A few months ago, I shared a theological reflection on communion during COVID-19. I said then that I had wrestled with this and spoken to colleagues, some of whom were celebrating communion online according to the Assembly guidelines and some of whom, like me, felt deeply uncomfortable doing so. Theologically, I view the church as a body – not a new or original idea! – a whole body with different parts which work together, not apart.
At the time of that first reflection, we were in the first lockdown but were beginning to investigate ways to safely share communion when we were physically able to gather for worship. I felt that if I were to offer an online communion service, it would exclude those who were not able to get online thus fracture rather than unite our congregation, our body. This is something I always want to avoid.
We are now in the second lockdown which feels harder and more severe. Pastorally, I know people are struggling in different ways. Therefore, I approached the Worship Portfolio with an idea for an online communion service via Zoom – live and not pre-recorded – and worked with Megan to ensure everyone unable to connect would be able to take part at home using the actual service, my actual words. This has appeared to some people to be a ‘back flip’ or ‘about face’ on my part thus I write once again. Please know I am always happy to discuss theological issues – I live for such discussion!
This has been a difficult theological issue for me and one that I have not reacted to without much thought and prayer, both during the first lockdown and this second one. The Worship Portfolio has accompanied me on this journey as have several minister colleagues.
About three months ago, I wrote that I regard communion as a sacrament that is shared with the whole congregation. This is why I feel strongly that communion be taken from the table out to those who cannot attend church as I do not believe it is not intended to be an exclusive celebration – that’s a conversation for another day though! I liken it to the way God provided manna in the desert for all the people of Israel. God never failed to provide for the whole community. It didn’t matter who you were, you went out and gathered your quota for the day and, if someone was physically unable to do so, others gathered the quota for them so that no one was left out, no one was left behind.
When COVID-19 first hit, I and all the church leaders were determined that no one would be left behind during this situation. Yes, this has been tricky and certainly not ideal, but I want to pay tribute to the incredible work of the different fellowship groups of the church who have checked on one another, plus the pastoral carers and anyone who has looked through the directory and just phoned someone whether they knew them or not. The incredible production that has become known as ‘Megan’s Mailout’ has kept those without internet in touch with the worship services – each preacher has produced written copies of their services, members have written prayers and reflections, and Fiona and Megan have produced prayer resources which have been much appreciated. This is how we have tried to stay connected as the one body.
My reflection has been around the wandering in the desert, looking for ways God is providing the manna for our COVID-19 journey, for we are united in our dependence on God even though we are physically apart. God’s provision was celebrated in our service ‘God Provides’ back in June with the different sacred feeding stories and reflections from our different church services. Going back to my first reflection in June, I said that although we could not celebrate communion together, fasting was something we could do together, a way of being united despite not being able to be physically together in worship. By fasting, we were setting aside something that was meaningful for us, but that we did so in order to stay together as one body, united not divided.
But this second lockdown is really hard for many of you and so I felt a pastoral response was required which included communion. I told the Worship Portfolio I was ‘parking’ my theology in order to respond pastorally and they agreed it would be appropriate to offer a communion service live on Zoom.
On 30 August at 2pm, I will be on Zoom with my elements and those who wish to take part will be in their homes with their elements, something they have been able to safely gather. Some people will be reading my words themselves as they follow the service mailed out to them, some will be on zoom, others will not feel the need to take part, but at least there is an option.
I still feel desperately sad that we are not physically together to celebrate communion as one body, just as I feel sad when church members have not been able to join in on a Sunday morning due to ill health. However, being the optimist that I am, I also feel this whole situation has enabled me to share my thinking with you in a way I would never have done before. I have spoken more about my understanding of a theology of accommodation, of inclusion, of the whole body, than I would ever have done in more ‘normal’ times. I have sharpened my own thinking too through needing to respond in different ways as the whole COVID-19 situation has unfolded, often on a daily basis. I hope these reflections have led to your own regardless of whether or not you agree with my thoughts.
So, whether or not you join us for communion on 30 August, we are still one body worshipping together despite being physically distanced. I long for the day I can return to the church building so we can share together a message of God’s grace from our sacred stories, and of course break bread. God is ever faithful and will always provide no matter what the situation or challenge. I leave you with what has become Manningham Uniting’s verse of hope but please contact me if you wish to speak more about this:
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)
22 August 2020