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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

Messages from Bishop Mark

Earth and Altar

Posted by The Rt. Rev. Mark D. W. Edington on

Q. Is God’s activity limited to these rites?
A. God [is not limited] to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.
An Outline of the Faith [“The Catechism”], BCP, p. 861
We are going back to church. Slowly. CarefullyMaybe a little fearfully. But we are going back; the lockdowns are easing, the doors are opening, the rules are being worked out.
Even so, it will not be the same, and we will do ourselves a great disservice if we go back determined to make it the same that it was. A great idea of what profit we realize from these past months of isolation and estrangement from each other and our empty churches is a matter of our choice—and that, in turn, is a matter of spiritual discipline.
Considerable debate has erupted in some quarters of the church over the past few weeks—much of it hard to reconcile with the minimum standard of respect expected of Christian discourse—about restrictions being placed by the church on the practice of “virtual Eucharist.” To be clear, such a practice does not have the support of the leadership of the church, and has not been authorized in the Convocation. But there are two parts to this conversation worth considering.
The first is what it reflects about how immensely consequential changes to the historic inheritance of the faith should be undertaken. These weeks have been difficult, to be sure, but by no means do they hold the prospect of an interminable separation of faithful people from the table of Eucharist. It is never a wise thing to make important decisions in the midst of an emergency. In more ways than one, the conversation about opening up the understanding of the church to “virtual” or “remote” eucharist — whereby people would sit at their Zoom screens at home with their own bread and wine, and in some way partake of a sacrament being celebrated in a place they could only observe though a video link — feels like responding to a genuine emergency by creating one of our own. 
To speak, as some have, about the eucharist in some way being “hoarded” by the church, or by the clergy, is in some ways to err in comparing the eucharistic sacrament to a commodity—which it is not. It is not a thing that can be gathered, stored up in excess, and kept from others. We can only make eucharist in the moment we share it together, as people actually gathered. There is a thread that ties together a sense of being deprived of a Eucharist that somehow others in power are keeping away, and the protests in places like Michigan over a sense of being deprived of freedoms that somehow others in power are taking away. Both mistake a sense of personal entitlement for a claim of right.
That is not to say a conversation about the impact of this pandemic and its consequences for our sacramental life it isn’t an important conversation to have; it is. And it is also not to say that those who feel strongly about the need to change fundamental aspects of the sacramental life of the church are by definition mistaken; they are not.
But with that said, one of the things it means to be members of a church built on the foundation of a deep commitment to shared governance means that deliberation, prayer, and deep conversation are necessary and not incidental to any changes in matters of such substance. I hope this will happen, and from a healthier beginning than what is now on offer; but it surely has not yet been undertaken in anything like a way recognizably Episcopal.
The second, and to me the more important, is what the conversation itself says about the choices we make as to how to see these past weeks. It is entirely within our grasp to choose to focus either on the scarcity of a seemingly abundant thing we had taken for granted, or to focus instead on the unexpected abundance of God’s presence in aspects of our lives we have become more dependent on, whether we wanted to or not; time alone, time in meditation, time spent in reflection. And we can equally choose to see anew the vivid presence of God in things we don’t usually think of as sacramental—simple human conversation, the gift of companionship over a meal, a lover’s embrace, sharing the day with colleagues in an office.
Our faith teaches that we hold to two sacraments; baptism and eucharist. But holding to this does not mean God is somehow barred from being present to us in more accessible ways. Said in different words, the sacraments that are God’s gift to us are not static, compartmentalized things; they are meant to invite us into lives of sacramentality, always on the lookout for the presence of the divine wherever we walk and with whom ever we speak. The stuff of the world around us, the earth and all that is in it, is the setting for the sacred; the God who created all that is, seen and unseen, is not limited to water, bread, and wine.
So whether you are planning your return to a socially distanced gathering at church, or choosing to stay engaged a little while longer through Zoom, you may always choose to live as though you are in the midst of the possibility of the sacred each moment. And if you do, believe me—you will meet the presence of the holy in the least expected, and most profound, ways.
The Right Reverend Mark D. W. Edington
Bishop in Charge
Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

Tags: gathering, eucharist, online church, coronavirus