Before Covid-19 became the topic of daily news I was not taking church services. To be more precise, I had not presided at Holy Communion since mid-October 2019. As Maggie’s appointment meant a move to York I needed to go through the process of applying for ‘Permission to Officiate” or PTO. The granting of PTO allows a priest in the Church of England, who isn’t licensed to a particular church, to assist in services for the diocese. Thankfully, before the lockdown began, I gained PTO and started helping on Sunday services in February. At the beginning of March I was able to lead a retreat for lay leaders – Readers – which concluded with a service of Holy Communion on 8th March.
I am not a priest whose custom is to have daily communion. When I trained at Westcott House I joined the silent reflection before Morning Prayer, but hardly ever stayed for the communion service which followed. Maybe it was the ‘Lancashire low’ of my childhood, but the importance of Holy Communion was expressed more in its rarity than its frequency. This is not to pass judgement on the different approaches people take to this sacrament. While I was at Westcott I spent four months in Switzerland studying at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, where representatives from approximately 20 different Christian denominations studied together. During that time I came to appreciate many different eucharistic practices, which all expressed in their different ways a common sense of significance.
In my pre-Covid experience the lack of opportunity to celebrate Holy Communion began to make me feel restless; uneasy. It was becoming a wilderness. While I haven’t been a parish priest since 1997, the opportunity to lead Communion services was always there, either helping out in a local church or at the bedside in the NHS. When I started work as a chaplain at Leeds Teaching Hospitals in 2001 I didn’t feel settled in until I took a communion service for the first time with colleagues. In all the other things I did across the hospitals of the Trust, I feel at some level they were all linked back to those moments when I would stand beside bread and wine and announce that this was broken, and given, for people. Having the realisation of a wounded body at the heart of the Eucharist spoke volumes for me in the hospital. Here was fracture; loss; wounding; and exposure – offered not as despair, but rather as a future hope we can taste today.
Since leading my last church service on 15 March I have preached, but not presided, in Zoom services. Today that changed as I conducted a service via internet for Holy Trinity Micklegate. There was a small ‘virtual’ congregation on the call, and in so many ways it felt a very limited and inadequate experience. Disembodied voices sing, not always in tune, nor in unison, and rarely in time with the music. Verbal responses become a small chamber of echoes. It is easier when a single voice leads a reading or offers the prayers, yet I wouldn’t wish to silence the other voices which carry the faith of their owners.
As I read the Eucharistic Prayer I felt very moved. It hit home that I wouldn’t be pressing bread into anyone’s hand, or placing a sign of blessing on those not receiving. It felt wrong to keep the physical part of this celebration to myself. I miss the hands, always so different and bearing the marks of life, which get held out in desire and anticipation. The people who look me in the eye as they say their ‘amen’, and those whose gaze is downward, hardly daring to look at this moment of God-fed intimacy.
It will return. Holy Communion will be shared again. For now, perhaps sorrow is not a bad feeling for those who long to share once more in broken bread and a common cup. Yet how much worse it would be, and how telling of our faith, if this strange time occasioned no sense of loss. These meals that model a new way of being, with felon and gaoler side-by-side (yes, I’ve broken bread in prison). This banquet that promises a very different kind of power and community is not wholly or only about those present. It is about the world re-made. Perhaps, when it returns, we shall see this more clearly.
In his faithful interweaving of daily life and the Eucharist, Geoffrey Howard’s Dare to Break Bread is perhaps a fitting reading for these days. His chapter entitled ‘Real Presence’ ends with this:
Where Jesus is present and how he is present in this Eucharist, is still a mystery to me. But, that he is present is beyond doubt. Only Jesus of Nazareth could gather together round one table such beautiful and diverse people. The Lord is here and his presence is with us.Howard, G. Dare to Break Bread: Eucharist in Desert and City DLT, London 1992 p., 53
In the era of Zoom-communion I have even less idea about this mystery, but take comfort in the knowledge that God continually surpasses our meagre expectations.