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’.

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