About 15 years ago, when I was setting off in my first incumbency, I was sent on a training day about change. I can’t remember much of the content, except that after lunch we were asked to imagine our parish in the grip of some huge, possibly threatening, change – and then DRAW a model of our likely response.
I can’t draw. Absolutely rubbish…Always have been. Always will be. So that might have constrained my reaction a little, but I don’t think so. I drew a sideways rectangle, and place a cross, and an outline chalice on it…Unleashing my inner Father Ted I announced
“When in any doubt, it’s always the right thing to do to say Mass”.
So when this crisis began, it’s not surprising that this was my first response.
I work at Coventry Cathedral, where we celebrate the Eucharist at least 5 days a week, and as we began to realise that a pandemic was about to engulf us, I suggested to my colleagues that we really ought to be offering a daily celebration. Cathedrals take a while to change direction – the QE2 is lithe and nimble in comparison – so though everyone agreed, this didn’t actually start until the day after Lent 3 and our last act of public worship. We always have a combined service of Morning Prayer with Communion first thing on Mondays – so, knowing that we would open for private prayer at 10.00, we arranged to live stream our usual offering, despite the vagaries of the cathedral wifi. That first day, I think the Dean presided and I deaconed – and to our surprise a considerable number of people joined us online, from our regular worshipping community, from the wider diocese, and from the international movement of reconciliation that is our Community of the Cross of Nails. Despite ourselves, we had begun to create a Eucharistic community based on virtual presence – and that community has grown exponentially over the weeks that followed.
Of course at that point, it didn’t feel as if we were doing anything very different from our norm. Though it was pointed out that the Dean and I should really not be in the same space at the same time for risk of infection (this was the week before lockdown, remember), there was a verger present to manage the recording, though they didn’t always choose to receive…But it didn’t feel unlike any midweek Mass….Coventry is not one of those cathedrals where people queue to get a seat for daily worship…we are often 2 or 3….
As we approached lockdown, I began to panic. How would I manage if I couldn’t celebrate the Eucharist for an indefinite period? It was OK for my colleagues, who live with other people, but my family are scattered so I imagined that when the inevitable happened, I’d be stuck, deprived of something that is absolutely at the heart of my faith and my identity. I began to remember the times when I had celebrated the Eucharist at death beds, offered bread and wine to family members while the dying, unable even to manage a sip of wine on a silver spoon, were invited to make an act of spiritual communion. There was absolutely no doubt that Christ was present. No doubt that his love and life filled each one of us on that holy ground…
Was this the way forward?
Then, of course, the bishops made their pronouncement – that priests could celebrate alone on behalf of their communities…And we went into lockdown…but that pattern of livestreamed Morning Prayer with Communion continued and numbers grew day by day by day. I asked how it felt to watch me receiving Christ in bread and wine – was it something that increased the pain of difficult days, rubbed the noses of the faithful in the sad reality that I couldn’t currently give THEM the sacrament…
Did it feel as if I was eating my fill while the onlookers were left hungry?
Basically, would they rather we stopped?
The answer to that there was a resounding NO.
You are our priest. We want you to do the things for which you were ordained. We know you are doing this for us- and we receive that as a gift…said one who emailed…while another spoke of the comfort of knowing that whatever else was going on, however dark and scary the world had become, there was stability and comfort here. A priest who comes to me for spiritual direction was wrestling with the issues. She comes from a less sacramental tradition than mine, and I think she was wondering whether to simply offer a service of the word right the way through til everyone could gather again…Her reasoning was convincing, her longing to offer the best she could to her people shiningly obvious, and my style of "direction" very rarely wanders down truly directive paths. So I was rather startled as
I heard myself say to her “Do you honestly think that it would be better for the world if nobody anywhere celebrated the Eucharist until this is over?” – for that, surely, would be the logical conclusion, and I knew with all that was in me that for me that was a completely unthinkable situation.
"Blessed be God by whose grace creation is renewed, by whose love heaven is opened, by whose mercy we offer this sacrifice of praise" runs one of the possible prayers over the gifts in the Anglican liturgy....and it seems to me that as we celebrate the Eucharist, Love opens that window onto heaven again and again and again.
The part of the ordinal that I cling to when I am feeling least effective in ministry is the command “You are to tell the story of God’s love”.
For me, that story is rooted and grounded above all in the Eucharist. When I celebrate I bring that love story into our present. I take all the pain and fear and grief of the world as part of the offertory, and as always God touches them and transforms them, giving back God’s life in return. The bread and wine we receive embodies that – and even to watch a colleague consuming them in his home across the city makes that gift fresh real and alive for me.
That’s just where I am. It's not the only answer. Each priest, each congregation, is finding their own way through uncharted waters, and we are all doing our best to keep on telling that story of Love.
For me, it feels as if the Cathedral has grown into herself during this season so that we are actually doing what a mother-church should do. That daily act is bringing people together around a virtual altar and empowering us to live as the Body of Christ in extraordinary times