May 8, 2020
Dear People of the Diocese of Massachusetts,
I want to speak with you about sacramental hunger and eucharistic practice.
The lengthening duration of church closures has made increasingly painful for all of us the accompanying fast from holy communion. I want to assure you that your bishops share this grief, and are engaged in and ceaselessly reflecting upon conversations throughout the diocese and the wider church about sacramental practices in these times.
In the midst of our extended absence from in-person worship, the question of remote consecration of elements in people’s homes is being widely discussed and debated among faithful Christians and church leaders in many different contexts. Some in this conversation maintain that the Eucharist is a communal activity defined (like the Incarnation itself) by material substance and physical place, and by the exchange of those elements in the physical presence of one another. For others, online liturgical innovation made possible by technological realities not previously imagined appears an obvious and loving response to a pastoral need.
The yearning is shared. The question is real. The conversation is engaged.
In the Diocese of Massachusetts, as indeed in all dioceses throughout the Episcopal Church, the remote consecration of elements in worshipers’ homes has not been sanctioned at this time. This should not be understood as a rejection of the critical need for a conversation about this proposal. It is not a declaration that the question is not important; clearly it is. It does not represent an assumption that any of us knows the outcome of a thoughtful discussion; we do not.
It does, however, represent the absolute conviction that remote consecration of elements at a distant location would constitute a significant change in our theology and practice. And in our church such important changes are not made individually, locally or impulsively. Rather, we consider such changes collectively, communally and deliberately. The time and deliberative process required by such an understanding of church can be frustrating, even painful. But it is a mark of our earnest effort as Anglicans to value both tradition and innovation, as well as to uphold the democratic councils of the Episcopal Church which make such decisions.
I want to underscore my hope that this discussion be cast not in terms of a lay/clergy divide. The majority of clergy are themselves abstaining from receiving the Eucharist, even if they are consecrating it during online liturgies. I encourage such abstinence precisely from a sense of pastoral solidarity with those who cannot receive. Neither Bishop Harris nor I has received holy communion since mid-March. The clergy are right alongside the whole people of God in lamenting this sacramental fast and longing for its end.
Meanwhile, how do we endure this time of pandemic-imposed abstinence? How else might we be nourished by the riches of God’s grace? As we seek and find such sources of nourishment, I commend in particular the tradition of Agape meals. The Agape Feast was an early church practice of a communal meal which, while not itself the liturgy of Holy Eucharist, provided an occasion to recall the meals Jesus shared with his disciples, and to manifest the fellowship enjoyed by the followers of Christ.
The church defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”–something that we can see, or taste or touch, which communicates to us the ineffable grace and love of God. Through history the church has identified particular capital-S sacraments. But those in no way limit the sacramental quality of an infinite number of other experiences we may have.
I have been recollecting a story. Some years ago the parish I was serving in Chicago maintained a partnership with an Arapaho congregation in Wyoming. Members of both congregations traveled back and forth. Deep respect developed between them. A young participant in the partnership, Robin, once described a moment in which she and a friend from the other congregation–one whose life experiences were so very different from her own–had sat beneath a shade tree on a hot afternoon and talked, sharing between them a soda and a bag of chips. “I realized,” said Robin, “that we were having communion.” When Robin and her friend shared that moment of reconciliation, fellowship and nourishment, it was not the church’s Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, but it was surely sacramental.
Here in our diocese, one congregation’s recent experience with an Agape Feast is reflected in the pastor’s description: “Parishioners are glad to see their friends, but they also enjoy praying with them. These are sacramental Christians, and they like having something to do with their senses during worship. They can eat and feel that they are surrounded by their beloved community. It is not the Eucharist, but it … is filled with the spirit of our Lord: with his priorities, his love and his ministry.”
Likewise, another priest of our diocese recently described the virtual worship his congregation had shared. “Last Sunday, with the Gospel focused around Jesus revealing himself with the breaking of bread, I asked members to bring their breakfast and we all shared our coffee, tea, sandwiches and bread during the Morning Prayer liturgy” on Zoom. Surely this, too, was a sacramental moment.
I am certain that, even while we consider the possibility of future changes in our eucharistic practice, these moments of God’s grace are available to me and to you in today’s virtual worship, whether during a live-streamed Eucharist, a Zoom Morning Prayer, an Agape meal or even a Zoom coffee hour. In these and so many ways, God’s grace can nourish us sacramentally.
Resources for Agape meals (here and here) as well as other liturgical materials (here), and a review of liturgical guidelines previously issued, are available on our diocesan website (here). Further guidelines relating to the phased re-opening of churches in the weeks ahead are being developed and will come to you soon. As restrictions ease, the renewed ministry of Lay Eucharistic Visitors–unavailable to us during this time of tight restrictions–will be a welcomed sacramental avenue.
Finally, in all of this, I bid your charity and patience. We live in sad and anxious times–and so we are sad and anxious. It is understandable that since we cannot direct our frustration towards a virus, which is disembodied and indifferent, we may find ourselves directing it at one another. Let us take care that our continuing discussion and debate not devolve into disparagement of one another. This is not the way of Christ. This is not the Way of Love.
I thank you for your faithfulness and your patience. I thank you for your creativity in shaping community, and your devotion to caring for others. I thank you for your support and trust, even as we entrust ourselves and one another to God’s enduring grace.
May God bless you and keep you.
Faithfully and fondly,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates