Though we are many…

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I have written this in response to Peter Anthony’s YouTube video in which he argues against virtual communion (Link here). Part of his argument is that virtual communion would be exclusive as it excludes those without easy access to the internet.  I have assumed from this that he sees inclusivity as part of the fundamental nature of the Eucharist. (This is also implied by the congregational response in the communion service: “though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread.”)   

We are about two thirds of the way through the baptism service and there is a surprising feeling of unity amongst this very disparate congregation.  Most of those here today are connected to the baptism family and haven’t been in church since the wedding.  The usual congregation is feeling a bit overwhelmed but pleased to see the church so full.

Together we have sung “Morning has broken” and “All things bright and beautiful” (chosen by the baptism family.) We have listened and reflected on the priest’s short talk on the significance of being called by name and laughed at the humorous anecdote concerning their own name.  We have watched the baptism and smiled at the baby’s reaction to the water.  The children have shared the baptism cards they have made for the baby and there has been almost silence during the prayers for the world, the church, the community, the sick and ourselves.  Most have joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Sharing the peace has given us a chance to welcome and connect with the baptism party and for them to welcome and connect with each other.

“We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.”

“Though we are many we are one body, because we all share in the one bread” the congregation respond, including all those have not realised the implications of what this might look like in practice.

All this togetherness is about to change.

The priest has reached the end of the Eucharistic prayer and we are about to be divided into sheep, lambs, llamas and goats.

The sheep are the straightforward ones.  They are the people who take communion either here or in their own churches.  They are invited to come and take communion, to share in the one bread.

Next the llamas.  The priest invites all those who would like a blessing to come up with the communicants.  As we make our way up to the altar rail it is easy to distinguish between sheep and llamas because the llamas have been asked to bring the service sheet with them to show they won’t be taking communion.  (Why make it so obvious who is included and who is excluded?  Why not just ask people to hold their hands together at the altar rail?)  *

I think the priest is hopeful that all the baptism party will be llamas but apart from the baby’s immediate family most of them choose to be goats and stay sitting in the pews.   They sit in fidgety embarrassment as the rest of us file past on our way to communion, rereading the weekly pew sheet, chasing their children around the church or guiltily moving seats to chat to their friends.

No one has made any suggestions as to how they might use this time when they are excluded from this part of the worship.  This is something they just have to sit through. Unlike the oil, the water, the candle and the promises there has been no explanation of the significance of communion – perhaps the priest thinks this is covered by the Eucharistic prayer but I’m not sure it is.

The priest may be scarcely aware of the goats as they are physically distant from the altar and the priest’s focus is on the giving of communion and blessing those at the altar rail.

It is different for the laity as we have to walk past them both going and coming back.  (How do we walk back past those who have not taken communion?  Do we walk in some kind of sacred bubble, staring fixedly forward towards the back of the church where the loo is?  Or do we smile and attempt eye contact, while trying not to give off “look how I’ve been transformed by taking communion” vibes that create an unbreachable gap between those who are included and those who are not?)

And the lambs?  Churches differ widely on the lambs, both theologically and in practice.  In some the bread of life is offered to all baptised lambs with sufficient teeth to eat it safely.  Many churches offer it to church lambs who have reached a certain level of reasoning (generally assumed to be achieved about seven years old) and have undergone a preparation course.  Others seem barely aware that the lambs exist except as an added nuisance to the sheep they accompany.   But this is a different discussion…

“Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice…” begins the post communion prayer, said together (in theory) by the congregation, whether they have been fed or not.

Baptisms often highlight how exclusive the Eucharist can be as we are more aware of who is included and who is excluded.  But most Eucharists I go to include at least one goat or llama and even at times a few stray lambs.  I accept that this may be through choice, but where else in our lives do we experience this clear division of people into those who are excluded and those who are not?

Livestreaming and videoing of services have at least taken this away; sitting in front of our screens we are far less aware of who is “in” and who is not.

I am still thinking through the ideas around a virtual Eucharist and I think Peter Anthony may have a point about the need for physical presence.  But I would not choose the idea of the Eucharist as inclusive as a key argument.  It is hard to attend a communion service without being aware just how exclusive the Eucharist is in current practice.  While there may be theological reasons for this, I do not think it is right to assume the Eucharist is inclusive when experience indicates that it is not.

*  I do know some priests who offer an open table, especially for christenings and at Christmas.