written by David C. McDuffie
In early April, the Episcopal News Service published an article addressing the spiritual dilemma of Episcopalians learning to adapt to a lack of access to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Weeks earlier, as the realities of COVID-19 as a global pandemic were becoming apparent, churches across the country suspended in-person worship and, consequently, the physical gathering of church communities to receive Holy Communion. Creative responses to this spiritual absence varied and included the reception of the Eucharist by mail or drive-in as well as theological discussions concerning the validity of remote consecration of Eucharistic elements and whether one can receive the spiritual benefits of communion in isolation when it is not possible to receive the sacramental bread and wine in physical form.
These discussions flow from a common concern among Episcopalians. We are a sacramental people, and we miss gathering as a community to celebrate the Eucharist together.
Now, more than a month later, the obstacles to returning to traditional Eucharistic worship remain. The United States now has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 as well as the highest number of deaths resulting from the virus than any other country in the world. Our new normal shows few signs of returning to our old one. Zoom is now not only a household term but it also has liturgical significance, and online assistance has rapidly become a common form of Christian charity. As a result, we have been forced to reconsider and adapt our previous understandings of community and sacrament to address life in the midst of the pandemic.
We are experiencing this change and uncertainty in the middle of a still emerging cultural and political debate over whether in person worship should be considered an essential activity. From the earliest days of the pandemic when stay at home orders were being issued and churches began suspending on site worship, a small, yet vocal, faction of conservative Christians has resisted stay at home orders in the name of religious freedom. This call has recently grown louder as many states across the United States are beginning to relax restrictions despite public health warnings that we do not yet have adequate means for testing, contact tracing, and protective equipment for healthcare workers all of which are considered necessary for curtailing the spread of the virus. This call has also received support from the highest levels of our federal government. Unfortunately, we have already seen a direct correlation between gathering for religious worship and high rates of COVID-19 transmission.
The Episcopal Church, along with many other American religious institutions, has approached this issue with an abundance of caution and deference to scientific expertise in the areas of medicine and public health. In a statement from the Office of Government Relations, the church has encouraged Episcopalians to “familiarize themselves with the state and local public health departments and follow the recommendations of medical and public health officials,” and in an effort to avoid online misinformation that has run rampant on social media, the statement “strongly recommend[s] people rely on the CDC’s Coronavirus resources or Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center for information.” In a discussion following a recent Sunday morning prayer service on Zoom, my Rector very much captured the impetus behind this approach. After emphasizing that the church is advocating following the best available scientific evidence concerning how to proceed safely amid the ongoing pandemic, he simply and effectively stated, “God loves people.”
Following sound scientific advice in a public health crisis is about the protection of life. We know that science is not always perfect and certainly not infallible. Science involves people, and people make mistakes. However, the scientific method is a beautifully democratic process in which consensus is eventually reached, and given enough time, the cream rises to the top. The fact that small pox, whooping cough, polio, and at least until recently, measles, were no longer threats to the American public is a testament to the ability of the medical scientific consensus to preserve life. In times like these, it is integral to the preservation of life. It should be noted that the protection of life in this context includes not only the direct health risks of the virus but consequent mental health risks brought on by anxiety and isolation as well as the need to address issues of economic recovery. In valuing life in the time of COVID-19, public health (including mental health) and economic stability are inextricably linked when attempting to address societal well-being.
The reasons why religious communities consider physical religious gatherings essential in spite of scientific evidence clearly demonstrating their current risks have varied but include the perception that an individual right of religious freedom is being violated, the belief that God will protect worshipers from the pandemic, and the view that the individual sacrament of the Eucharist offers a supernatural infusion of grace that is only available through in person worship. To base our return to sacramental worship on the best available scientific evidence with no appeal to potentially competing religious claims is to take a different approach. However, to ground our faith as Episcopalians in what is best for public health is a commitment to the sanctity of life, and, I would argue, a profound opportunity to assist us in the task of redefining community and sacramental worship that is now necessary.
This opportunity begins with understanding the Eucharist as part of a broader sacramentality that recognizes God’s life giving and sustaining grace in all that is, that all existence is imbued with divine grace perpetually contributing to the flourishing of life. Therefore, our reception of the Eucharistic meal need not be understood as a supernatural jolt so that we can have the spiritual “energy” to be sent back into the world to face what may come. Instead, it can serve as a means to heighten our awareness that what is made explicit for us in the physical Eucharistic elements of bread, wine and water is also available to us in all aspects of our daily lives. It offers a heightened awareness that God is with us (Emmanuel) incarnationally in all that we do and wherever we are.
This broader sacramentality is not a replacement for our communal practice of receiving the Eucharist but a commitment to the understanding that the Eucharist necessarily points us outward to recognize and experience the grace received in the individual sacrament in all around us. In the words of our post-communion prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart…” These words are inviting us to live the reality that the grace present at the Eucharistic table in our church communities is also present in the entire world community if we will only take the time to notice. As a result, we are called to recognize and value the life that is ever emerging from and sustained by God’s loving grace.
Jesus certainly never gave any indication in the Gospels that the gathering of the community should be separated in any meaningful way from the sending out to attest to the grace of God present in all of our Earthly neighbors. This sentiment certainly undergirds the following quote attributed to him in the Gospel of Mark: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus prefaced this by referencing David and his companions eating the sacred bread of the temple when they were “hungry and in need of food.”
In other words, it is not the act of sacramental worship itself that is of vital importance but that to which it points, and a broad Eucharistic theology of incarnational grace points to life.
Of course, there will be disagreements about the best ways to move forward as we continue to learn more about and adjust our lives to the consequences related to COVID-19. There are still important questions to ask about public health and economic recovery and the answers will not always be absolutely clear. However, the valuation and protection of life is true to our ethos as Episcopalians. In A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop John Shelby Spong writes that “any public agenda, corporately engaged, that has as its goal the enhancement of life is a sign of God’s realm. That same goal is what must be the result of the public witness of the ecclesia of the future” (p. 227). Accepting reverence for life, grounded in sound scientific evidence, as the guiding principle of our sacramental worship can contribute to the flourishing of life in the midst of a pandemic that has brought so much fear and uncertainty. Such a broad sacramentality makes clear that the conflict between following what is essential to religion and what is best for public health is a false dichotomy.
Particularly in these days of pandemic, we should recognize God’s presence in all that serves to nurture life. This means that the divine is present to and with us in all those who are working to address and alleviate the public health crisis and assist with economic recovery. It also means that grace should be recognized as capable of transcending virtual boundaries therefore granting online worship greater sacramental significance in these strange times. In this sense, the Eucharist comes with us even as we remain in isolation from its physical presence. Since we are unsure how long the threat of the pandemic will last, this will allow us to more effectively navigate our status as communities in isolation.
We are currently in a state of having been sent out to live out our faith in the incarnational presence of divine grace in all that is. When the time comes, we will joyfully return to our churches and to our Eucharistic tables to celebrate the thanksgiving of our sacramental worship once again as a physically gathered community. We will then be sent back out into the world with heightened awareness to recognize God’s presence in all that we encounter. In the interim, we should continue to remember that living in a sacramental community means accepting responsibility for others. This means valuing life and working to enrich the lives of those around us. In this sense, and in this sense alone, is religion essential.
David C. McDuffie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and a member of the Environment and Sustainability Program Advisory Council in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Fellow at The Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South and Chair of the Diocesan Committee on Environmental Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. He is a member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, North Carolina.