A lot has been written already about the impact of the pandemic on the Church’s life. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ recent post (also in Modern Church’s insert in the Church Times on 30 October) deals with the issue of “virtual communion” which is now with us again and could continue to be important in the future. As it happens, I am not sure about her argument that all our experiences, including reception of the Sacrament, are “virtual”; it seems to me that, in eliminating the distinct between “virtual” and “real”, she may be unduly influenced by the arguments of Kant and the existentialists that we can only know what is presented to us by our sense-experiences and there is no “reality” beyond those experiences. Whether that is true or not, it seems to me that an increased reliance on online participation, in celebrations conducted by a priest alone, may raise another issue:
the spectre of increased clericalism.
Some may say that what matters is that it is always “the Church” which celebrates the Eucharist, even when a priest does that on his or her own and the laity can only participate “virtually”. But what is “the Church”? For a century at least now, in Catholic as well as Protestant traditions, we have been consistently reminded that the Church is the whole people of God, not just the clergy. Even some quite conservative Popes have urged an end to the widespread practice of non- communicating attendance at Mass – which of course is equally condemned in the 1662 Prayer Book, and unknown in most other denominations. And, in our worship as well as our wider ministry, we have seen the vision of such as the Parish Communion movement increasingly put into practice, to the great spiritual benefit of us all.
In that case, increasing reliance on online participation would seem to be a significant backward step – unless indeed you follow Miranda’s argument that “virtual” is just as real as “real”. It may well be that such a step has to be taken from time to time, as now – in which case “the essential becomes impossible” and all we can do is find some way of participation which is very much second-best. (There may be an analogy here with the concept of “virtual sex”, but perhaps this is not the place to pursue it in detail!)
What worries me is the impression, which is surely inevitable, that “the Church” is really the clergy. Certainly there is still much which can be done by lay people in the name of the Church, including all kinds of pastoral care and social action. But when it comes to the Church’s central act – that is something to be done by a lone priest in his or her church, certainly in the sight and the name of us all, but still alone.
The impression that “the priest” is “the Church” is also, I suggest, reinforced by the sheer complexity and rapidity of the decisions which have had to be taken, day by day and week by week, during the pandemic – which puts more power into the hands of the parish priest as the ultimate decision- maker. That is not my principal argument here, but it is not irrelevant to the problem of an apparently growing clericalism as exemplified in online worship.
That coincides, however, with a financial crisis for the Church which is almost certain to lead to a reduction in the numbers of stipendiary clergy and hence a radical re-thinking of parochial ministry. Surely this demands even more attention to the idea that the Church is the whole Body of Christ. And, I repeat, that is far from the impression given by a lone priest in an empty church building. I am not suggesting that online Eucharists should cease – far from it. I believe some parishes have actually taken that step as a matter of principle, and replaced it by worship on Zoom which might or might not include some sort of agape. This is one solution, and I do not wish to disrespect the theology behind it. But in the longer term we surely need to look at other solutions.
The most obvious is to increase quite radically the numbers of non-stipendiary church members who can legitimately and validly preside at the Eucharist. We have already seen, certainly in the Church of England, considerable growth in the numbers of non-stipendiary priests. In some parts of the Anglican Communion, “lay celebration” is talked about, considered elsewhere as a subversive extreme-Protestant idea which would undermine Catholic/Anglican order and doctrine – yet quite possibly close to what happened in the early Church before such order or doctrine was formulated! Whatever we call such an extension of sacramental ministry, and however it may be implemented and governed, we surely have to get away from the idea that no-one can preside unless they have had a lengthy and costly period of training and a particular set of pastoral, administrative and other skills – and are normally stipendiary as well! To be sure, someone (a bishop?) has to decide who is a fit and proper person for such a task, and commission them accordingly; but, if we really believe that the Church is the whole people of God, what matters far more is their acceptability in the local congregation. If I were marooned on a desert island with a group of Christian friends, none of whom were ordained priests, I would think it right that we should select such a person or persons from amongst ourselves – and that a Eucharist presided over by one of those people would be as valid as a more traditionally organised one.
In the meantime, the requirements of lockdown preclude even the possibility of breaking up a congregation into small cells to celebrate the Eucharist under the presidency of NSMs or even “lay” ministers. Under such circumstances, individuals or families sharing bread and wine at home in front of a screen might well be the least-worst option. Could one imagine that such elements are “remotely consecrated”? It seems a theologically tall order; but for my part I would go with the words attributed to Elizabeth I:
He was the Word and spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And that which he did make it
I do believe and take it.
What I will not believe or accept – even if the priest on my screen, offering and breaking bread in my name, is the best and holiest, and one with whom I see myself in the deepest unity – is that the model of Eucharist which we have had to observe in these lockdown times is good enough to show forth anything like the fullness of what the Eucharist, and hence the Gospel, means. We are all a kingdom of priests, and we must find ways going forward of demonstrating this more effectively – not just virtually but in physical reality.