Theological reflection on communion during COVID-19

Theological reflection on communion during COVID-19

The serving of communion during COVID-19 is a tricky one. Depending on your theology of communion, the way you understand communion, you will have formed your own views. What follows are my views as well as an explanation of the reflection I have undertaken whilst forming these views.

After much discussion at worship portfolio, we have reached a decision to not celebrate communion whilst our services are online. I know some people are not going to agree with this decision and I do not seek to justify it here, just explain it and hopefully generate some theological thinking for you.

As always, I am available to answer questions and for discussion.

God Provides

On Sunday 28 June, we will celebrate a service called ‘God Provides’. This will be dedicated to the sacrament of communion, how we understand the role of bread and sharing food as a Christian community, and café church has shared their wording for an agape meal. It will not be a communion service but will explore communion in a way that we don’t usually do. Further information will be available shortly and, for those not able to attend the online services, an order of service will be mailed to you so that you don’t miss out. The constant message is that we are in this together.

UCA Assembly decision

The Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) approved temporary guidelines for Uniting Church congregations and faith communities to celebrate Holy Communion as part of online worship in time for Easter Sunday.

Uniting Church President Dr Deidre Palmer said in a Pastoral Letter explaining the decision, “At this moment, we cannot gather together in our usual ways, because of the restrictions designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, and to keep vulnerable people safe.

“Following prayer, shared conversation and listening to the Spirit and each other, the ASC has approved online gatherings for worship with Holy Communion in accordance with ASC guidelines.

“The decision whether to offer online Holy Communion in worship will be the responsibility of the Church Council with the Minister.

“There will be Uniting Church congregations and members, who choose not to celebrate Holy Communion in this way, but instead choose to wait until they are able to physically meet.”

We are one of the congregations who will not celebrate communion until we can meet. However, having said that, it is still unclear when we will meet and how we will be able to share communion when we do finally meet, so there is no clarity around any of this as yet. We are sailing unchartered waters and doing our best to navigate as safely and as pastorally as we can. As you know, the situation changes constantly but we will keep you informed.

Manningham Uniting’s decision

As an ordained minister, I believe communion to be a sacrament shared within the church community, open to all as it is served at God’s table. You could argue I would think that because I’m a minister.

In our UCA Basis of Union, it says:
“The Uniting Church acknowledges that the continuing presence of Christ with his people is signified and sealed by Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church. In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptized people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom. Thus the people of God, through faith and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, have communion with their Saviour, make their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, proclaim the Lord’s death, grow together into Christ, are strengthened for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world, and rejoice in the foretaste of the Kingdom which Christ will bring to consummation.” (1992 edition)

You will know from the liturgical words I use in communion services that I am not totally aligned to this interpretation. However, I still hold firmly to the significant role of the sacrament of communion within the church. God provides for God’s church through the presence of the holy spirit and through prayer, rituals and sacraments which draw us closer to God and to one another. As the church, we are a body of many different parts, but the different parts are essential to the whole. The body only works when the parts are working together and united – imagine the chaos with 2 legs going in different directions! In such strange times, there is a danger of going in different direction, so it’s important to hold onto what unites us as a church.

This time of COVID-19 has shattered some of our understandings of what it is to be church. I remember before Easter seeing the real estate boards with the wonderful advertising for our Easter services which Bob and I had so carefully prepared. The realisation that what I had planned for Palm Sunday, Tenebrae, and Good Friday would not happen, and that Bob would need to rewrite his Easter Sunday service – his finale with us – to accommodate the online platform. Teams worked towards getting everything online but also printed so that Megan could mailout meaningful worship resources for Easter to those without internet access. I was saddened that the biggest liturgical celebration of the Christian year would be celebrated ‘apart’.

We grieve this time, each in our own way, whilst also acknowledging that it has also brought blessings and we are learning more about God and about the nature of church as we travel together through it. We grieve that, although we are together and connected in many ways, we are still not meeting in the church buildings. To some of our church members, this is not important but to others, it is a vital connection.

Wandering in the desert

When the Hebrew people left Egypt, they weren’t happy. They were safe from the tyranny of the Egyptians and the realities of slavery, but they moaned they didn’t know where they were going, what they were going to eat, where they were going to find water. In the end, Moses got a bit sick of hearing ‘are we there yet?’ and turned to God. God always provides.

11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

(Exodus 16:11-12)

5The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

(Exodus 17:5-6)

Without fail, the manna was there each morning and the quail each evening and God’s people were fed. There was no menu to choose from, but the nourishment they needed was always there as God promised. And the water flowed so God’s people could drink. And God’s providence continued, and God was faithful. But the Hebrew people still spent 40 years wandering in the desert learning to be God’s people, learning to rely upon God alone, and entering into the covenant with God as willing participants.

My reflection has been upon this wandering in the desert and COVID-19. All churches are wandering in the desert right now with leaders trying to provide food and water for the journey whilst the community holds onto each other tightly for comfort and safety. Ironically, in order to hold onto each other tightly in this particular desert, we need to be apart and physically distanced from each other. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t together.

During this time of desert wandering, we can fast together whether we are attending online services or using the worship resources from the mailouts. By fasting, we are acknowledging that this is a strange time where we are not church as we knew it, and possibly won’t be church as it will become. We don’t know how long this time will last, and we don’t know when it will be safe to share food together. But we do know that God provides what we need, not necessarily what we want.

By fasting together, we are setting aside something that is meaningful for all Christians no matter how we interpret it or understand it. By setting aside the sacrament of communion, we are saying to each other as a body of many parts, this is an extraordinary time but we’re together in this. We are moving in the same direction travelling through the desert. Though we are all different parts of the body, we make up the whole body and we are together.

Eventually, the Hebrew people left the desert and entered a new phase of their history as God’s people. It brought other challenges and required new leaders to lead them through different times. There were times they moved away from the covenant with God and other times when they moved closer to God. But always, God provided.

This time won’t last. We will leave this desert. But when we do, the world will have changed, and church will need to change. Just as the Hebrew people left the desert, so we will leave isolation. During that time, the Hebrew people relearnt what it meant to be God’s people. I wonder what we are learning about being the people God, about being the church.

I’ll finish with what has become our verse of hope at this time – you may have found your own verse:

do not fear, for I am with you,
   do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
   I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

(Isaiah 41:11)

Rev Claire Dawe
6 June 2020

Ways we can feel we are together include:
  • the online services
  • the mailout prayer resources, worship resources and magazine
  • the prayer mats made by the Pilgrim Patchworkers and mailed to everyone
  • the community events that are taking place virtually and, on the phone,
  • the ‘pray where you are’ prayer group every Thursday morning at 8.45am