Soline Humbert; The Irish Times; 16 March 2021
Church and Covid: There is a whole ecclesiastical world which is disappearing
Our church buildings are currently closed again to communal worship, as they have been on and off throughout the past year because of the pandemic. It is this context which gave birth to what can be described as a radical experiment.
What I am referring to is the participation in Eucharistic celebrations through the medium of Zoom and other internet platforms. My hope in documenting this new liturgical phenomenon is that it will stimulate reflection, conversation and personal and communal discernment.
Over the past 25 years a “domestic church” movement has grown in an organic manner, and with it, celebrations of Eucharist in each other’s homes. While it is mainly Roman Catholic it is also ecumenical.
Many of us are also active members of various world church reform movements such as We Are Church Ireland and we would also have celebrated Eucharist at our international gatherings, usually on a yearly basis.
Church buildings closed
This is the background to the next step we took in March 2020 when not only church buildings closed, but we also had to close our homes to any outsiders. Physically isolated, we decided to move our Eucharistic celebrations online. Zoom enabled these gatherings.
Participants are sent the text of the liturgy in advance by the person who has compiled it and who will lead the celebration. We follow the church liturgical calendar and the general Eucharistic format, but with room for creative adaptations.
The readings from scripture and the prayers are shared, so that there is much diverse active vocal participation. Instead of a set homily there is an open space where people can share their personal reflections and insights.
Looking back it is quite remarkable that it was embraced so quickly, so widely and so wholeheartedly, including by some vowed religious and clergy
The prayers of the faithful are spontaneous prayers expressing the needs and desires of those gathered. There is also time for playing instrumental music, singing hymns and/or showing visual representations.
There has been an increase both in the number of church reform groups moving to hold these Zoom Eucharists (for want of a better word), as well as in the number of participants.
Looking back it is quite remarkable that it was embraced so quickly, so widely and so wholeheartedly, including by some vowed religious and clergy.
The bread and wine
The issue of the offertory and consecration of the bread and wine of course had to be dealt with. From a practical point of view, each person or couple has some bread and wine (or water when wine is not possible to procure) on a table in front of them before their screen.
These gifts are offered and consecrated through a communal prayer and then we receive Communion – the body and blood of Christ.
The extended hands over the elements are those of the people of God, separated by often huge physical distances, sometimes across continents. And yet the belief which sustains us and gives us the necessary daring is our belief in the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit, so that there is truly an epiclesis at the heart of our celebrations.
We are gathered as the body of Christ and we receive the body of Christ. Though many and scattered across the face of the earth, we are one. We believe that the action of the Holy Spirit transcends space.
As each one of us, indwelt by the spirit, pray together and invoke the spirit, we believe we are truly giving praise and thanks in memory of Jesus, as he asked his followers to remember him. And we believe Christ is truly present when we gather, even if this gathering takes place, by necessity, online rather than physically.
There is a whole ecclesiastical world which is increasingly disappearing. While this pandemic will, in time, be over, it will have contributed to some lasting changes which were already under way. It seems to me that for some Christians the experience of these Eucharistic celebrations will have effected a breakthrough and empowered them as a priestly people.
Participating in a Zoom Eucharist is a bit like walking on water. We have left the solid ground of our long-established theological frameworks, with its sense of safety, and find ourselves at large, sustained by the one who calls us to cross over to another shore.
Soline Humbert is a spiritual director and a member of We Are Church Ireland. This is an abridged version of an article in the Spring 2021 edition of Search, a Church of Ireland Theological Journal.