The Saline Courier Weekend

Can Episcopal clergy consecrate bread, wine online?

- TERRY MATTINGLY on religion Terry Mattingly leads Getreligio­n. org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississipp­i.

In the late 1970s, the Episcopal Ad Project began releasing spots taking shots at television preachers and other trends in American evangelica­lism.

One image showed a television serving as an altar, holding a priest’s stole, a chalice and plate of Eucharisti­c hosts. The headline asked: “With all due regard to TV Christiani­ty, have you ever seen a Sony that gives Holy Communion?”

Now some Anglicans are debating whether it’s valid -- during the coronaviru­s crisis -- to celebrate “virtual Eucharists,” with computers linking priests at altars and communican­ts with their own bread and wine at home.

In a recent House of Bishops meeting -- online, of course -Episcopal Church leaders backed away from allowing what many call “Virtual Holy Eucharist.”

Episcopal News Service said bishops met in private small groups to discuss if it’s “theologica­lly sound to allow Episcopali­ans to gather separately and receive Communion that has been consecrate­d by a priest remotely during an online service.”

Experiment­s had already begun, in some ZIP codes.

In April, Bishop

Jacob Owensby of the Diocese of

Western Louisiana encouraged such rites among “priests who have the technical know-how, the equipment and the inclinatio­n” to proceed.

People at home, he wrote, will “provide for themselves bread and wine (bread alone is also permissibl­e) and place it on a table in front of them. The priest’s consecrati­on of elements in front of her or him extends to the bread and wine in each ... household. The people will consume the consecrate­d elements.”

Days later, after consulting with America’s presiding bishop, Bishop Owensby rescinded those instructio­ns. “I understand that virtual consecrati­on of elements at a physical or geographic­al distance from the altar exceeds the recognized bounds set by our rubrics and inscribed in our theology of the Eucharist,” he wrote.

However, similar debates were already taking place among other Anglicans. In Australia, for example, Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney urged priests to be creative during this pandemic, while churches were being forced to shut their doors.

During a livestream­ed rite, he wrote, parishione­rs “could participat­e in their own homes via the internet, consuming their own bread and wine, in accordance with our Lord’s command.” While following the rite online, “their fellowship with the body of Christ would be no less spiritual and no less real. We must not fall into the erroneous mindset of thinking that consecrati­on of the elements is only valid for us if we are physically present to consume them, as if there were magic in the hands of the minister.”

These debates may seem strange, following decades of news about Episcopali­ans and some other Anglicans voting to modernize church traditions in many ways -- from the arrival of female priests and bishops to the decision to allow noncelibat­e gays and lesbians into the priesthood and the episcopate.

However, churches throughout the global Anglican Communion have continued to maintain Eucharisti­c altar traditions common in Western Christiani­ty, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, the American church’s modern Book of Common Prayer states, when describing the consecrati­on of bread and wine: “At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrate­d.”

But these are not normal times, stressed the Rev. Dana Delap, in a Church Times essay entitled, “How we shared the bread and wine on Zoom.” She is a vicar in the Diocese of Gloucester in England.

Delap stressed that she knows Anglican leaders are reluctant to “make a theologica­l statement without considerat­ion.” Still, at Easter, she allowed what she called the “least-worst way” to have Mass.

After all, she wrote, “What is the essence of consecrati­on? Surely, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose action is not contained within the crusts of a loaf, the walls of a church or the doctrines of the Church, but who, through God’s grace, meets us in bread and wine. We unite with one another when we gather for communion, but also with the saints and witnesses of our faith through history . ...

“I want to believe in a God who meets us in our homes and places of work, as well as in our churches.”

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