be the only act of worship.[1] After briefly outlining my own experience, I will consider some of the theological questions it raised from an Episcopalian perspective but in an ecumenical context. The central question concerns the difference between the Eucharist celebrated by a group gathered in one place, and one where the congregation are separated (or united) by the internet.

Experience of Eucharist in lockdown

At my church, Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, Edinburgh, I was instituted as Rector on 18 February 2020 and public worship was suspended by the College of Bishops on 17 March just before the national lockdown on 23 March. I continued to celebrate the Eucharist alone and with my family, first at an altar in the Rectory and then in the Church. The main challenge was how to hold the congregation together and help them to continue to worship in isolation. The first act was to collect email addresses and send out a weekly email newsletter with helps to prayer at home and the assurance that the Eucharist was being celebrated at the usual times for the intentions of the congregation. To help us pray together I started making a video of the Sunday Eucharist, recorded in the Church on the previous Thursday, which was published on a new YouTube channel and a new Facebook page each Sunday morning. We also started celebrating Evening Prayer together on Zoom on Thursday evenings. Use of the technology involved a steep learning curve but by the time I ceased making the videos, just before Holy Week 2021, they had become quite sophisticated, including music and readings by members of the congregation.

These actions were reactions to a crisis and were clearly ‘second best’: all of us would have preferred to worship together in Church on a Sunday. They raise a number of theological questions, some of which I discussed on my blog Amalarius, and also reveal things about the congregation as all of this was done in conversation with them and the Vestry. While a few watched the national SEC Eucharist video or videos, Zoom celebrations and live-feeds from other churches, the vast majority wanted to see the sacrament celebrated in the sacred space of their church. The one online service that has continued is Evening Prayer on Zoom, where we are visibly present to each other on screen, pray together and share prayer intentions in real time. In my mind we are really present to each other and sharing prayer in the same way as if we were in Church. It has the advantage that a group of six or seven from all over the city can pray together without travelling — without Zoom the service wouldn’t happen. On the other hand one can be physically present at a service in a church with others but not present at all in mind. For me, Zoom Evening Prayer allows a way of being present for prayer as a group but it raises the question, is the Eucharist different?

I mention my experience as it was the basis for the theological reflection below but I am aware that SEC congregations varied in their response to the lockdown and encountered the Eucharist online in different ways enabling different forms of personal ‘presence’ at the celebration. A pre-recorded video is distant in time but present in image. At Holy Cross we recommended that people watch it at the time the same Eucharist (at least in terms of texts) was being celebrated in Church. A live stream is better at getting beyond this temporal disconnect (which messes with the priest’s sense of time) and enables presence in time and image but not in space or direct participation. Using a platform like Zoom adds to the presence in time and image an expression of presence in participation, for example by speaking or singing. What is missing from all these modes of engagement is physical presence in space, but the visual presence is also electronically mediated via a screen, and in some modes the participants are present to each other in time. What is the theological value of these different types of celebration of the Eucharist, particularly if people consume bread and wine at their screens?

Ecumenical theology and the online Eucharist

Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’. The theological task of understanding, for an Episcopalian, involves both our personal faith, our adherence to Christ, and the Catholic faith as received by the SEC. There is, however, some confusion about the latter. An encouraging message from the College of Bishops at the start of the first lockdown noted that ‘a wide range of views can be found in our churches’ and spoke of ‘a wonderful diversity in what this pattern of [eucharistic] worship means in our lives as Christians’.[2] This is true but it is not the whole truth. In our Liturgy and Canons we are clear that the SEC is a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and our doctrine must thus be that of the Catholic Church.[3] While the reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a profound historical influence on the SEC, it does not, unlike the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, reference them in its self-definition and the College of Bishops repudiated the term ‘Protestant’ as part of the name of our Church in 1838.[4] It is thus important to ensure that this discussion relates to the Episcopalian context, and comparison with other denominations can help here.

The doctrine of the SEC is not, however, static because Catholic doctrine develops over time. We can see this, for example, in teaching on the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist and Marriage. Usually, reflection on Scripture and experience leads to debate and argument which is followed by the acceptance or rejection of the development by an authoritative assembly of the Church such as a Synod or Council. Online Eucharists are certainly a new phenomenon, which includes celebration of the Eucharist in virtual worlds such as Second Life and the practice, brought to the fore during the lockdowns, of a Minister in one place consecrating the bread and wine in another place through electronic mediation. Are these practices indicative of a development in doctrine or can they be fully understood, and either accepted or rejected, in traditional theological and sacramental categories?

Before considering this question, we need to ask: what is the Eucharist? It is following the command of Jesus to ‘do this in memory of me’ when he took bread and wine, blessed them while saying words over them, and gave them to his disciples. We can immediately see the problem. It is not just a matter of words, physical things are handed over. One could imagine Jesus and the Apostles praying together on Zoom, but one cannot imagine this physical handing over online without a Star Trek-type transporter where the bread and cup are converted to an energy pattern and transported to another location. Stories of bilocation in the lives of the saints suggest this is not impossible in the Christian thought-world, but we are left with the question of whether the spatial and physical presence has any value in itself.

Some people did indeed put bread and wine by their screen and consumed it at the moment of communion online, although this was discouraged by the College of Bishops.[5] One way of understanding the theological issues raised by this practice is by asking what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is easy for a Scottish Episcopalian to answer at one level as we pray to the Father that by the power of the holy Spirit ‘they may be the Body and Blood of your Son’.[6] This follows on from the clear words of Jesus in the institution narrative, ‘this is my body/blood’, and it is more explicit than the equivalent formulas in the Roman Catholic and Church of England Eucharistic rites which say ‘may be for us’, which can be understood in a receptionist way detaching the presence of the body and blood of Christ somewhat from the elements. Obviously Christ is present ‘for us’, not just for his own pleasure, and equally obviously Roman Catholic teaching excludes receptionism, but the SEC formula makes it very clear that the bread and wine actually become in some mysterious way the body and blood of Christ. The SEC has a very ‘strong’ belief in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This is the grounds for the ancient Episcopalian custom of reserving the blessed Sacrament for communion of those who are unable to be present at the eucharist and it is also accompanied by a long-standing Anglican reticence about trying to explain the way that Christ is present, hence a traditional Anglican hostility to transubstantiation.[7] It is important to note here that this is the clear teaching of the SEC as found in our Liturgy. In the context of the present day, there may be a ‘wonderful diversity’ of views among individual Episcopalians but if one of these views does not accord with this strong belief in the real presence it is not Episcopalian. Our teaching is clearly put by Bishop Forbes of Brechin:

The Holy Church throughout the world and in every age, has with one voice declared in the words of S. Justin Martyr, that the bread of the Eucharist is the flesh of the Incarnate Jesus. With S. Cyril it challenges the world, when Christ has said, “This is my Body,” to dare to say, “This is not his Body![8]

Having established that Episcopalians are committed to sacramental realism, it is important not to caricature the Reformed or Calvinist view of the Eucharist as being just consuming bread and wine (or substitutes) while thinking of Jesus. This is because not only has ecumenical eucharistic theology developed in recent years but the Reformed tradition is clear that the bread and wine are ‘not naked signs’ but really convey the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ.[9] The Reformed view of the sacrament, however, detaches the reality of the sacrament from the physical elements in a distinctive way. This ‘spiritualisation’ can be seen as involving a devaluing of matter, Calvin even suggests that the physical things in the sacraments are just a concession to fallen human weakness.[10] One could go further and argue that it is an implicit rejection of the incarnation, in the words of the poet Edwin Muir, ‘the Word made flesh here is made word again’.[11] In this intellectualist theology it is easy to say, as the Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church have done, that we can authentically share communion by consuming bread and wine in front of our computer screen detached in matter and place from other Christians.[12] The Church of Scotland even suggests that Baptism may be administered remotely with a Minister on screen blessing the water and saying the baptismal formula (the ‘form’ of the sacrament in traditional theology) while someone else pours the water (the ‘matter’ of the sacrament).[13] From a Catholic position this is not possible as, while anyone can baptise someone and the water does not need to be blessed, this separation of the ‘matter’ and ‘form’ of the sacrament drives a wedge into the heart of the sacrament such as to suggest that it is not a true Baptism. The URC position paper makes this ‘spiritualisation’ clear:

What about the theology? A positive point comes from Calvin, that communion brings earthly people into the presence of the heavenly Christ… if the Spirit can do this for us with Jesus, the Spirit can surely unite us with one another in a virtual sharing of this sacrament.[14]

It is worth setting this discussion in an ecumenical perspective, but in the Catholic tradition to which the SEC belongs such views are more difficult to conceive. One should, however, note that many of those who successfully challenged the Scottish Government on its prohibition of public worship were from the Reformed tradition. Presbyterian emphasis on celebrating the Lord’s Supper only in the gathered congregation, as shown in their historic opposition to private Masses and to bringing Holy Communion to the sick, together with the emphasis on the gathered congregation in the Westminster Confession may explain this emphasis on physical gathering among traditional Presbyterians.[15] In his opinion, Lord Braid said that,

The essence of the petitioners’ case is that an integral part of Christianity is the physical gathering together of Christians for prayer, proclamation of the gospel, the celebration of communion and the administration of the sacrament of baptism.  The essential physical element of these aspects of their faith is absent from virtual, internet events.[16]

This raises the question of how the concept of ‘place’ (the localisation of physical presence) fits into sacramental theology.

To those formed in the Catholic tradition there is often an instinctive feeling that it is not right to consume bread and wine by your laptop which has not been consecrated in the place of the eucharistic celebration. This is connected to the knowledge that a validly ordained priest is required for a celebration of the Eucharist.[17] Lord Braid’s opinion, responding to the Roman Catholic petitioner’s argument, adds an argument from sacred space, although it is strange that this omits the main reason Catholics wish to pray in Church which is the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle:

Church buildings have a particular significance within Catholicism (which is why praying at home is not equivalent to praying in a church). A consecrated church building is considered to be a sacred space. The sacramental grace cannot be received from a video-recorded or video-streamed service.[18]

In Catholic theology grace may be received by the human person in many ways but sacramental grace only from a sacrament and the sacraments are bounded by the will of Christ revealed in their institution. The rest of this article will consider some reasons for and against the feeling that ‘remote consecration’ is not right based on three comments by friends on this topic.

‘Every Mass is virtual’

The Lutheran theologian Deanna A. Thompson, reflecting on her experience of illness and quoting Jason Byassee, has argued that ‘the Body of Christ has always been a virtual body’.[19] Is this true? A Eucharist is not just a group of Christians gathering to share bread and wine, pray and read the Scriptures because it participates in the worship of heaven ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. The Scottish Episcopalian tradition is also very clear that the Eucharist is a sacrifice and a participation in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross which is offered in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8–10). This is affirmed by authors with diverse views on eucharistic theology such as Alexander Jolly and A. P. Forbes.[20] A Eucharist is thus not confined by place, but is it virtual. ‘Virtual’, however, means ‘made to appear to exist by the use of computer software, for example on the internet’.[21] This is not true of the Eucharist where by the power of the Holy Spirit we, though in this world of change and shadows, are enabled to participate in what is most real, worship in heaven. In the examples given in the definition, though, a ‘virtual classroom’, a ‘virtual tour of the museum’, the virtual environments actually do exist as they are places of encounter for those who enter them even if they are not physical spaces.

The Oxford English Dictionary derives ‘virtual’ from the Latin ‘virtualis, virtus’ with the latter meaning ‘virtue’, but ‘virtus’ can also mean ‘power’ and as one enters the heavenly world by the power of the Holy Spirit one might say, stretching definitions somewhat, that the Mass is ‘virtual’.[22] Part of the most ancient eucharistic prayers can help here:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.[23]

The significant thing about this prayer is that the angelic mediation links the heavenly altar with the earthly altar. It is not a visionary ascent to the heavenly Temple, as one finds in Scripture and the lives of the saints, but physical offerings in a physical place are a means of accessing the grace and blessing of heaven which is only analogously a ‘place’. The outward signs of the Eucharist convey an inward and spiritual grace. As these outward signs are inescapably physical and grace is real, the Mass is thus not in any meaningful sense ‘virtual’.

Some have, however, challenged the definition of ‘virtual’ as not real, as only appearing to exist. The Baptist theologian Paul S. Fiddes argued for the validity of sacraments celebrated in the virtual world ‘Second Life’, but this was refuted by the Anglican liturgist Bosco Peters using arguments that are relevant to online Eucharists in lockdown,

A sacrament requires particular “matter”. Baptism uses water, Eucharist uses bread and wine. We cannot pour a jar of jelly-beans over someone and say they are baptised. We cannot consecrate a bicycle and say this is the Eucharist. Such sacramental theology is also clear on whom we might confer the sacrament. We cannot baptise a pram. We cannot give communion to a letterbox. [24]

Peters does, however, suggest that this form of virtual communion may be possible in Baptist theology but not in Catholic theology:

There is within Christianity a minority position that regards sacraments as primarily something happening in one’s mind, or metaphorical heart. This position holds that the bread and wine are reminders to the faithful person receiving them. Fiddes, an ordained Baptist minister, is faithful to [this view] … in his sacramental ideas about an individual receiving grace by being mentally involved in a computer simulation.[25]

It has been nearly 75 years since the first televised Mass took place, a Midnight Mass broadcast from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral at Christmas in 1948.[26] Peters noted that there had been many discussions about whether bread and wine, placed before a television screen, would be consecrated by a priest presiding at a service being televised and the general conclusion had been negative. The only way that online Eucharists go beyond live TV is that the viewer can take a more active part. Does this more active ‘presence’ without being ‘physically present’ change the situation? It all depends on the importance of physical presence.

In an interesting reflection on online communion in the Baptist tradition, Steve Holmes makes a distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘somatic’ (i.e. bodily) presence and argues that online Eucharists do involve physical presence as ‘signals in fibre optic cables and electromagnetic waves are physical realities; our shared presence together in an online—virtual—meeting is therefore a mediated physical presence’.[27] This is, however, unconvincing because the key word here is ‘mediated’, there is a physical mediation but not a physical presence which is the same as a ‘somatic’ presence. Holmes goes on to suggest that a Eucharist that required somatic action such as touching all the elements or shaking hands with all at the peace could not be done online. He says he does not know of such a eucharistic practice but Anglicans should immediately recognise that this somatic action is precisely required by the ‘manual acts’ in the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Here the Presbyter is to take the paten in his hands… to lay his hands upon all the bread… to lay his hands upon every vessel… in which there is any wine to be consecrated’.[28] This is not explicitly required in modern Anglican Liturgies and the common Western tradition is that an intention to consecrate while holding some of the bread and one chalice is sufficient, but it does show that Anglican eucharistic theology works on different principles than Reformed eucharistic theology. There can be no consecration through the screen at a Prayer Book Eucharist and, as the Prayer Book is an essential part of our heritage, the presumption is that this is still the case.

 ‘You can’t have an online food bank’.

The second comment means that if you can’t be fed food online, you can’t be fed sacramentally by Holy Communion online. In the Eucharist, as in a food bank, the essential action is being given food. The Eucharist, like feeding those in need, requires physical presence, can’t be done at a distance and demands touch in one form or another. This has a clear link to Jesus’ ministry. In commenting on Jesus healing the leper by touch (Matthew 8.1­–4) Thomas Aquinas reflects on the importance of touch for Jesus, human relationships and the sacrament:

He touched in order to show his humanity… he touched him in order to manifest the doctrine concerning the power in the sacraments; because both touch (tactus) and words are required, for when the word is joined to the element, the sacrament comes to be.[29]

The sacraments are tactile things using bread, wine, water and touch, even in the case of marriage which in traditional scholastic theology of the seven sacraments has the vows of the couple as its theological ‘matter’, the physical consummation is a part of the sacrament even if not required for validity.[30]

Like sharing food, the intimate communion of sexual intercourse may be compared to the bodily sharing of Holy Communion. Sex already has many online manifestations, with varying degrees of viewer participation, and while it may seem irreverent to compare them to online Eucharists there are certain similarities, not least that all are related to an act involving physical personal presence, even if some people may come to prefer a virtual presence. Pornography may thus provide an analogy which helps us to understand online Eucharists.

Thinking of the artificiality of online Eucharists one may also relate them to trends in modern society emphasising the importance of the natural, the local and the authentic, and to a tension between localism and globalism. Against the background of the climate crisis, a simple sacramental act with minimal energy use, drawing people from the local area and sanctifying the fruits of the earth as means of grace seems more authentic than accessing the sacrament by means of an electronic device.

The ‘distance’ involved in an online Eucharist may not necessarily harm the planet or take on the character of the fantasy involved in pornography, but a recent examination of online Eucharists by Matthew Schmitz has associated them with spiritual consumerism and selfishness.[31] This is a hard thing to say but serious theology can take us to difficult places. This section is not to be taken as a criticism of those, including the writer, who have been helped by the Eucharist online, but as a warning of the dangers involved and a call to self-examination for those swift to bring bread and wine to the screen. To do so is not as unproblematic as one might think. Schmitz argues that:

No one has a right to the Eucharist… our desire for the sacrament does not mean it ought to be available to us… grace is not a consumer commodity, like a Big Mac, or something peculiar to the individual, but a gift that is both underserved and only given in and constitutive of real community in a real way… the question is not, ought not the Body of Christ be available to me, but ought not I be available to the Body in the way the Body (the Church) has been instructed and constructed to both give and receive it?[32]

In the light of the different theologies outlined above, this critique of a sense of entitlement might have different implications in a Baptist or Reformed context or in a Catholic and Anglican context where a priest is required for the celebration of the Eucharist. When considering various forms of mediation Schmitz concludes that a ‘virtual presence will always be a real absence; the chief virtue of that absence may be to create in us a yearning for the Presence, and direct us to seek it where it may really be found’. Thus an online Eucharist does not give us access to the Eucharist but it sparks a desire for it which may be met in spiritual communion. Schmitz’s argument contrasts what we have received from Christ with the desire for instant gratification that is common in our consumer culture.

from the film ‘Silence’ about the origin of the Hidden Christians of Japan

It is appropriate here to compare our limited lockdowns which provoked these questions with the plight of the ‘hidden Christians’ in Japan who, after the final expulsion of priests in the mid-seventeenth century, continued to practice their faith and maintain the orthodox practice of lay baptism for over two centuries without clergy or the Eucharist until they met newly-arrived French priests in 1865. They could have had lay-led celebrations of the Eucharist with local food and drink but, recognising that these would not actually be the Mass, they accepted the deprivation and maintained their desire down the generations until it could be authentically satisfied. Watching a Eucharist online can be an acknowledgement of eucharistic ‘famine’ or ‘deprivation’; but against the example of the Japanese ‘hidden Christians’, eating one’s own bread and wine in front of the screen can appear a manifestation of the desire for instant personal gratification. Perhaps the Scottish Bishops were right, in their March 2020 ‘reflection on worship during lockdown’, to encourage spiritual communion and discourage consuming bread and wine by our screens.

‘Second best is sometimes the best’

In Episcopalian tradition the Revd John MacLachlan of Appin is said to have celebrated Holy Communion for fellow members of the Jacobite army on the eve of the battle of Culloden using oatcakes and whisky, as he had no bread and wine.[33] In some Anglican Provinces elements other than bread and wine are used for Holy Communion as either alcohol is forbidden by the government, individuals are not able to safely consume bread or wine, or bread and wine are too expensive as they have to be imported.[34] If we take seriously the shape of the sacrament as we have received it (cf 1 Corinthians 11.23-26) we might be constrained by necessity to modify the matter used (or we might accept the deprivation in faith), but to change the matter to suit our preferences is only possible where the physical and material things and gestures are seen as optional, as in this rubric to a Baptist online communion service: ‘Please find some bread and wine (or whatever you prefer) before you play this video’.[35] I say this not to criticise a practice that may be in harmony with Baptist eucharistic theology but to point out that Episcopalian theology is different. Even in a denomination that has embraced online communion such as the URC there is a recognition that it is ‘a reasonable interim measure… it will both remind us of times when we could share at the Lord’s table and point forward to times when we shall do so again’.[36]

Having argued that remote consecration is neither possible nor desirable in Catholic and Anglican theology, I must also affirm that online Eucharists filled an important role during lockdown in supporting the faithful. It was a ‘second best’ that fulfilled a real need. That most of us didn’t transmit Mattins or Morning Prayer suggests that online Eucharists were what ‘worked’, or it might be that, unlike our Evangelical colleagues, we are so ‘eucharistized’ that we cannot conceive of prioritising another service. It may be that this is only a problem because of Pope Pius X and the Anglican parish communion movement, which put frequent communion at the heart of Christian spirituality. Infrequent communion was a Roman Catholic as well as an Anglican and a Protestant tradition, and these twentieth-century developments made the Eucharist the main Sunday service for Anglicans. For Episcopalians this was a radical change: in 1900 of the 65 charges of the diocese of Edinburgh only two had the Eucharist as their main Sunday service and by 1995 of the 56 charges in the diocese only four did not have the Eucharist as their main Sunday service.[37] The lockdown may challenge us to develop other services besides the Eucharist.

Some have argued that modern technology creates a wholly new situation that justifies a development of doctrine or practice. Diana Butler-Bass has said that, while the one-way medium of television does not assist sharing in the Eucharist, the internet with the possibility of real-time communication has ‘extraordinary capacity to create community, to connect people’ and thus allows consecration through the screen while accepting priests are still necessary for the Eucharist.[38] This does not, however, answer the argument that this electronic mediation overthrows the nature of a sacrament, because the priest and the elements, and thus the congregation are not physically present to each other. There are traditional responses to the inability to be present at the Eucharist. One is bringing communion to those who can not be present, where the physical link remains through the elements themselves, but this was not possible in deepest lockdown. Another is spiritual communion, mentioned above, which is rooted in Augustine’s distinction between the inner reality (res) of the sacrament and its sacramental signs (sacramentum) and was developed by Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas and others in an age of infrequent communion.[39] It is presented as a normal practice for Episcopalians in a mid-twentieth century booklet:

If you are unable to get to a church for the Holy Eucharist and for your Communion, go apart with your Prayer Book and think of yourself as still a member of the congregation in which you usually worship, even though separated by distance. Follow the service, as though you were actually there, until you come to the Communion. Then say prayers of preparation, as if you were going to receive the Holy Sacrament. After that, ask our Lord in your own words to come into your soul in a Spiritual Communion. Make your customary thanksgiving afterwards.[40]

Together with the inescapably physical and communal-somatic nature of the Eucharist, the fact that this practice already gives access to the reality of the sacrament is given by the Anglican theologian Christopher Brittan as one of the reasons online Communion is not acceptable at the end of a review of the various reasons justifying virtual Communion.[41]

This reflection on coping with what is second best can also validly ask, ‘for whom?’ In some ways an online Eucharist is not inclusive, you need the time, space and equipment to access it and access to the technology will determine who has access to the sacraments. It can, however, also be seen as inclusive. I recently heard of a physically disabled person who can’t get to Church saying she had never felt so much part of the community as when all joined together online for the Eucharist and she lost that when most members of her Church returned to the building.[42] Something has been gained through lockdown but far more has been lost.


Diana Butler Bass claimed of online Eucharists that ‘what is happening right now is really challenging our understanding of the nature of time and space’.[43] The arguments above suggest that this is not true. The resources of our traditional theology are adequate to cope with the restrictions of lockdown, Holy Communion may not authentically be administered through the internet, and there has been a yearning to get back to natural modes of presence, place and human contact in real time. We all did our best in difficult circumstances, as Japanese Christians did in the seventeenth century during a far greater crisis for the Church, but responses in our crisis do reveal some possible spiritual and theological weaknesses. The analogies with pornography warn against allowing online Eucharists to foster an individualised, commodified religion of private consumption, the ‘auto-erotisme’ of created religious experience without commitment which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger famously used in 1997 to describe some Western appropriations of Buddhist meditation.[44] The charge of spiritual consumerism and selfishness certainly deserves to be taken seriously: by what right do we demand the sacrament even at the cost of distorting its essential nature?

Online Eucharists clearly did fulfil a need, ours reached many more people than are usually present in Church, and they confirmed the importance of online presence for mission, but if they were second best, what was their value? The key question here is, what is the Eucharist? Reformed theology seems much more hospitable than Catholic theology to sharing the bread and wine through the screen, probably because material things like these elements are less important or at least held at a greater distance from the spiritual realities they signify. Catholic theology, to which the liturgy of the SEC commits us, is more local and physical, allowing a genuine participation in spiritual realities by mediation through place and matter. This mediation also requires the presence of an ordained priest who provides a link in time and space with the Body of Christ into which we are incorporated by Baptism. The Anglican or Catholic Eucharist and the Presbyterian or Baptist Eucharist are in some respects different things, even though they are both genuine responses to the command of Christ.

What then is the value of an online Eucharist? At a Eucharist broadcast from St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, the Vice Provost gave a blessing to camera with the consecrated host, a sign of inclusion to viewers which recalled the devotional practice of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. ‘Ocular communion’ was a way of receiving the benefits of the sacrament by looking at it, which is associated with the development of the practices of elevation and benediction of the sacrament in the Middle Ages at a time of infrequent reception. Mark Schmitz and Jonathan Jong both looked at the theology of this practice as a way of understanding the value of online Eucharists and both found it inadequate except as a prompt to spiritual communion, as Schmitz concluded:

While a digital image of a consecrated host is impossible to receive in any real way, it may prompt us to make an act of spiritual communion, which is lovely and edifying and, best of all: real. But the image can only ever be a prompt to seek the Presence elsewhere than in itself, because in itself there is no ‘there’ there.[45]

This is perhaps the best argument for online Eucharists. Like an icon they direct desire towards the prototype but unlike an icon the fleeting nature of the material manifestation of the image does not itself function as a locus of sanctity. As we emerge from the pandemic there will probably be more online access to worship, to the benefit of the inclusion of those unable to be physically present, but this will combine with the ancient practice of bringing the sacrament to the housebound. Online Eucharists do not enable remote consecration or cause a development of doctrine, they are simply an encouragement to spiritual communion and a help as we wait in hope for Jesus in the sacrament.

[1] Canon 22.6 of the Code of Canons of the Scottish Episcopal Church requires that, ‘in every congregation the Holy Communion shall be celebrated, when in the opinion of the Bishop it is reasonably practicable, at least on every Lord’s Day, on the Great Festivals, and on Ash Wednesday’.

[2] ‘College of Bishops reflection on worship during lockdown’, March 27, 2020.

[3] This is found in the Nicene Creed and Canon 1.

[4] Church of Scotland, Articles Declaratory, Article 1. Frederick Goldie, A Short History of the Episcopal Church in Scotland (Edinburgh: St Andrew’s Press, 1976), p. 85.

[5] ‘College of Bishops reflection on worship during lockdown’, March 27, 2020.

[6] 1982 Liturgy, epiclesis.

[7] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘“Out of their Reasonless Rationalls”: Liturgical Interpretation in the Scottish Reformations’, in, Scotland’s Long Reformation– New Perspectives on Scottish Religion, c. 1500–1660, ed. John McCallum (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History; Farnham: Ashgate, 2016), pp. 112­–48, at p. 141.

[8] A. P. Forbes, A Primary Charge delivered to the Clergy of his Diocese at the Annual Synod of 1857. Third Edition with some Further Additions (London: Joseph Master, 1858), p. 2.

[9] Scots Confession 1560 and Negative Confession, 1581, ed. G.D. Henderson (Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1937), pp. 84-85, Article 21; Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), 118, Chapter 29.7.

[10] Calvinist suspicion of matter is discussed, in a Scottish context, in Stephen Mark Holmes, Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland: Interpreting Worship, 1488–1590 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 167-69.

[11] In his poem, ‘The Incarnate One’.

[12] The positions of these two Churches are found here: Church of Scotland Theological Forum, ‘Reflections on Online Communion’ ; and ‘Virtual Communion in the URC?’  Given the Anglican origins of Methodism, it is significant that UK Methodists have been more reticent, prohibiting the practice in the 2018 Conference and opening a three-year discernment period in 2021. 

[13] See ‘Reflections on Online Communion’.

[14] ‘Virtual Communion in the URC’, paragraph 7.

[15] Westminster Confession of Faith, 117, Chapter 29.3, the bread and wine set apart are to be given to ‘none who are not then present in the congregation’. For the petition and list of petitioners,

[16] Opinion of Lord Braid in the cause Reverend Dr William J U Philip and others, Petitioners, for

Judicial Review of the closure of places of worship in Scotland, paragraph 5.

[17] For this teaching in an Anglican context see Nicholas H. Taylor, Lay Presidency at the Eucharist? An Anglican Approach (London: Mowbray, 2009).

[18] ‘Opinion of Lord Braid’, paragraph 60.    

[19] Deanna A. Thompson, ‘Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion’

St. Olaf College, March 26, 2020. Cf. Kelvin Holdsworth, ‘Every Eucharist is a Virtual Eucharist’, What’s in Kelvin’s Head, 5 August 2020.

[20] Alexander Jolly, The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist; Considered as It Is the Doctrine of Holy Scripture, Embraced by the Universal Church of the First and Purest Times, by the Church of England, and by the Episcopal Church in Scotland (Edinburgh: R. Grant, 1847). Forbes, A Primary Charge, 40-41, 51.


[22]Virtus’ is used in the sense of ‘power’ to translate the Greek ‘dunamis’ in the Vulgate Latin version of 1 Corinthians 1:24.

[23] The prayer ‘Supplices te rogamus’ in the Roman Canon.

[24] Bosco Peters, ‘Virtual Eucharist’, Liturgy, 28 June 2009; Paul Fiddes’ article is found here.

[25] Peters, ‘Online Eucharist’.

[26] The Validity of the Virutal Mass is Questioned. 6 May 2020.

[27] Steve R Holmes, ‘Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 2: some possible objections’, Shored Fragments, 2 April 2020.

[28] The Scottish Book of Common Prayer (Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press, 1929), ‘The Scottish Liturgy’, 338.

[29] Commentary on Matthew 8/1; the final phrase is from Augustine ‘accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum’, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 80.3.

[30] In traditional Roman Catholic theology consummation is required for indissolubility.

[31] Mark Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed or Why Digital Phantasms Cannot Confect the Eucharist’, Part 1 and Part 2, Earth and Altar, 8 and 9 May 2021.

[32] Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed’.

[33] Allan I. Macinnes, Patricia Barton and Kieran German, eds, Scottish Liturgical Traditions and Jacobite Politics: From Reformers to Jacobites, 1540-1764 (Edinburgh: EUP, 2021), p. 14.

[34] Eucharistic Food and Drink  A report of the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Commission to the Anglican Consultative Council (2005).

[35] Communion video from the South West Baptist Association.

[36] ‘Virtual Communion in the URC?’, paragraph 8.

[37] Edward Luscombe, The Scottish Episcopal Church in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: General Synod Office, 1996), 100. The two in 1900 were Anglo-Catholic St Michael’s, Hill Square and St Columba-by-the-Castle and the four in 1995 were the Evangelical St Paul’s and St George’s, St Thomas’s, St Mungo’s and Emmanuel. 

[38] Religion News Service interview, 15 May 2020, ‘Online Communion should be celebrated, not shunned, says Diana Butler Bass’.

[39] Jonathan Jong, ‘On Receiving Spiritual Communion’.

[40] Douglas Lockhart, St Columba’s Companion to the Scottish Liturgy (no place or publisher, 2nd edn 1953), 39.

[41] Christopher Craig Brittain ‘On virtual communion: A tract for these COVID-19 Times (Part II)’

Anglican Journal, May 25, 2020.

[42] See also Deanna A. Thompson, ‘Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion’.

[43] Quoted in Brittain ‘On virtual communion’.

[44] Fabrice Blée, ‘Le Dialogue Chretien-Bouddhiste : Dimension prophétique du dialogue interreligieux monastique’, note 35.

[45] Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed’, 2; Jong, ‘On Receiving Spiritual Communion’.

God does not change : a Sermon for Pentecost 14, 2021

+ God, ‘with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change’

God doesn’t change. During the first lockdown we turned a small room upstairs in the Rectory into a chapel. Each morning I say my prayers there. When we first arrived at Holy Cross the trees opposite at the edge of Lauriston were bare, then the leaves came out in that luminous green of Spring, the green deepened and yellowed, the leaves fell, the dark branches were outlined against the sky again, and now the leaves are dark green again. There is something special about the round of the seasons in the background of prayer and the Church’s year.

Life without change would be boring but I began this sermon with words from St James in our second reading that God doesn’t change. A friend who spent some years in Ghana missed our Northern seasons; a dry season and a rainy season aren’t enough. Life without change would also be bereft of any chance of improvement or growth, as John Henry Newman famously said: ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. Sometimes Churches get into a rut, where people moan at every change – ‘but we have always eaten sausages in Church on Advent Sunday!’ Jesus says in the Gospel today to the Pharisees, who loved the ancient traditions of their Church, what no Rector who values his life would dare to say: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written… in vain do you worship me, you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’.

This needs a bit of unpacking. ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,’ but an equally valid saying is ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. Tradition as a process, which means handing things on in time, is how we receive all things of value, including the Bible; but human customs and traditions need intelligent evaluation and change when they lose their purpose. Not to change is essentially to constantly change away from the present, like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. The terrible events in Afghanistan show us that change is not always good and we shouldn’t delude ourselves with the Liberal myth that everything is getting better and better. Even good advances in technology are destroying our planet. Our Christian and human task in a changing world is to ensure we, both as individuals and as part of society, are heading in the right direction. We should examine ourselves – are you changing for the better?

So, we need to change, but James, the brother of Jesus and first Bishop of Jerusalem, teaches us that with God ‘there is no shadow or variation due to change’. God doesn’t change, although we do. This is a common Christian teaching. We sung it in our first hymn:

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish – but nought changeth thee.

Nothing changes God…. so God can’t have compassion, can’t change his mind when we pray, can’t love, and thus has more in common with a stone than with us. That is a problem. Why are people not Christians, why is this church not full? It may be because Church people seem to be living in the 1980s, it may be because people are too distracted by other things, or it may be because they think we believe stupid things – and I must say that with some of the stuff that is claimed to be Christianity, I’m with the unbelievers. Our task, as Christians who think and love, is to try and understand our faith and help others see it makes sense.

Which hymn is this from? ‘O thou that changest not’?

Abide with me. This is a hymn of comfort, often sung at funerals. Usually the older hymns have much more profound Christian teaching than more recent ones. Even in a human sense, ‘not changing’ can be a good thing. Think of the love of a parent that is constant, even if the child goes off the rails – like the prodigal son. Think of the friend you can rely on, whatever happens. In the Bible, we see God is that sort of parent. Israel is always going after other gods or getting smug in complacency, always getting punished and then God receives her back. Jesus is the same with the disciples who deny him or run away. God’s love is unchanging and you get as many second chances as you need.

But more than that. Some twentieth century theologians proposed a changing God who was part of the evolution of the cosmos and suffered alongside us. Nice, but not God. God is not a part of the universe. You, on the other hand, are. Throughout life you have the potential to do new things. For unbelievers potential ends at death but for Christians death is, like a seed falling into the ground, a great release of potential. If God had potential, though, he wouldn’t be God as God is perfect. For Christians, God is, in philosophical terms, ‘pure act’ – he is perfect and all his potential is actuated. God can’t change because God includes all possible changes – this is the opposite of being unchanging like a stone.

This is why God’s love is unchanging. But in Christ God entered the world of change, of the bad change of death and evil. In Christ, God knows change from the human inside and so can change us, enable us to realise our potential. That God in himself doesn’t change, though, is good news because it means God is unchanging love. St Teresa of Avila knew this and kept these words in her prayer book. May they give you hope amidst the changes and chances of this world:

‘Let nothing trouble you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing; God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things. Whoever possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices’.

Holy Communion for Babies, or what it means to be Human

Canon 25 of the Scottish Episcopal Church begins ‘The sacrament of baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to holy communion’. The ‘further sacramental rite’ not required is confirmation, which has traditionally been required for admission to holy communion in Anglican Churches. This canon, first added in 1965 and last revised in 2005, is the end of an ecumenical process to admit members of Protestant Churches lacking episcopal confirmation to communion in Episcopal Churches. It also had the effect, perhaps an unintended effect, of allowing baptised young children and babies to receive holy communion. It is this that I will discuss here.

Lucas Cranach, ‘Let the little children come to me’

First, some personal experience. Our daughter was baptised on 18 October 2020 at the age of ten months and has received holy communion regularly since then on the grounds of canon 25 and the early Christian tradition preserved in the Eastern Churches. During lockdown I continued celebrating the eucharist with my immediate family and that has given space to reflect on this practice and discuss it. Last year, in between the lockdowns when we had a couple of infant baptisms, I told the congregation that infant communion was allowed in our Church and this caused a certain amount of disquiet. In my previous benefice the parishes agreed a similar policy, which had the support of the local Bishop even though it rather stretched the law of the Church of England, and infant communion again caused some similar murmuring. Every such controversy is a teaching opportunity and one can ask: is this policy right, what does it mean and is it practical?

In practical terms it works, our daughter receives the sacrament reverently. Now she can walk she comes up to the communion rail at the right time, says ‘amen’, and receives the Body of Christ. This works because she feels at home in Church and at the sacred liturgy, sees her parents receiving holy communion, and is familiar with the things of the faith – she recognises Jesus, whom she calls ‘Jeeez’, on crucifixes and she makes the sign of the cross, or rather taps her chest when she hears ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. We make sure she has no snacks just before communion and if she spat out the sacrament, we would pause reception for a while. In as far as one can see into a baby or toddler’s mind, this is a special eating connected with ‘Jeeez’, given by ‘Da’ in special clothes in a special place, and is different from eating something from a tub of chopped cucumber. My wife and I weren’t sure how this would work but it does and there is certainly nothing special about our daughter apart from the fact she has become familiar with church and liturgy.    

It is thus practical, but is it right and what does it mean? Firstly it is traditional, the Orthodox Churches of the East have always communicated baptised infants, often giving just the consecrated wine to babies who are not ready for solids, and the evidence suggests that this was universal in the Church of the first Christian millennium. It is however a departure from the usual practice of the Churches of the West. For Anglicans the first reception of holy communion generally followed confirmation in one’s early teens, thus keeping the traditional order of the ‘sacraments of initiation’: baptism, confirmation/chrismation and holy communion. Although it would appear that the Churches of the West gave communion to newly baptised infants until the twelfth century, the custom grew up of giving first holy communion at some time between the ages of 10 and 14. In 1910, however, appealing to the earlier tradition, the decree ‘Quam singulari’ of Pope St Pius X taught that children may receive holy communion when they reach the age of reason (generally about 7 years old) and can distinguish between the sacrament and ordinary bread. This has remained the Roman Catholic custom, in the words of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 913.1), “The administration of the most holy eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”

The two requirements of understanding the mystery of Christ according to one’s capacity and being able to receive the body of Christ reverently make sense. Receiving holy communion is a human act and the experience of our family and others is that a baby or toddler can make a reverent communion in their own way. The idea that the reception of holy communion should follow the possession of ‘sufficient knowledge’ or the attainment of reason is, however, problematic. The practice of the Eastern Churches and Early Church should cause us to question this, but the insights of contemporary ‘disability theology’ also shed new light on this question.

What is a human person? We instinctively think of a fit, rational and intellectually active adult with all their senses and faculties intact. A baby, an old person with dementia, a person with physical or mental disabilities is instinctively seen as less than this, deserving compassion but a departure from the normal, or at least a person with unactuated potential; they are each a person with something lacking. What happens, though, if we question this? Each case is different, but what if we take the person with learning difficulties, perhaps with Down Syndrome, as a normative example of a human person? Are they deficient or are they just an individual example of the great diversity of ways to be human? The latter is the only option if we do not wish to say that people with learning difficulties are less than human, which has terrible consequences for the way they may be treated.

The Adoration of the Christ Child by a follower of Jan Joest, c.1510 – possibly the first depiction of people with Down Syndrome

For the Christian, although Jesus Christ is not strictly a human person, he is truly and fully human (he is the second person of the Holy Trinity and so the ‘who’ of Jesus is the Son of God – there is not a human Jesus and a divine Christ). Was he less human in the womb of Mary, in the manger, or ‘disabled’ by the nails of the cross, than when he was walking around the Judaean countryside and talking with friends and enemies? I can think of no grounds for saying this and the great works of salvation, incarnation and redemption, were done in precisely those times when his humanity might appear to be deficient. This should challenge our ideas of what it means to be human. Perhaps the baby or the disabled person should be taken as ‘normal’ for humanity, certainly no less normative than anyone else?

This has implications for admission to holy communion in Western Churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant – whether they set the gateway at an ‘age of reason’ or the ability to make a ‘personal commitment to Jesus’. To refuse to baptise children until they can choose for themselves is a part of this problem. The policy of refusing sacraments to people unless they have a certain intellectual ability would seem to affirm a view of humanity which puts too much emphasis on reason and to place a human restriction on God’s free grace. A red herring here is the definition by Boethius (died 524) of a person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’, which was refined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and is at the root of much Western thought on human personhood. It is not relevant as it attributes reason to what is common, the nature, not to the individual. An individual human, or for that matter an angel, would still be ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’ even if the rational aspect of their nature was not actuated.

There is another problem, some people object to infant baptism because the person baptised might grow up to be an unbeliever and resent this imposition on them before they had the freedom and autonomy to choose it. There is a real problem here as, for example in the Church of England, many babies are put forward for baptism although there is no active Christian faith in their family. In this situation I found the desire for baptism was usually a sign of a residual Christian identity and an opportunity for catechesis and developing a connection to the Christian community, but it does highlight the fact that to baptise and give Communion to infants only makes sense if they are to grow up in a Christian family or community. When households were baptised in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:15 & 16:31-33), there is no evidence that it was only the grown-ups who received the sacrament and what evidence we do have from the Early Church suggests it is reasonable to hold that children were included. One might even say that only a modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment individualist would think that that they were not. We receive our identity from our parents and the family and community in which we grow up. What we receive marks us for life, whatever we choose later, for example Richard Dawkins’ atheism is marked by his Anglican upbringing. If a child grows up in a Christian family, one would not avoid teaching moral behaviour until the child can choose for itself, and so it is wrong to avoid giving that child a formation in the faith held by the family. Religious and moral formation, moreover, comes less from teaching than from a way of life, it is primarily ‘caught not taught’, and so if a Child grows up in a Christian family it is right that they should be baptised and receive holy communion. This is just being honest about the situation. Not to do so would be to deny them the freedom to choose what is right, although respect for freedom of choice means that they may later reject the faith.

One might say that the logic of this argument means that the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony should also be open to infants. If we apply here the same principles of honesty and truth, we will see that both these sacraments are ordered to a way of life which demands a certain maturity to live it with integrity. I have seen Coptic deacons of primary school age functioning in the liturgy and some Christian jurisdictions allowed marriage for women from the age of 12, but just as the sacrament of Reconciliation presupposes the ability to sin and confess, so these two sacraments presuppose the ability to exercise them. The sacraments of initiation, however, baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and holy communion, simply require the recipient to be human and to have faith, whether that faith is explicitly assented to or is part of the family and community bringing up the child.

It is probably worth noting here that the Scottish Episcopal Church is confused about confirmation. There is a 2006 rite of ‘Affirmation of Holy Baptism for Confirmation and Renewal’ which looks like confirmation but is said to be a ‘pastoral’ service and, although it allows an anointing with Chrism, not a ‘completion of baptism nor a gateway to the full participation in the eucharist’. There is also a post-baptismal anointing with the oil of chrism in the 2006 rite of baptism which looks very much like the chrismation which is the Eastern version of confirmation. The history and theology of confirmation is itself not clear but in the West it seems to be a part of the baptismal rite detached and postponed to keep a connection with the bishop. Thus it is probably best to see the current practice of the SEC as a restoration of chrismation to the baptism rite while recognising the baptisms of those who omit the anointing.         

It may be thought that giving holy communion to infants devalues the sacrament as they don’t understand it. My experience suggests that they do in a way appropriate to their age and moreover Christ in the eucharist is a mystery none of us can fully understand. The eucharist is also more like medicine than a reward, and so not to give it to baptised children being brought up in a Christian family or community either makes it a reward for knowledge or cooperates with an inadequate vision of the human person.

In addition to all its other aspects, receiving holy communion is an act of truth. The priest says, ‘the body of Christ’ and the ‘amen’ is a recognition that the recipient is a member of the body of Christ, the Church, in which we are incorporated by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:27-28). Augustine made the same point when he said of holy communion, ‘it is your own mystery that you are receiving, you are saying ‘amen’ to what you are’ (Sermon 272). Giving holy communion to babies and infants is a witness to God’s love, to the primacy of grace and to the fact that we are saved as a community not as individuals. It may not be appropriate in all cases and it requires the active support of the parents and the parish priest, but, if it is part of the life of a community, it is a precious sign of these Christian values and also a witness to an authentic vision of what it means to be human. These profound meanings expressed by infant communion suggest that it should be encouraged.

The Scottish Liturgy shows us that Episcopalians have often learned from the Orthodox East and Canon 25 has allowed the recovery of an important part of our common tradition. At a time when the unique value of the human person is under threat in different ways, this recovery of tradition also connects with the new understanding of Christian anthropology revealed through ‘disability theology’. Jesus was not speaking of the eucharist when he said the following words, but they may justly be used here: ‘let the little children to come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Mt 19:14)

The Priest’s Praying Body : Manual Acts 4 – when is Jesus present?

The previous post in this commentary on the priest’s actions during the Eucharistic Prayer ended with the words, ‘Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final “Amen”, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar’. This raises the question posed in the second post of this series: what is really going on when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer and how do the gestures help us experience this. Are the external actions in accord with the inner reality of the rite?

There is also a problem – when does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? If you answer ‘they don’t’, you are taking part in a different conversation.

Tintoretto, Last Supper (1593), San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

What happens in this prayer is what Jesus wanted to happen when he said ‘do this in memory of me’. To help us understand this, he said the bread is his body and the wine his blood, and these clear statements are related to his death on the cross, not only by the location of these words at a meal just before the crucifixion but because the body is ‘broken’ (1 Corinthians 11:24) and the blood is ‘poured out’ (Matthew 26:28). Paul confirms this by his teaching that ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). One can debate the meaning of the different versions of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in the New Testament, but we cannot get behind the canonical text and it needs to be read in the context of the tradition that formed, received and transmitted it. We can only work with what we have received, and in this case we believe it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

The Eucharistic Prayer is thus about Jesus’s presence and sacrifice and, as its words confirm, about their relationship to us. Whatever individual Episcopalians may believe, the Scottish Episcopal Church firmly believes, with the mainstream Christian witness throughout the ages, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We pray to God the Father in the epiclesis that ‘they may BE the body and blood of your Son’ (emphasis added). Episcopalian writers have traditionally been sceptical of attempts to explain the change by theories such as transubstantiation, but they have resolutely affirmed this change. Bishop William Forbes of Edinburgh wrote of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, ‘the word we hear; the effect we feel; the manner we know not; the presence we believe… as to the manner of the presence, we define nothing rashly, we do not anxiously enquire’ (Considerationes Modestae et Pacifice [1658], p.379).

Bishop William Forbes, painting at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

The tradition of the Western Latin Church is clear that what makes this change in the bread and wine are the Lord’s words, ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’. This is expressed by the gestures of elevation and genuflection that follow these words. By calling the institution narrative ‘the consecration’, even when these gestures were removed, the Anglican tradition maintained this same emphasis on the spiritual power of the Lord’s words – one could almost say that classical Anglican liturgy, although much influenced by sixteenth-century Protestant theology, is a fossilisation of late medieval Latin piety.

The Scottish Episcopalian tradition, however, developed a different emphasis and this challenges the traditional gestures. It prays in the epiclesis that the bread and wine may ‘be’ (1982) or ‘become’ (1764, 1970) the body and blood of Christ AFTER the institution narrative. This seems to imply that the institution narrative is not consecratory. An epiclesis had been added to the Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer but there, and in the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, it was placed BEFORE the institution narrative. It could thus be understood simply as a preparation for ‘the consecration’, as is the function of the epiclesis which has been inserted in the modern Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers. In the 1764 Scottish Liturgy, however, and in subsequent Scottish Liturgies, the epiclesis was moved and placed after the institution narrative, in imitation of Eastern Anaphoras and following a tradition already found in the 1718 Communion Office of the Non Jurors (Anglican clergy who remained loyal to the House of Stuart). This prayer for the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist is also found, for very different reasons, after the institution narrative in the liturgical directions of the 1644 Westminster Directory adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

To traditional Western theology, the place and wording of the Scottish epiclesis after 1764 is like praying that a lottery ticket might win after it has already won the prize. If we take the words of the epiclesis seriously, it seems premature to offer honour by our gestures to what is still just bread and wine. The 1982 use of ‘be’ rather than ‘become’ does however open the door to a reconciliation of the two traditions, as does the modern ecumenical theology in which the whole Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory. The problem is that for the last millennium Eastern Orthodox Christians have said that the action of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis transforms the bread and wine whereas Western Latin Catholic Christians say that it is the Lord’s words in the institution narrative. This problem is compounded by the existence, noted in the previous post, of ancient Anaphoras that lack a real epiclesis (the Roman Canon) or an institution narrative (the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari), which suggests that the two alternatives for the localisation of presence are neither entirely sufficient. As a sign of this problem, the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 recognised the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari without the institution narrative – if the principal upholders of the Latin tradition can do this, we should be able to understand the Scottish Liturgy in a way that does justice to both its Eastern and Western heritage.

Syro-Malabar Priests celebrate the Anaphora of Addai and Mari

The Church of the first Christian centuries held firmly to the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but was not bothered about a ‘moment of consecration’, and I would suggest that this gives us a way of understanding the Scottish Liturgy. Looking to the first millennium, twentieth-century ecumenical liturgical theology came to see the whole Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory and, without subscribing to an artificial ‘second naiveté’ or moving the ‘moment of consecration’ to the final ‘Amen’, I would suggest that we see the whole Prayer as consecratory with significant moments revealing the work of the Word and Spirit in the transformation of the elements at the institution narrative and the epiclesis. When we pray in the 1982 epiclesis that the elements may ‘be’ the body and blood of Christ we are not denying the role of the Lord’s powerful words in this transformation. Perhaps we should also note that even worrying about when we should venerate the elements reveals a medieval scholastic mentality, in the Byzantine Liturgy the bread and wine set apart for the sacrament are given remarkable veneration even before the Eucharistic Prayer, for example at the Great Entrance. With all this in mind, beyond holding firmly the fact of the transformation we can maintain the reverential reserve advocated above by William Forbes. This would bring together the emphases of East and West and make sense of the various bodily gestures recommended above culminating in the elevation at the doxology and the genuflection or profound bow after the ‘Amen’, when a short time of silent adoration would be in order. 

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), Jan van Eyck

Having said all this, I still find it hard to imagine that the elements can be anything other than either just bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. If this is so then there must be a moment of transformation. The most likely location of this moment is the Lord’s words. The learned liturgical experiments of eighteenth-century Greek-loving Divines, who were concerned to distance themselves from Popery, should not get in the way of the recognition that the Episcopalian and Anglican tradition primarily shares the liturgical inheritance of the Latin West. In the last analysis, however, the Eucharist does not exist for itself but for the transformation of ourselves and the whole creation according to God’s plan. Celebrating the Liturgy with this in mind is much more important than worrying about the exact occurrence in time of a change we know by faith but cannot see.     

As noted at the start of the previous post in this series, this commentary on the bodily actions of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to allow the priest to understand the tradition and deploy it, avoiding personal eccentricities and celebrating the Eucharist in a reverential way which helps the whole congregation to enter into the Mystery of Christ. This prayer of preparation for the Holy Liturgy by St John of Damascus, filled with the example of the holy women of the New Covenant, is a good conclusion to this series of posts as it well-expresses the importance of our bodies and of humility in celebrating the Holy Sacrament:   

‘I stand before the doors of your Temple, yet refrain not from evil thoughts. But, O Christ our God, who justified the tax-collector, showed mercy to the Canaanite woman, and opened the door of Paradise to the good thief, do unto me according to your loving-kindness and accept me, who have come to touch you, just as you accepted the women who was a sinner and the woman who had an issue of blood. The one touched the hem of your garment and was made completely whole; the other clasped your feet and received forgiveness from all her sins. Let me not be consumed, sinner though I be, through partaking of your body and blood; but receive me, as you received them, and enlighten my senses, consuming only my sins and offences. Through the prayers of her who bore you, and of the heavenly powers: for you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.’

The Priest’s Praying Body: Manual Acts 3 – Anamnesis to Amen.

This is the penultimate post in the commentary on the gestures of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer, following on from posts on 12 December and 11 January. We are now at the section of the Prayer known by a technical Greek name which has its origin in the Last Supper, ‘Anamnesis’. In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Eucharistic Prayers, and then, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western Christian custom, the Epiclesis. The final post will look at how the bodily actions of the priest express our theology of what happens in the prayer, despite the theological problem of when the bread and wine are transformed.

‘The Last Supper’ (1625), Valentin de Boulogne

Anamnesis and Oblation.

Anamnesis means ‘remembrance’, or more correctly a recalling of past saving deeds which makes them present, as Jesus said of this sacrament “do this in memory of me (‘for my  anamnēsis’)” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The concept of anamnesis has been used in twentieth-century ecumenical theology to understand why the Eucharist is a sacrifice. There can be no serious doubt that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because this is a common teaching from the first years of the Church. It is also an important aspect of Scottish Episcopalian theology, as seen in the extract from Bishop Jolly’s The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist published in this blog on 27th June 2020. An oblation is an offering, an essential part of a sacrifice, and this is also a special emphasis of the Scottish Episcopal Church which added to this prayer in 1764, in capitals, the words “WHICH WE NOW OFFER UNTO THEE”. These words were not in the 1637 Scottish Liturgy or its source the Communion Office of the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, although similar words of offering are present in the ancient Roman Canon on which Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer is based. The prayer of anamnesis and oblation is thus important for Episcopalians. It is an ancient one and has not attracted manual gestures in the same way as the Narrative of Institution and the Epiclesis. It is generally said in the orans position but in various medieval rites here the priest extended his arms in the form of a cross, as Christ’s sacrifice is recalled and offered here, and some maintain this custom today. It is not, however, just the crucifixion which is the subject of the anamnesis, the prayer mentions ‘his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension and… the coming of his Kingdom’. As we lift up our hearts in the Eucharist, we are lifted up outside time and space and encounter the whole mystery of Christ.

An offering is usually accompanied by a gesture of lifting up and presenting the gift to the recipient. This is not done today in this prayer but the offering is expressed by the gesture of lifting the elements at the consecration and at the end of the Canon, or even, some would say, at the two elevations in the institution narrative. Studying Christian liturgical practice one often gets the impression that it follows its own logic, which is a warning against creating gestures that seem to you to make sense but have no place in the tradition. F.C. Eeles in his 1910 book Traditional Ceremonial and Customs Associated with the Scottish Liturgy notes that some Episcopalians in the eighteenth century elevated the elements to breast height at the words “which we now offer unto thee” and Bishop Dowden in his commentary of the 1764 Scottish Liturgy notes that in a copy of the Liturgy belonging to Bishop John Alexander of Dunkeld (1743-76) the word ‘eleva’ (‘lift up’) is written in the margin by these words. This action is possible, but it would detract from the significance of the elevation at the end of the Canon.

The Eucharist at St Salvador’s, Edinburgh (with thanks to Fr Andrew Bain & Ross Jesmont)

The anamnesis and oblation in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy Eucharistic Prayers, together with the Prayer of Petition which follows the Epiclesis, are often said by the whole congregation together with the priest, but they are still ‘presidential’ prayers and so should be said in the orans position or the broader gesture mentioned above. The custom of the congregation joining the priest’s prayer has grown up without official approbation and, although ‘synchronised speaking’ may sometimes sound awkward, it does emphasise that the Canon is the prayer of the whole congregation in the same way as do the acclamations of the people, for example ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’ in the English and Roman rites.

Gian Lorenza Bernini, ‘Descent of the Holy Spirit’ (1666), window in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.


The Epiclesis, from the Greek verb epikaleo meaning to call down, is a calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine and the congregation. The words of the epiclesis are accompanied by a distinctive four-part action.  At the epiclesis the sign of the cross is commonly made on one’s body as the Holy Spirit is called down on the congregation and it is a distinctive Scottish Episcopalian practice for people in the congregation to do the same. Then the priest’s hands are held horizontally, joined at the thumbs, over the gifts as the Holy Spirit is invoked upon them, and when it is prayed “that they may be the body and blood of your Son” the sign of the cross is made over the elements with the right hand. Finally the hands return to the horizontal position over the elements until the next prayer of petition when the orans position is resumed.

A child doing the epiclesis gesture at ‘play church’

This four-part action is the same as that found in the simplified ceremonial of the modern Roman Rite but its roots are in ancient Scottish and Western practice. In the Byzantine Liturgy the sign of the cross is made three times, over the bread, the wine and both together, at the epiclesis. The ancient Roman Liturgy in its different forms, including the Sarum rite used in Scotland, had no explicit epiclesis in the canon but between the eighth and fourteenth centuries ritual actions were added to the two prayers just before the consecration so that the priest first stretched his hands over the elements and then made the sign of the cross three times over the bread and wine together and then once over each element separately. From this background eighteenth century copies of the Scottish Liturgy often have crosses added to indicate that separate crosses are made over the bread and the cup at the words ‘body’ and ‘blood’ and some prescribe up to four more crosses made over the elements at the moment of the epiclesis: “ble+ss and sanc+tify with thy wo+rd and Holy Spi+rit”. This corresponds to the traditional Latin liturgy used in medieval Scotland but one or two signs of the cross are probably sufficient as even two can seem rather hurried.

Prayers of Petition  

The 1982 Scottish Liturgy follows the epiclesis with a short prayer of petition and communion with Mary and the Saints. It is an ancient tradition which has long been preserved among Anglicans that a simple bow of the head is made when the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken and it is good to extend this to the name of Mary and the Saint of the day. The 1970 Scottish Liturgy also has petition here but in three prayers to accept our sacrifice and grant forgiveness and blessings which come, via the 1764 and 1637 Scottish Liturgies, from the reworking of the ancient Roman Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer. These beautiful prayers are, like the one in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy, said with hands raised in the orans position but three gestures are sometimes added to them from the medieval tradition. The second of the three prayers begins by humbly offering our souls and bodies to the Lord and this first part of the prayer is sometimes said with a profound bow giving bodily form to this humility. The sign of the cross is then made in the second half of this prayer where we pray that all communicants may “be filled + with every grace and heavenly benediction”, a sign first used here in the twelfth century which signifies the blessing received from Christ. The third gesture is a striking of the breast as a sign of repentance at the beginning of the third prayer, ‘And though we be unworthy through our manifold sins…’.

The Bishop of London praying in the orans posture during the Eucharistic Prayer

Doxology and Amen

After these prayers of petition we come to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the doxology  and the congregation’s ‘Amen’ which signifies their participation in and assent to the whole prayer. The basic gesture here is the ‘little elevation’ or lifting up of the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. Usually the consecrated host is held up vertically over the chalice as the Bishop of London is doing in the picture below but it is possibly to simply lift up the chalice and paten. Although commonly called the ‘little elevation’ because it does not go up as high as the elevations at the consecration, it is actually much older and theologically more significant. It is first found in Rome in the seventh century where the Bishop elevated the bread and the deacon the chalice, something that should still be done when a deacon assists at the Eucharist. In the second Christian millennium this simple lifting up came to be surrounded by many signs of the cross, at first three made with the hand before the elevation, then between two and five made with the consecrated host (bread) over the chalice which meant that the actual elevation moved to the end of the doxology. In the simplified Roman Rite all these crosses have been removed but some Anglicans retain them, at least at the three mentions of Christ at the start of the doxology: ‘through Jesus + Christ our Lord, with + whom, and in + whom’. The congregational ‘Amen’ at the end is a very significant moment in the Prayer, so significant that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote in the third century that the great privileges of the Christian people include hearing the Eucharistic Prayer, joining in the final Amen, and stretching out their hands for the holy food (Eusebius, History of the Church, 7.9).

The Bishop of London at the doxology in the Eucharistic Prayer

Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final ‘Amen’, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar. This may be a time for the congregation to pause for a short while in silence before the mystery in which they are participating. One theological puzzle that the Scottish Liturgy raises about this mystery of presence will be the subject of the last post in this series.

The Priest’s Praying Body, continued.

Manual Acts 2: Benedictus to Institution Narrative

This post picks up from that published here on 12 December. Responses to the previous post confirmed that a simple guide to what the priest might do with their body during the Eucharistic Prayer is needed and that it is helpful to know the reasons for the different actions. They also show that this is not just a thing for Anglo-Catholics, new priests from all backgrounds want to celebrate the sacrament with reverence in a way that supports the devotion of their congregations. One student at the Scottish Episcopal Institute compared this art of celebration to Balinese dancing.

It is worth noting that in the Scottish Episcopal Church, as in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, there are no legally required things for the priest to do during the Eucharistic Prayer, with the single exception of the manual acts required in the two eucharistic liturgies of the Scottish Book of Common Prayer. Apart from decisions to the contrary by the liturgical authority of the College of Bishops and General Synod in the Province, the Bishop in their diocese and the incumbent in their charge, a priest might say the prayer while standing on their head or while pirouetting around in a circle. This freedom puts the responsibility on each priest to act as a faithful and creative liturgical practitioner. To do this one needs to know the tradition, in order to understand why one chooses an option from it, departs from it or adapts it to different circumstances. By ‘the tradition’ I mean the great stream of Christian practice at the Eucharist which starts at the Last Supper and is handed on to us in a particular place – for example at my Church in Edinburgh we live in the Scottish Episcopalian tradition, which shares much with the English Anglican tradition, has significant influences from the Christian East, has been influenced by the twentieth-century liturgical movement and is rooted in the medieval Latin tradition which has its own roots in the early liturgy of Rome and Gaul. At my Church, as with others, there are also significant local traditions which influence the way we celebrate the Eucharist. This commentary aims to be an introduction to this broad tradition.       

The ‘orans posture’ during the Eucharistic Prayer

To continue the commentary: after the Benedictus comes a prayer to the Father in thanksgiving for the work of the Son which the 1982 Liturgy calls the ‘Christological Prayer’. Here the priest resumes praying on behalf of the community and so resumes the raised hands of the ‘orans posture’ described in the previous post.

The posture changes at the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ (1982 Liturgy) or ‘the Consecration’ (Book of Common Prayer) which is a liturgical presentation of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-25; Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:17–20). This is where the ‘manual acts’ are found in the Book of Common Prayer. Here attention shifts to the elements, bread and wine mixed with water, and to what Jesus did with them.

Marcos Zapata, The Last Supper (1750), Cuzco Cathedral, Peru

Like Jesus at the Last Supper, the priest takes the bread and takes the cup at the moment each is mentioned, holding them slightly above the altar. This is the most ancient action at this point in the prayer. The actions and words at this time emphasise that it is Christ who is active here in the person of the priest. The priest is not acting here by their own power and this is the meaning of the doctrine that the priest acts ‘in persona Christi’ (‘in the person of Christ’). This is not an argument for the maleness of the priesthood, nor does it suggest that priests should have beards or be circumcised. It is the human priest who is being drawn in to share the priestly action of Christ by virtue of his words to the Apostles, ‘do this’. It is an invitation to great humility on the part of the priest.

In the Churches of the West this is the most sacred part of the Canon and for the last thousand years attention has been focussed on this action of the Word as the moment that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Eastern Churches generally place the focus on the action of the Spirit in the Epiclesis, and this Eastern emphasis has also influenced the Scottish Episcopal Church. Today, however, many hold that it is the action of the Word and Spirit in the whole Anaphora, rather than at a particular moment, which is consecratory. As evidence for this we find within the tradition that there are Eucharistic Prayers that lack one or other of these sections – the Roman Canon has no real Epiclesis and the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari has no Institution Narrative. In our western tradition the basic action and words of taking and blessing, handed on from Jesus and the Apostles, have been enriched by a number of actions to express what is being done: breaking, blessing, touching, showing and kneeling.

Taking the Bread

The Book of Common Prayer says that the bread should be broken when the priest says that Jesus broke the bread, but in modern liturgies this is generally not done because the ‘breaking of the bread’ or ‘fraction’ (from the Latin word for breaking, fractio) is done after the Canon. It is for this reason that the bread should not be broken at this point unless one is celebrating Holy Communion using a rite in the Book of Common Prayer where it is demanded.  

Another custom related to Jesus’ actions, this time taken from the Roman Missal, is that some priests make the sign of the cross over the bread and the cup with the right hand when they pick them up with the left. We see this in the Peruvian painting of the Last Supper above. This gives expression to Jesus ‘giving thanks’ over the bread and cup, which in the Roman Rite is expressed by the word benedixit, ‘he blessed’. In the middle ages this word suggested the contemporary idea of blessing with the sign of the cross – though Jesus himself would have used a Jewish prayer of blessing which is the origin of the Eucharistic Prayer. There is no requirement to use this gesture here but it may help to focus the mind, although for some it would be a distraction.

Archbishop Justin Welby consecrating a lot of bread and wine

Another gesture is ordered by the ‘manual acts’ in the Prayer Book which require that all vessels containing the elements should be touched at this time. This indicates that they are to be consecrated during the ‘Prayer of Consecration’, but it is not necessary to do this in other rites where a simple intention to consecrate all that needs to be consecrated will suffice. It is good to make this intention, preferably before ordination, as it saves potential confusion later. Some intend to consecrate all that is on the corporal – the square white cloth placed on the altar for the Eucharist – but that may be too restrictive as sometimes there is too much bread and wine to fit on the corporal.

Archbishop Rowan Williams elevating the host

A common custom is to elevate each element to show it to the congregation after reciting Jesus’ words, followed by an act of reverence: a profound bow or a genuflection. A profound bow is a bending at the waist, as opposed to a nodding of the head alone, and a genuflection is going down on the right knee and rising again. The traditional custom was to genuflect before and after each elevation but the Roman Church in the 1960s simplified this to one genuflection after each elevation and this is followed by many Anglican priests. This gesture has its origin not in the example of Christ but in the passionate desire of his disciples. The elevation was demanded by the devotional sense of the medieval laity who wished to see the Sacrament which they so rarely received. It came in for the host (the consecrated bread) alone during the late twelfth century and spread rapidly, with a second elevation of the chalice slowly joining it but not becoming universal until the sixteenth century. The prime purpose of these second-millennium elevations is to show the Sacrament but they also took on the symbolic meaning of Jesus being lifted up onto the cross. It has also taken on some of the meaning of a much older elevation of the bread which has already been mentioned, that done by the priest when he lifted it before the Lord’s words were said. This was understood as a gesture of offering the bread to God to be transformed into the Body of Christ but it also picked up the idea of offering Christ’s sacrifice. Images of the priest elevating the host before a theophany, a manifestation of God and the heavenly court, fit with the idea that the priest is pleading the one sacrifice of Christ before the Father at this point but strictly this offering is done in the following prayer. 

Juan Carreño de Miranda (1666), Elevation at Mass before a Theophany

In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Anaphoras. After this, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western custom, comes the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the elements and the congregation: the Epiclesis. To learn more about the gestures used in these prayers, look out for the final post where we will continue to explore the theological implications of the various actions – what is really going on when we do the Eucharistic Prayer.

It would be possible in a short study like this just to give simple directions on what to do during the Eucharistic Prayer but, as noted in the first post, such directions are not usually given in Anglican Liturgies today so priests need to make a choice. Simple directions would be what social scientists call a ‘thin description’ but I hope this gives more of a ‘thick description’ by including the context, history, meaning and intention of the various actions so we can make an informed choice. A full ‘thick description’ would also include the context of the denomination and congregation where the liturgy is celebrated but I hope this series of posts gives the raw materials for good practice here to be discerned.

Lest Music Perish Utterly: Church Music and the Pandemic

Margaret Attwood invited Richard Holloway to present ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4 this morning. Starting with the image of children dancing to school in Morningside, he presented a powerful plea for the arts in this current crisis: ‘this horrid year which is grinding to a close has put our creativity, our art and those who make it our under threat – it should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’. The pandemic attacks the soul and the mind as well as the body.

Richard Holloway

This struck a chord with me. One of the things most missed by my congregation has been church music and so this Advent, instead of carol services, I organised a couple of ‘Meditations’ with poetry, readings and music by professional singers and accompanists. This was done within the rigour of our church coronavirus plan. One service was for Advent, with Advent hymns and arias sung by a young opera singer, and the other for Christmas, with carols and folk songs sung by the BBC Radio Scotland young traditional musician of the year. Barbara Cole Walton and Hannah Rarity sung to rapt and full, albeit socially distanced, congregations. These services went down very well and raised good sums for Scottish charities helping people at home and abroad, the Pilton Youth and Children’s Project and Mary’s Meals. The singers had been arranged through the excellent organisation Live Music Now Scotland which supports young professional musicians to work with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music.

Advent Meditation at Holy Cross, Edinburgh, 2020

These two services were emotional occasions. Both performers had not sung before a live audience since March – nine months unable to do that to which they have dedicated their lives. Hannah had been in the middle of a tour in Germany when the restrictions came in and she had to come home. It is only because Church and State in Scotland have allowed a single singer at religious services that they were able to sing this time. We have had a few other single singers from church choirs helping us worship at Holy Cross and the general impression is that, like professional musicians, church choirs are feeling the pain of the restrictions on music.

In happier times : the choir of Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh

This got me thinking of the last time the government silenced the choirs of Scotland. It is a partisan myth that the Protestant Reformation brought popular education to Scotland. The researches of John Durkan and others have shown that there was a highly developed network of elementary and grammar schools before 1559. There were also many song schools attached to the larger churches which taught a developed musical curriculum and whose boys sung at the liturgy. The compositions of Robert Carver show that the quality of church music in Scotland was as high as anywhere else in Europe. These choirs and this music were silenced with the abolition of Catholic worship. The Earl of Moray wished to retain part-singing in the Reformed Church and commissioned Thomas Wode, a former monk of Lindores, to put together settings for the vernacular psalter used in Church. He did this and a few of the manuscript part books survive. In one of them, Wode wrote in the margin, ‘notwithstanding all this work I have undertaken, I fear that music shall perish in this land utterly’ (‘Notwithstanding of this travel I have taken, I can understand not but Musike sall pereishe in this land alutterlye’). Richard Holloway’s words reminded me of this sad note by Thomas Wode.

From the Wode Part Books

Simple metrical psalms did become popular, so music did not utterly depart the Kingdom, but attempts to restore the song schools such as that by James VI in 1579 and those by the Crown and Bishops in the early seventeenth century ultimately failed. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Scotland began to develop a rich culture of Church music like that fostered by the cathedrals and colleges of the Church of England. This has remained fragile.

Not Friends : John Knox and Choristers from a Song School

This is not to say that the Scottish Government and the leaders of the Scottish Churches have inherited the dark fanaticism of John Knox or the Covenanters. We are in a pandemic which the news today shows is getting worse. Like most clergy I am happy to follow laws and guidance designed to keep us safe. I do, however, wonder whether the absolute ban on more than one voice in Church is more scientifically based than the situation in England where some limited choral singing has been allowed – does the shadow of past religious conflict subconsciously inform policy here?  

In happier times : the choir of St John’s, Edinburgh singing at the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae

What I am really concerned about is the pain and lasting damage caused by this necessary restriction of singing. Musicians and choirs need our support now and, when things improve, there needs to be concerted effort by Church leaders to help musicians restore song to our worship. The greatest act of worship on earth is the Eucharist where we stand in the Spirit before God, offering the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven singing the hymn of your unending glory’. Echoing Richard Holloway I would argue that choirs and church music, together with the livelihood of all professional musicians, ‘should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’.


Manual Acts 1: Eucharistic Prayer to the Sanctus

The ‘Order for Holy Communion’ in the various forms of the Book of Common Prayer, which defined Anglican and Episcopalian worship for four centuries, specified certain ‘manual acts’ that the priest should do with the bread and wine when celebrating Holy Communion. In a Church like the Church of England, with a variety of theologies, this ensured a minimum of conformity without creating ‘windows into the soul’ of the one who was celebrating.

The Manual Acts in the 1912 Scottish Book of Common Prayer

Today these ceremonial directions are absent. The ‘manual acts’ were omitted from the 1970 Scottish Liturgy and the 1982 Scottish Liturgy makes a virtue of this, saying in a brief note that ‘the Liturgy is printed with a minimum of instructions out of a conviction that worship in a contemporary idiom must be adapted to suit particular times and places’. This presumes that clergy are sufficiently well formed to know what is appropriate. The danger is that the space this creates leaves room for distracting and eccentric gestures from those clergy whose formation in Christian tradition has not been strong. At best it gives freedom, but the freedom of the clergy can be the distraction of the laity. The problem is that much is presumed but not supplied. As the art of celebrating the eucharist is not taught in theological education institutions and some candidates for ministry have limited experience of Anglican worship, this post aims to fill the gap by describing and explaining what the priest does with his or her hands and body while celebrating the Eucharist.

You could, of course, just make it up, but that would not be appropriate when performing a ritual which, whether at High Mass or on a coffee table, is in its essence an act of tradition, ‘for I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…’ (1 Cor 11:23). You could also just leave out all the ritual gestures, but that would be false to the sacrament which, however simply it is celebrated, has an outward form as well as its inward power. I remember a young Aberdonian priest being scandalised at the Anglican Abbey of West Malling and exclaiming of the chaplain, ‘he doesn’t do the manual acts!’ One can’t avoid offending some people, but a priest should at least know and be able to explain why they act what they do in obeying Christ’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’. Celebrating the sacraments ‘decently and in order’, whatever may be the context, is a simple act of fidelity to Jesus and an important means of Christian formation.

This post will concern itself with the Eucharistic Prayer, also known as the Anaphora or Canon, and will refer to the two forms most commonly used in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the 1970 and 1982 Scottish Liturgies. What is said, however, may be applied to most Western Anaphoras with the possible exception of the distinctively Scottish emphasis on the Epiclesis.

Christians in the orans position from the reconstructed 4th century wall painting at Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent

The basic posture of the priest during the Canon is the ‘orans’ position (‘orans’ is Latin for ‘praying’) – standing with forearms and hands raised at the side of the body and the palms of the hands broadly facing forward. This posture, a natural bodily expression of prayer, goes back to the beginnings of the Church, is also found in other religions, and has been rediscovered in charismatic Christianity. It was originally used by all Christians in prayer but in the second Christian millennium it came to be restricted to the clergy when praying in the liturgy. Early images of Christians in this position are common and in Britain we see it in the fourth century frescos in the Christian chapel at Lullingston Roman Villa in Kent. It is also found on two enigmatic early Christian carved stones, variously dated between the seventh and eleventh centuries, found at Over Kirkhope in the Scottish Borders and Llanhamlach in Wales. The early form of the posture, as described above, is found in these images but in the later middle ages, possibly to avid theatrical gestures, the hands of the priest at Mass were brought in facing each other at the level of the chest. The more expansive form, however, returned in the second half of the twentieth century. This traditional and universal gesture is the basic posture to hold during the Eucharistic Prayer unless you are doing something with your hands. By adopting it you become an icon of prayer and are one with the faithful throughout the ages.

Early Christian Orans figure from Over Kirkhope in the Scottish Borders

The Eucharistic Prayer begins with a dialogue which shows that it is a prayer of the whole congregation gathered as the priestly Body of Christ: ‘the Lord be with you… lift up your hearts… let us give thanks…’. The orans position is used during this with a number of possible variations. In the traditional Western liturgy, with the priest facing East, he began this dialogue with his hands on the altar and raised them saying ‘lift up your hearts’, joining his palms before the breast at ‘let us give thanks’, and then returning to the orans position for the Preface which follows. The reform of the Roman liturgy in the 1960s changed this to the priest holding the orans position throughout the dialogue, just lifting them a little at ‘lift up your hearts’. Although we share a common heritage, Anglicans are not obliged to follow Roman practice, but it seems right to open the arms when greeting the congregation, to lift them when inviting the congregation to lift up their hearts to God, and then to join them again while changing your dialogue partner from the people to God and turning to the posture of prayer. 

Early Christian Orans figures on the Llanhamlach stone. They may represent the Apostle John (with book) and the Virgin Mary (with weeping nipples) at the Cross (John 19:26)

The Preface is a prayer addressed to God the Father and is thus said or sung with hands raised. Western Liturgy traditionally varies the Preface according to the season or feast but the 1982 Liturgy adopted an Eastern practice of having a fixed Preface (called the ‘Opening Prayer’). This emphasises the unity of the Eucharistic Prayer, but the natural desire to celebrate the seasons has resulted in a multiplication of versions of the 1982 Anaphora – perhaps it would have been best to stick to our tradition and have a variable Preface. Having started the prayer by uniting priest and people in one act of thanksgiving, at the end we see the implications of lifting up our hearts when we join with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven in that cosmic act of praise which the prophet Isaiah saw in the Jerusalem Temple where the seraphim were shouting ‘holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts’ (Isaiah 6:3). In the Liturgy we are with Isaiah and all the angels and saints in the true and original Temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. At this point the priest’s hands are joined as she is no longer leading the prayers. The Sanctus is one place where Anglicans have preserved an older tradition. In the modern Roman rite the priest stands with hands joined for the Sanctus and Benedictus but Anglicans often bow for the first part of the Sanctus and, standing upright, sign themselves with the cross at the Benedictus. These ancient gestures reflect the awe experienced by the prophet before the majesty of God in Isaiah 6 and the recognition that the one ‘who comes in the name of the Lord’ is Jesus. One may prefer the simplicity of just standing with joined hands, but the two gestures of bowing and crossing act as a bodily reminder of what the liturgy teaches should be in your mind at this point. We are embodied beings and learn from actions as well as words.

This article will be concluded in a second post. Thanks to Alan Barton for permission to use the first image above.

Vestments – the Basics

In my last Church I ran a session with the children of our ‘Friday Fun Club’ called ‘Why Father Stephen wears unusual clothes’. We went to the Vestry in the Church and they tried on various vestments while I explained their meaning and answered questions. The various sacred things in traditional Churches are a great way of teaching the faith without too many words. I had been interested in the meaning of vestments since, as a teenager, I discovered a book called ‘The Ritual Reason Why’ and my doctoral thesis has a few sections on the interpretation of vestments in medieval and renaissance Europe. Coffee with a priest-friend from an evangelical background who, for the first time in her life, has to wear eucharistic vestments made me think it might be worth writing a short post on the basics of what the priest and deacon wear at the Eucharist. I will also say something about where they come from and what they mean.

Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon at High Mass

These vestments are quite simple. For the priest an alb, stole, and chasuble (with a few optional extras). A white robe, the ALB, is worn over the cassock or ordinary clothes (the black cassock is a version of ordinary street wear and is not a eucharistic vestment). The alb is sometimes held in at the waist with a rope GIRDLE or cloth CINCTURE. The alb is sometimes worn over an AMICE covering the neck opening and clerical collar but many modern clergy use a ‘cassock-alb’ which is a combination of the cassock and the alb and does not need an amice and others wear albs with hoods attached. A STOLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn round the neck hanging down at the front and sometimes tucked through the girdle. Sometimes the MANIPLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn around the left wrist falling down about 20cm each side. The CHASUBLE, a large poncho-like garment with a hole in the centre for the head, covers it all and hangs down the front and back. A deacon at the Eucharist wears the alb with a stole hanging diagonally from his or her left shoulder, joined at waist level on the right side, perhaps a maniple on the left wrist, and over it all the DALMATIC, a tabard-like garment, joined at the side and with short wide sleeves, in the colour of the day. If there is a subdeacon, they wear a similar garment called a TUNICLE.

An old guide to eucharistic vestments

These vestments can be described very simply, but Christian tradition in both East and West has developed for them a rich series of symbolic meanings. These were used as a kind of mnemonic to recall the minds of clergy and congregations to the central truths of the faith and to the virtues needed to live a good life. This method of interpreting the liturgy and its vestments is a playful one. There is no fixed single meaning for a thing or action, but a whole series of meanings is built up by comparison with Scripture and reflection on the shape of the vestment or ritual action. It is a living, organic tradition. This method uses the way Christians have traditionally interpreted Scripture. There is a literal understanding, for example the origin of the chasuble in late Roman dress, and a symbolic understanding which relates them to the moral life, the life of Christ and to the life of the world to come. This tradition influenced the traditional prayers said when putting on the vestments and it is sufficiently flexible that one can take from it what one finds useful or even develop it with new comparisons.

Modern vestments at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee

Jesus said of a just a few of the Christians of Sardis, ‘they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes’ (Revelation 3:4-5). White robes in Revelation are worn by the saved in heaven (Revelation 6:7, 7:9-14). The ALB is a close fitting white robe which covers the whole body. Its name comes from the Latin for while ‘albus’ and it sometimes has attached to it panels of cloth in the colour of the day called apparels. Its white colour recalls the dazzling white clothes of the transfigured Christ (Matthew 17:2) and the white robe of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9. The alb is also related to baptism as the newly baptised wear white as a sign of their purity when they emerge from the font, ‘you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self’ (Colossians 3:9-10, cf Ephesians 4:24). The alb is thus a sign of the heavenly life begun on earth and it is especially appropriate for use in the liturgy where we lift up our hearts to heaven and join the angels in praise. The vesting prayer for the alb picks up these themes of purity and heaven, ‘Purify me, O Lord, from all stain and cleanse my heart, that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal delights’.

Putting on the Amice

Two other vestments sometimes go with the alb. The AMICE is a rectangular piece of white cloth worn around the neck, under the alb, with two strings attached that tie around the chest. It is traditionally put on around the head like a hood and then dropped down. It takes its name from the Latin word ‘amicire’ which means to cover and it was introduced in the eighth century. It symbolises control of speech as it goes round the throat, control of thoughts as it covers the head, and chastity as its two cords go around the heart. In the light of the passion of Christ it is the veil put over his head when he was mocked and the soldiers demanded ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’ (Matthew 26:68). As it goes on the head it recalls the ‘helmet of salvation’ (Ephesians 6:17), hence the vesting prayer, ‘Place, O Lord, on my head the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil’.

Alb with Girdle

The alb is often held in by a belt or GIRDLE which has the practical purpose of stopping the priest tripping over the alb but also, because it restrains the alb, symbolises temperance and self-control. Girding the loins it also recalls preparation and readiness, just like the Jews at Passover (Exodus 12:11) or the teaching of Jesus ‘Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning’ (Luke 12:35). It also calls us to live authentically, ‘Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth’ (Ephesians 6:14). The girdle can remind one of the golden belt worn by Christ (Revelation 1:13) but the vesting prayer emphasises its ascetic function, ‘Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and quench in me the fire of disordered desire that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me’.

Priest wearing Alb and Stole

Jesus said, ‘take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29). The STOLE symbolises the yoke of Christ, specifically the mission which we take on when we are ordained. Such symbolism is not rigidly fixed, as this same image is also applied to the chasuble. ‘Stole’ comes from the Greek word ‘stolē’ which means an item of clothing and the prayer said when putting it on refers to the fall of Adam and Eve and restoration in Christ, ‘Restore to me, O Lord, the garment of immortality which was lost to me by my first parents, and, although unworthy to approach your sacred mysteries, grant me, nevertheless, eternal joy.’ It also symbolises the rope that tied Christ to the pillar of scourging and is a symbol of his obedience even unto death (Philippians 2:6-8). Stoles are the same liturgical colour as the chasuble. Traditionally priests at the Eucharist wear the stole crossed over their breast, deacons over the left shoulder and bishops wear it hanging down straight on each side, but many Anglican priests now follow modern Roman Catholic custom and wear their stoles hanging down like bishops.

Priest and Deacon wearing Alb and Stole

The origin of the stole is a mystery but it is also called in Latin ‘orarium’ which means a napkin and it may have developed from a handkerchief-like cloth of the same name carried in Roman times. It is also possible that it came from a badge of office used by Roman officials or, less likely, from the Jewish prayer shawl. It is, as in the Roman example, a sign of identity and should always be worn when celebrating the sacraments. One unusual example of the use of the stole is among the Carthusian nuns who, since the middle ages, have worn the stole and maniple (on the right wrist) on the day of their profession of vows despite not being ordained priests.

The MANIPLE also derived from a liturgical napkin, Ivo of Chartres noted in the eleventh century that this was its purpose, but it developed into a strip of cloth like the stole but hanging from the left wrist. It is worn by priests, deacons and subdeacons at Mass but because the Roman Catholic Church in 1967 made its use optional its use is not common today. As a cloth to wipe away sweat, in Latin ‘sudarium’, it symbolises hard work and penance, and it also recalls the cords used to bind Christ when he was captured. ‘Manipulus’ in Latin can mean a bundle, as in Psalm 126:6, ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves (manipulos)’, and so the maniple is seen as a symbol of heavenly reward as well as of earthly struggle. Both these are reflected in the prayer said when putting it on, ‘Grant, O Lord, that I may so bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labours with rejoicing’.

Priest wearing Chasuble and Maniple

‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Colossians 3:14). The CHASUBLE, that poncho-like garment that goes over everything else, symbolises love. The old commentators also related it to the text ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8) which suggests that the priest underneath is a sinner who is called to the work of love. When it goes over the head it falls down in two parts, one before and one behind, and this shape reminded them of Jesus’ double commandment of love: love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40), while its fullness reminds us of the wideness of love which extends even to enemies (Matthew 5:44). Other ancient writers also relate the chasuble to Jesus himself: to putting on Christ in Baptism (Galatians 3:27) and to the purple robe with which the soldiers clothed Jesus during his passion (John 19:2). The prayer said by priests when they put it on takes a theme used of the stole, which also goes over the shoulders, ‘O Lord, you said, my yoke is sweet and my burden light, grant that I may carry it so as to obtain your grace’.

The chasuble developed from the standard outer garment of the Roman Empire, an oval poncho reaching to the feet called in Latin the ‘casula’ (meaning ‘little house’). It is probable that a good quality casula was reserved for the priest at the Eucharist and this was retained when fashions in secular dress changed. It is also called in Latin ‘planeta’, from the Greek word for wanderer which is behind the name ‘planet’, because its long edges wander about. Originally a long garment that needed to be folded up over the hands, from the middle ages the sides were gradually cut away until the chasuble became more like a sandwich-board. This form of chasuble is usually called ‘Roman’ or, because of the shape of the front panel, ‘fiddleback’, and the fuller form is often called ‘gothic’, as in the pictures above.

The DALMATIC of the deacon (above) is named after Dalmatia, whence it was believed to have come. The breadth of its sleeves was also held to symbolise the open arms of love and it is in the shape of a cross to remind us that at the Eucharist we ‘proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). The deacon’s vesting prayer suggests the joy of celebration, ‘Lord, clothe me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and always encompass me with the dalmatic of justice’. Here, as with all the vestments, material things bring us back to the heart of the faith because we all, like the children at the start of this post, learn through our senses.       

With thanks to Jeremy Auld, Alan Barton, Alex Lane, John Penman, Corinne Smith, and Susan Stoddart Ward for sending photographs for this post.