Communion rail

Last Sunday I took the Communion service in a familiar church. Time was when I used to do that every Sunday. Doing it occasionally, as a retired priest just helping out, brings back memories but it’s different.

The bit that stuck in my mind afterwards was going along the communion rail, giving a wafer to the adults and a blessing to the children. What’s happening? We had just had a Common Worship eucharistic prayer which interprets the action in terms of the Last Supper, but that probably wasn’t uppermost in anyone’s mind.

My Anglo-Catholic upbringing had stressed that receiving communion was a very special, holy occasion when I might feel different. My guess is that the people receiving it from me varied along a spectrum. At one extreme were the people for whom this is the spiritual highlight of the week, when they feel closest to God. At the other extreme were the ones who like to come to church for other reasons, and receive communion because that’s the done thing. In the case of children the spectrum is obvious. Some try to grab my stole. Some decide to find out how I will respond if they suddenly move their head out of the way, or make a funny face. Some look as though they are taking it very seriously indeed.

In the case of both adults and children I presume that for at least some of them it is a significant moment. It is irrelevant that I don’t believe there is any magic in it, and they probably don’t either. All over the world different societies have developed different activities as ways to come close to the divine, and they all have the potential to work if we expect them to work and behave accordingly.

So my job is to facilitate each person’s spiritual experience, their moment of closeness to the divine. It is not my job to judge which of them is taking it seriously; I must take it seriously for the sake of those who do. I have never found any conflict between taking it seriously and sharing the amusement of children who play games with it. However there is a conflict I do find, and it addresses one of the problems we have with clergy today.

Last Sunday’s experience reminded me of when I used to do it every Sunday as a full-time vicar. I am no longer a vicar; I was just the local retired priest taking the service while the vicar was away on holiday. What struck me was how much easier it has become to give that moment the attention it needs. I didn’t know most of the people’s names but neither did I know what office they held in the church. I didn’t know who had fallen out with whom. There was nobody I depended on for doing a job. There was nobody whose presence reminded me of something I was supposed to have done, nobody who irritated me or upset me. If somebody’s presence or absence made a difference to the notices or the plans for the week, I was completely oblivious to it.

When I was a vicar all those thoughts would have bubbled away in my mind generating messages like ‘how am I going to remember to see that person after the service?’ I always felt under too much pressure to do things. A lot of the pressure came from my own feelings of insecurity but plenty came from parishioners and the diocese too. No doubt that did not stop people experiencing the occasion as spiritually significant, but I didn’t make it as easy as I might have. At the very least my body language would have told its own story.

Last Sunday, as the stand-in retired priest, it was different. As I went along the communion rail, at each stop there were just the two of us, the communion wafer, the words and God. I could give my full attention to that person and focus on what we were doing.

Given the kind of society we have got with its busyness, its intense focus on possessing physical things and its blind spot for other dimensions, it is all the more important for those of us who believe in other dimensions to protect our ways and means for relating to them.

If I am right – and if it matters – it raises questions about what churches expect their clergy to do. Since I was ordained in the 1970s the trend has been for the clergy to be given more to do, to have more targets to meet and more forms to fill in. This simply reflects the way our society has been changing: the same has happened to all the professions. However it is often counter-productive.

If one of the tasks of priests is to enable people to sense the presence of God, they should not be overloaded with other agendas. They need the time, and the mental space, to focus on it. What matters most is not the things they achieve but the quality of the relationships.