This week’s blog draws on the Common Worship lectionary Gospel, John 6.1-21, and links to it a brief reflection about Holy Communion, especially in relation to our learning in these COVID times. I would like to get a discussion going in response to my question posed below. Please do respond either via a comment to post on the blog or via an email to me. The blog is now taking a summer break for a month. It will return on 1st September and I am seeking a wider range of contributors for the autumn.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
This illustration above is of a decorated Palestinian pottery plate. It reflects the mosaic of the Loaves and Fishes which is at Tabgha in Galilee, where Christian tradition has long commemorated this miracle. (You can see the actual mosaic depicted further down the blog). This particular plate, which is a treasured possession of the Amos family and was bought in the Holy Land, has been used week by week over the past year, as Alan has presided at celebrations of Holy Communion in our dining room, which have been shared via Zoom with friends in Geneva and in many other locations.
These days, which steadily turned into weeks, then months, and now years, in which the COVID pandemic spread its tentacles across the world, have impacted on our lives in ways that previously we probably never would have anticipated. I suspect that ‘COVID studies’ will shortly become an academic discipline in universities. I cannot begin in this brief reflection to explore its connection to such issues as what human ‘wellbeing’ means, nor indeed its connection to the tricky relationship between our ‘national’ and ‘international’ loyalties – though personally I am dismayed at the one-up-man-ship that, in Europe, now seems to be a factor in various countries’ responses.
As we are all aware, for Christian communities, the inability to hold ‘in person’ worship for substantial periods of time over the last year, has deeply impacted upon our worshipping and common life in ways that previously we would have thought inconceivable. There was a ‘mass’ migration to ‘Zoom’ (or other such digital platforms). Actually that journey to the digital has not been completely negative. Certainly in our Diocese in Europe, in which physical distance is often a factor in making it difficult for people to travel weekly to a particular church building, the availability of Zoom worship has facilitated participation for some people.
It is also interesting how it has enabled church communities to sustain or renew links with former members, who have now moved away. At Holy Trinity, Geneva, the chaplaincy with which I personally am most associated, the Zoom services over the past year have been attended by a number of people who have now retired and moved away from Geneva. It has been a joy for them, and for their old friends, to meet in this way. I am, however, also quite conscious, that it is the well resourced churches such as Holy Trinity who have been able to cope so positively with these developments. We are fortunate to have the human and financial means to provide digital worship which has often been of an exceptional quality. It has been far more of a struggle for others – including many small Anglican churches in England.
Of course one question that arose very early in these developments was what being ‘virtual’ implied for our understanding of the nature of Holy Communion, and also its place within the spectrum of Anglican communal worship. To re-use my phrase above, can there indeed be a ‘Mass migration’ to Zoom? Indeed in the first few weeks of ‘Zoom services’ there was considerable deliberation as to what was or would be permitted in Anglican dioceses and churches. Eventually permission was given for a celebration of Holy Communion by a priest, which could, via Zoom, be viewed and in some way participated in by those who were sharing in the service from their own homes. The phrase making one’s ‘Spiritual Communion’, previously unknown to many, became increasingly used, and in fact, Alan, my husband, wrote a prayer for this purpose, to replace the rather Latinate ‘Prayer of St Alphonse Liguori’ which had been drawn on for the first few weeks of our practice. Alan’s prayer is still being regularly used during Zoom services at Holy Trinity Geneva. You can find it below.
One of the questions, however, that all these developments pose for me is ‘What exactly is the role of Holy Communion as an expression of Anglican public worship?’ At this point I am going to share something of my own view on this subject. I do not expect all the readers of this blog to agree with me, indeed I rather hope they won’t, because I would like to get a discussion going on this topic.
To put my cards on the table: personally, I actually find it unhelpful that Holy Communion has largely become the only public expression of Anglican liturgical worship in many of our churches. It is increasingly rare (except perhaps in historic cathedrals) to find regular public use of either Morning or Evening Prayer in Anglican contexts where many or any laity are expected to be present. It is not that I don’t think Holy Communion is vitally important – but that the way it has often become the ‘only’ expression of public liturgical worship, perhaps means that we don’t explore in depth the fullness of its meaning. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (drawing on much earlier texts) describes the Eucharist as ‘the source and summit’ of the whole of Christian life. As an Anglican, I am very happy to affirm that as my understanding too, but precisely because it is the ‘summit’ I don’t want to reach it too quickly. I want to, need to, spend some time in the foot hills, exploring how they can point me higher and beyond themselves. For me, those ‘foothills’ include non-Eucharistic liturgical worship – including a copious dose of psalmody (which is typically not well represented in the liturgy of the Eucharist). One of the other live issues in the Church of England at the moment is the question of the complementary roles of clergy and laity, including the role of licensed lay ministers. In my view an over-emphasis on Holy Communion or the Eucharist as effectively the ‘only’ form of public Anglican worship skews this question as well. Enough said by me: what is your view?
It is interesting to raise this in this week’s blog for which the lectionary Gospel is John 6.1-21. This is John’s account of Jesus feeding the multitude, followed by his walking on the water. This miracle of feeding is, I believe, the only miracle of Jesus to be recounted in all four Gospels. It is interesting that the lectionary compilers jump at this point from following a series of stories in Mark’s Gospel, into the John’s telling of the episode. If we had ‘continued’ on through Mark, the next passage we would have come across is Mark’s account of the same story. Clearly the lectionary has opted for John’s version at this point, because the compilers want also to explore John’s lengthy discussion about ‘the Bread of Life’ which takes up most of the rest of chapter 6. This later part of the chapter will form the lectionary Gospel passages selected for the four following Sundays.
One of the well-known features of the Gospel of John is that, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, it does not contain an explicit passage set at the Last Supper in which Jesus breaks bread, proclaims ‘This is my body’ and then commands ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. There is no single moment of ‘institution of Holy Communion’. In some ways this is strange for this Gospel, which begins with the triumphant acclamation, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’, is profoundly sacramental in its vision. For those who have eyes to see material realities again and again act as a sign of the spiritual and the divine. And it is also obvious, on even a cursory reading, that allusions to the sacramental body of Jesus – which his listeners are commanded to ‘gnaw’ (John 6.56) – are threaded through these later parts of chapter 6. So why is it that there is no account of the actual ‘institution’?
It is I think true that all the Gospel writers see a link between Jesus’ miraculous feeding of a multitude and the Eucharist or Holy Communion, important in Christian life from apostolic times. But John, by not having a separate ‘institution’ at the Last Supper, somehow makes this link run even more deeply. And looking at the Eucharist in the context of this miraculous feeding can perhaps open our eyes to gaze at things with new vision. It has been said that John’s Gospel was written at a time when the Eucharist ran the danger of being devalued because in some quarters of the Christian Church it was being separated from the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus – turned almost into ‘a magic pep-pill’ (that is a description I have read – though it would probably not be my own first choice of words). So the author of this Gospel sought to challenge such attitudes by rooting – as he does here – Jesus’ offering of the bread of life in the Eucharist in his wider ministry. Of course there are also the hints – such as the fact that we are explicitly told this happened at Passovertide (John 6.4) – that remind us of the connections to that ‘Last Supper’. Yet exploring the Eucharist firstly through this miracle of feeding can offer us some wider – and valuable – insights. As indeed has, I believe, our experience of celebrating Communion online in these days of COVID.
Here are a few resources that might be useful: either this week – or for the following weeks, when verses from John 6 will be the lectionary Gospel, but your blog writer is taking a break, though I do intend to add a few additional resources linked to the Eucharist/Communion from time to time.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99FEyfdLikM ‘I am the Bread of Life’ sung by the virtual choir of Emmanuel Church, Geneva and first shared on Easter Sunday 2020. It is of course in John 6 that Jesus uses these words of himself. I enjoy this video for its vibrant strength and the participation of the whole congregation in the final two verses.
A prayer that my husband, Alan Amos, wrote for those who are about to receive Spiritual Communion in an online act of worship, and which is regularly used by Holy Trinity Church Geneva, and in a number of other churches:
Prayer for an Act of Spiritual Communion
We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.
… [ short pause ] Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; as we unite with one another from the places where we are, may your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before we can begin to understand the symbolism of the eucharist or try to fathom the message it conveys, we need to remember, we need to remember hunger. Perhaps the older discipline in which the Catholic church imposed certain fasts on its adult members should have been adjusted to modern conditions rather than simply be allowed to be set aside without much thought. It is very important to remember hunger, and the fundamental way to know what hunger means is to be hungry. To understand very well what it means is to be hungry over a long period of time. (Monica Hellwig)
When Jesus took bread and wine or a few fish and blessed God for them and shared them with his disciples, creation found its purpose once again. (Mark Searle)