Around the globe, churches are struggling with finding ways of handling the corona crisis, which cuts to the heart of their communal lives. In many places, political legislature has restricted the freedom of assembly, which has ramifications also for religious communities that have had to cancel church services. The purpose of such measures, hopefully, has been to block or impede the spread of COVID-19.
In that way, the situation facing the Christian church now is unprecedented. Earlier eras have also dealt with infectious diseases on a large scale—say the Black Death of 1347 or the Spanish Flu of 1918. But our knowledge of viruses and their methods of transmission has increased, which makes comparisons with historical pandemics less relevant.
Today’s knowledge and the globalization demand our careful action in ways that were unknown until now.
This new virus not just destroys individuals’ health and lives, it attacks and hijacks the body of Christ, the gathering community. Not just individuals but communities suffer from illness. Most traditional churches, Roman-Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and other, ask their members to stay calm and to stay at home on Sundays and even during Easter.
Thus, the corona virus represents a huge challenge to the liturgical life of the church.
We convene with our bodies in our churches to praise God, to pray together, to hear the Gospel preached, to welcome our children into the church, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to be part of the body of Christ. The gathering in liturgy should take place in peace because God is the “God of peace,” as Paul elaborates in First Corinthians 14.
But this order is now impeded. Now the life of the church as community have been obstructed by the corona-virus.
Seen this way, the virus takes on no less than diabolic traits. The diabolic is etymologically that which “throws something from each other” (from Greek: diaballein), a situation where lies and mistrust are in power. In the public realm, we have already seen the first upsurge of violations against people with Asian origins because of this “Chinese virus.”
Church in Resistance or Renunciation?
The church has a responsibility to consider its stand in front of every new political initiative that concerns its inner life.
Faced with the reality of the corona-virus, the leading expertise conveys that different strategies can be followed, aiming either at isolation of the infected, at herd immunity, or at developing a vaccination—or combinations thereof. In Denmark, the strategy involves far reaching societal measures to ensure the capacity of the health system to deal properly with every single case of infection.
Given that the church finds this strategy in correspondence with Christian ethics, it cannot defend letting the ecclesial community be a source of spreading the virus by insisting on church services. Having to renounce church service is an extremely rare situation, but we think that such action is what is demanded not only by the state authorities, but also by the Christian ethics.
Theologically, this renunciation could be interpreted in light of Romans 12:1 as a spiritual service that constitutes a communal sacrifice for the benefit of those especially vulnerable to the virus. The church should not take advantage trying to privilege its own celebration compared to theatres, museums, and sporting events that have to suspend their public activities.
In fact, the Danish Minister for Church Affairs suddenly offered the bishops of the Church of Denmark the possibility of opening churches in responsible ways to celebrate Easter—perhaps because the government has taken extraordinary steps to allow supermarkets to open during Easter. The bishops, however, declined the possibility in an act of solidarity with those parts of society that have been locked down.
Besides, the health authorities also seem to warn against an extraordinary opening of the churches at this time of writing.
But under these circumstances of prohibition and renunciation, how can the church still be church? How does the church keep forming a community even though every person is apart?
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The Eucharist under Corona-siege
Words can be preached via webcam or podcast, prayers can be prayed together, songs can be sung together online.
In fact, during the lockdown, the Danish National Radio brings together 200.000 Danes in a community that sings two songs from the Danish treasury of songs every morning at 9 AM on national television, led by the popular young director of the Danish National Girls’ Choir, Phillip Faber. This community echoes the community singing that was common in Denmark during the Second World War. What is fascinating is not only the cohesive energy of the show, it is also the frankness with which it includes a wide array of the most popular Christian hymns!
But singing, praying, and preaching are not sacraments; they do not unite word and element, which is necessary for a sacrament in the Lutheran understanding.
So let us focus on the Eucharist. Can the Lord’s Supper be celebrated together apart—the Danish national motto during this crisis—analogous to our communal singing? The question has been a matter of some controversy. In what follows, we will qualify the discussion as we have perceived it from our Danish context, and we encourage readers to comment about (dis)similarities to discussions with which they are familiar.
As a theological question in this time of crisis, the question of the celebration of the Eucharist is different from the pure dogmatic question of what a phenomena such as COVID-19 means for our understanding of God and the world and everything in between, as covered by Günter Thomas in a previous article. It is also different from the diaconal question of how the church can be of aid to people that now suffer from isolation and despair and in the future most likely will suffer from the economic depression that awaits the global community. It is certainly also different from the legal and administrative question that awaits churches with less financial abilities.
But the question of Eucharist is a no less crucial, for it cuts to the essence of Christian church practice: the embodiment of people that convenes at a certain place performing a certain liturgy, the liturgy of the sacrament. The Lord’s Supper will embody the message of our salvation, it will comfort the congregation and bring hope for the future as a communal bodily activity. Rather than simply asserting the message of God’s love, a pastor will point to the bread and the wine, and say to the congregation: this is the body and blood of Christ which Christ is giving to you, which Christ is gives you to swallow. Do this and be yourself as part of the body of Christ!
So, what are the possibilities at hand under the present conditions? Let us discuss some of them as they have appeared in the Danish context. Given that people cannot convene in the church, what are our options for celebrating the Eucharist?
We will consider three options.
One option is to establish a house parish, an ecclesiola. This would imply that a baptized member of the household would function as a pastor in this interim situation. This person would then institute bread and wine for the household to share.
However, this practice is problematic because it breaks the unity of the parish, which is determined by the parish calling of specific pastors to be in charge of administering the sacraments. This rule is in place for the following reason: If a part of the congregation for some reason is dissatisfied with a pastor, they are not be allowed to convene and celebrate Eucharist on their own! If they want to be a part of the Church of Denmark, they have to celebrate the Eucharist with the pastor who has been called by the local church council. We might call it the ecclesiastical office objection.
Furthermore, the household practice is questionable because of the horizontal implication of the Eucharist. Eucharist not only involves a relationship between oneself and one’s savior, it also implies a relationship to the neighbor with whom one is kneeling.
This was argued strongly by Danish professor Regin Prenter in the 1970s. At that time a practice of self-service of the Lord’s supper at home was on the rise among listeners during the radio services that were broadcasted. For Prenter, such household Eucharist enables people to be released from the corporeality of the Church, which implies kneeling before God even with people one does not particularly like!
Prenter conveys how during the French occupation of the Ruhr-area in Germany in the 1920’s a French captain kneeled with a German mayor before the altar in Eucharistic celebration, after which they together worked to reconcile the German and the French. The greatness of the vertical gift given in the Eucharist has transformative effects on the horizontal relationship to those with whom one shares this meal! This could be called the objection of the given corporeality.
Of course, the problem now is exactly that people are prohibited from attending Church and practicing the Eucharist in a corporeal form.
These are extraordinary times—do they call for extraordinary measures to legitimize such household practices? Certainly, we would argue that the household practice ought to be encouraged in a state of emergency where the local pastor cannot be summoned. A state of emergency is surely in place if a person is about to die and wishes to celebrate a final Eucharist. However, we would also raise the question whether the corona crisis constitutes such a state of emergency?
Perhaps the corona crisis per se may rather be named a state of exception. This is a time in which people cannot follow their worship habits, but it is not necessarily a time of despair. After all, the hope is intact that we may convene again when the crisis is over and resume our order of worship. A distinction between the state of emergency and the state of exception ought to inform this discussion.
Historically speaking, Danish churches have moved towards celebrating Eucharist every Sunday from the 1980s and onwards, and the 1992 revision of the order of worship manifested this development. It is a radical development compared with previous times, where people would only go once or twice a year. Now the Eucharist is a much more central part of people’s experience of worship.
Argumentatively, however, this observation can be used in both directions. A) Earlier, congregations have survived without weekly Eucharist, so surely we can as well? Or B), people who are accustomed to weekly Eucharist need it to avoid despairing.
Another option for maintaining the Eucharistic community would be celebrating the Lord’s Supper at home while following a service broadcast via radio or television. Here is a relative temporal presence with the parish—if the electronic signal is working—but no geographical or bodily presence.
Maybe, from the perspective of corporeality, the lack of geographical corporeality need not be a problem. After all, the Eucharistic community is not confined to those gathering around the altar; Danish altar rails almost always form a half circle to signify that we sit together with every other Eucharist celebrated in the presence and in the future, on earth and in Heaven.
From the perspective of the institution, however, the geographical presence is absolutely necessary. How much bread and wine can a pastor institute as the body and blood of Christ? The institution of bread and wine is an institution of this particular bread and wine, present at this specific altar, and not all sorts of bread and wine out there in the world. Only the intended bread and wine can be instituted. This is the objection of sacramental institution.
So let us consider the possibility of people sitting alone in their homes, listening to the words of their pastor—which would nuance the ecclesiastical office objection—instituting the Lord’s Supper, and repeating the words of institution for themselves. This situation might be imagined in two possible ways.
In a first version, the person would take the words of institution into his or her consciousness as a presence of Christ in the Word, without physically taking bread and wine. This is the vision that becomes Prenter’s emergency solution. By simply longing for being present with the Eucharist instituted by the pastor, the person will attune rightly, and God’s blessing will be upon him or her.
Another version would be repeating the words of institution for him or herself, and taking some accessible elements. This would constitute oneself as a pastor for oneself in this very moment.
But is it at all possible to be one’s own pastor? Doesn’t it belong essentially to the sacrament of Eucharist that it is handed to you as a gift (extra nos)? You surely cannot baptize yourself, but can you hand yourself the Eucharist without the ecclesiastical office? Probably for this reason, Danish pastors were for centuries not allowed to take the Eucharist that they had instituted themselves. Pastors would have to attend service elsewhere to communicate. During the great awakenings in the 19th century, pastors urged to celebrate with their congregation; but even then, the pastor would have to announce it beforehand and confess his sins!
Now, however, the pastor is allowed and even encouraged to participate in the Eucharist he or she has instituted. Just like the pastor preaches to oneself, he or she—as already baptized—can also hand oneself the body and blood of Christ, but this is typically possible only in the midst of the congregation.
Whether either of these versions of community in solitude—with or without the elements—can be characterized as a proper Eucharist, we will leave open for discussion. But we will warn against reducing the serious dogmatic and liturgical issues in this field into issues of pastoral care.
Waiting for the Eucharist
However, we would encourage the consideration of a final option, namely to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer deprivations of different kinds and voluntarily give up the practice of the Eucharist for a while. In that way, a new community arises, a community of the desert, a community of longing, a community of solidary suffering. A community waiting for its appearance as church in the full sense of the word would be a Eucharist present in the shape of anticipation – maybe even as a small sign of the Grace of God for the world. If a community can exist even under these circumstances, then the virus would be contradicted by a kind of free and faithful practice and maybe even be hindered from its most diabolic course, namely to split and sewer the (Christian) community.
We thank the contributors to the recent Danish debate, which has taken place in Kristeligt Dagblad between March 23 and April 1, for occasioning and inspiring this article.
Bent Flemming Nielsen is professor emeritus in Dogmatics and Liturgical Studies at the Faculty of Theology in Copenhagen, where also Mikkel Gabriel Christoffersen is a postdoc fellow in Systematic Theology.