I’ve written at some length in previous posts putting the view that the Church* should never refuse people the Sacraments in response to an epidemic, regardless of the situation, but that we should take a lot of precautions. To refuse to allow people to receive is to accept a secular view of life and death, placing a risk to earthly life over the Divine Life given to the world in Christ’s Body and Blood, and is to insist that God should provide grace and deification by means other than those He chose to give us. Not to take precautions is to put God to the test and to disregard His gift of earthly life. I want to write now on what this might actually look like – firstly with regard to the reception of the Precious Blood, and secondly, with regard to how we might continue to receive when it is reasonable to suggest it might be preferable not to gather.
Firstly, the issue of the congregation receiving both the Broken Body of Christ and His Precious Blood. The statement that sharing the Chalice in and of itself is dangerous puzzles me, as I’ve always thought they had done research on this point before, and found that it was not. However, once one is into social distancing, it might be quite hard to receive it without people breathing over each other (in any case, it is probably better to offer an alternative anyway once people have serious concerns, as it is preferable that everyone feels free to receive fully and completely, as Christ Himself gave).
I do think it is preferable to share the Chalice, and I think there should be very good reasons to suppose there is a problem before we stop, but if there are real reasons not to do so, I think it would be a lot more reverent to turn to some other means of receiving in Both Kinds, than to deny the laity full participation in what is their offering as much as it is the priest’s (yes, we have defended Catholic order for certainly as long as I have been involved with the idea that the laity are as much part of the offering as the priest).
There are three ways I am aware of in which the Precious Blood can be reverently received without sharing the Chalice. That is, intinction by the priest**, the use of individual cups, and the use of spoons. There may be others. Intinction by the priest is, I think, probably the best thing to advocate as a solution within the Church of England, but I will briefly discuss the other two methods first.
Receiving from spoons is what is done in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I have in fact never seen it done. I believe the Consecrated Bread is put into the Chalice, and then both are given by the priest on a spoon. It is possible to use separate spoons, and boil them between services, but I am not sure how close it is necessary for priest and recipient to get, which may be a problem. However, the method does have the advantage that it is not necessary for the recipient to touch anything with their hands. I was quite paranoid, at the start of the epidemic when still in Church, over the issue of receiving the Host from my hands, thus touching my face after touching things like door-handles. I took to slathering them with hand sanitiser a few minutes before receiving, which probably works ok***. However, I would have been glad to avoid it if there was a better option.
I’m inclined to feel that receiving on spoons is sufficiently contrary to our tradition and what we are used to that it might be quite hard to adjust – which can disturb people’s worship and their capacity for reverence and spiritual growth. This adjustment is potentially a concern with any alternative: I think in that case it is necessary for people to listen to each other as they go, and try to work out what people are actually saying – and to weigh the real reasons for doing something unusual with the extent of the problems it is causing – including spiritual difficulties, which should be accepted as real and important if we believe the relationship with God objective.
Receiving from separate cups is forbidden in the Church of England, for reasons that I haven’t yet been into, so I am not going to comment in theoretical terms, except to say that if it is the possibility of irreverence that worries people, it is surely more irreverent to deny people to receive fully than to receive in separate cups. My main interest in the method is the potential it has for increasing social distancing, as it seems to me that if we used separate cups, which the priest put down on a linen covered table for people to pick up, it would be possible to put the Host down on top of each, and have each recipient drop the cup into a bowl of clean water after reception, lessening the touching of the same surfaces by different people. On the other hand, most of this can probably be achieved by Intinction via priest as well, so if there are those who seriously disapprove of separate cups for some reason, there isn’t much reason to specifically advocate it. (I would not, incidentally, encourage anyone to use separate cups while it is forbidden, but, if they wish to do so, to go and argue in synod etc. that it should not be disallowed).
Intinction via priest is, I think, probably the best way to try to go in the C of E. It is something that is done in the context of hospital reservations, so it is reasonable to suppose it is allowed (though in the C of E, one never really knows)! I have two comments about this. The first is: if the fear with intinction by the priest is that it will result in the Precious Blood dripping all over the floor after the Host is dipped in the Chalice**** there is at least one way around this. There are vessels which are used to give a drop of the Precious Blood to someone who cannot swallow solid food. Using one of these would allow precise control, so no more is placed on the Host than it can absorb. Secondly, if people still feel that receiving Communion brings people too close to each other, the Intincted Host could potentially be placed reverently down on an appropriate vessel to be picked up by the laity. I realise this isn’t ideal, but if the option is excommunicating the vast majority of the people of God, surely it is still better?
This brings me on to the question of receiving when it is not a good idea to gather. My feeling is that going this far is acceptable, so long as Communion is taken to everyone who requests it. The logistics of this are obviously going to differ depending on place and what is going on. There may, for instance, be times when, for example, celebrating Mass in gardens for less than ten people at a time would be realistic. However, what I’m writing about here is mostly the sort of things that might be done during a more extreme lockdown, in the assumption that the lockdown has at least a reasonable medical justification in regard to infection risk, however much it may ignore other considerations both medical and otherwise.
Firstly, I would suggest that as many people as possible are employed in the task, to reduce the contact of any one person with too many others. There are quite a few laity deployed normally to take the Sacrament to the sick. Moreover, it should be possible to divide people into groups so, for instance, a person who goes to people who think they have the infectious illness never goes to anyone else (I believe the medical profession have done this sort of thing).
Secondly, I think the first thing that should be considered is normal home Communion using the same precautions which would be used by a carer who needs to go in to nurse and assist the sick and disabled. That is, that the priest should do that liturgy as normal, using an Intincted Host (why not? It matters to many of us who receive to receive the Precious Blood – that people should care about a gift He died to give us is a gain to the Church, not a loss).
However, in the case of certain services such as the Triduum, which are not really amenable to this, I would suggest streaming the service online and then sending people Communion, perhaps while broadcasting relevant music.
If normal home Communion, with the minister reading a short liturgy with the people involved is reasonably deemed a significant risk, I would suggest that people receive instead through a minimally open window or door. Minister and recipient could both wear a mask until the window is closed. With COVID-19, it might make sense for people to receive at arm’s length across a garden gate, as it seems to be pretty much non-transmissible outdoors, but this would mean not having the solid screen provided by reaching out to receive around a window or door.
Alternatively, it might be possible for each household to be provided with, or provides themselves with, a corporeal or other way of covering a table such that it is a reverent resting place for a pyx containing the Sacrament. This table should then be put by an unfastened door or window, which the priest (or other person licensed to take Communion to people) can push open in order to place the pyx down. The door or window can be closed, and the household can then receive from the pyx (while the minister watches, if necessary – though this might not be possible in every circumstance because it requires either an accessible window or a glazed door).
Either of these ways of doing things could be preceded by an online service or by distributing service sheets to people to use themselves prior to reception (there’s a liturgy called, I think, Communion by extension, which is quite a good one to adapt for this sort of purpose) .
Ultimately, the exact details of what people feel should be done to reverence the Sacrament in the process of unconventional reception of it, or what they feel should be done to try to avoid risk of infection, is likely to be different. What I am really advocating is an attitude of problem-solving: that is, that instead of giving up, we should regard the worship of God and the reception of what He died to give for the life of the world, as something that should not be stopped or denied to any portion of the people of God. We are failing in our witness to Christ, by placing earthly life before the Divine Life. It is possible to do otherwise without resorting to an attitude of reckless disregard for human life.
*Where I am (at least to the best of my knowledge) it is the Church that has been responsible. There are (as far as I know) no police blockades outside Church doors, no spies following the clergy about watching for violations of epidemic precautions. It is their hands that have turned the keys in the locks, they who have declined to carry out their normal ministry in response to orders and threats. As I write, incidentally, I, having been a daily Communicant for nine years, have been left with no access at all to either Communion or Confession for more than ten weeks – and this looks like it could easily continue for a similar length of time yet. I am in a state of spiritual agony, to say nothing of struggling with temptations against faith itself (how far the latter is a result of the extent of the spiritual distress, and how much it is to do with the fact that what has been done seems to be a complete denial of everything I have been taught, it is difficult to tell). There seems no sign of any possibility of this changing at least until I am able to receive the Sacraments in their fullness again – if by then it is possible for me to do so. There comes a point in starvation where it is impossible to eat again due to the effects of the starvation. As it matters in theory, in the need to be authentic to our theology, it matters in practice, for the sake of the Life of the individual Christian in Christ, and through that, for the Life of the World.
**Intinction by individual members of the congregation seems to be thought to be more dangerous than simply having everyone drink from it – but for the priest to put a drop of the Precious Blood on the Host from a vessel designed for that purpose cannot carry the same difficulties.
*** I have no strong opinion, incidentally, on the question of whether it is possible to actually pick up infections from the Body and Blood of Christ in their physically real element. On the whole, I would be inclined to think one probably can: it seems reasonable to suppose that if Our Lord had had a cold during His earthly life, others would have caught it from Him in the normal way, and that seems to me to be as close as one could get to the circumstance. But it doesn’t seem to me to matter very much because (a) even if one can’t catch anything from the Consecrated elements, one could catch it from one’s unwashed hands or from liturgical vessels, (b) I think any risk that cannot be reasonably negated ought to be taken in faith, knowing God has a much longer range perspective than we do, and has given these gifts for our healing even if it doesn’t look like it in the short term, and (c) thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.
****It would surprise me if this was in fact a problem, but it is a concern I have heard raised over the priest dipping the Host in the chalice for the laity. It would presumably be possible to do the experiment with unconsecrated elements?!