Originally, this issue of The Hour was going to extend the themes of the first issue. In our focus on the Daily Office, that issue observed that one must actively prioritize the spiritual life in order for there to be “room” for prayer; that priests have to examine the demands of parish ministry and organize them in such a way that they can place prayer -- especially public prayer -- at the center of their vocation. This led us to ask the question of clergy time in relation to capitalism: if priests feel they do not have the time to pray, or feel it is not important for how they minister, how is this being determined by the larger social and economic contexts? Who is telling them, who is “making” them, organize their time according to metrics of efficiency?
And so we went about interrogating the effects of neoliberalism on the pastoral vocation. The central commitment that drove our work was the conviction that “busyness” and “productivity” multiplies the emotional and administrative tasks of our ministers. Prayer, theological and biblical study, continuing education -- none of these can be shown to be “productive.” They do not give any concrete “measures” by which we may judge “success.” They certainly don’t “grow the church” or “bring in families and young people.”
There is nothing of what we, the editors, originally wrote for this second issue that we would wish to change. However the theme of the issue, and the bulk of the keynote essays, were arranged before the full onset of COVID-19 made itself felt in our church. All of a sudden it seemed petty to take aim at the total cost of Sunday bulletins when our people have been forced to refrain from partaking in the sacraments. As our parishes scramble to find ways to connect, the last thing priests need is a scolding about how they use their time.
And yet a crisis such as this is exactly when those committed to “take their share in the councils of the Church” need to have tools at their disposal to explain our received practices. One issue in particular has presented itself in earnest, and we are desperately in need of clarity on the matter: namely, the “virtual” consecration of the elements of the Holy Eucharist, from afar, so that people might be able to share in the grace of the Body and Blood of Christ in their homes. The massive, instantaneous growth of online meetings in response to the coronavirus has the potential to shift our ecclesial practices long-term, well beyond the immediate circumstances that have necessitated their onset.
As a short-term response to an exceptional time, there seems to be nothing wrong in live-streaming worship services. Indeed, there may even be opportunities for the Church to learn and grow right now. Digital connection can be a genuine good for the aged and disabled, and we should prayerfully explore how what we do now can be integrated into church life going forward. But the very idea of the sacraments is at stake in the question as to virtual consecration, as well as the passive viewing of the Mass at home. If we were to grant that people could have wine and bread at home consecrated by their priest over the internet, there is nothing, logically speaking, to prevent us from getting rid of priests entirely and having, say, a single bishop digitally consecrate elements for dispersed individuals, families, and living room groups. And there are so many secondary matters that immediately present themselves. The consecrated elements cannot be disposed of in any way that seems fit. How are we to ensure that extra bread and wine is reverently consumed and not merely tossed out? And so on and so forth.
This is not mere clericalism here; a cabal of power-thirsty hierarchs concerned to maintain a position of spiritual power over a mass of laity. Our practices do not come to us in isolation, as a mere rite in a book just before us. There is a material history that has brought us to where we are, and there is a logic that keeps us from devolving to simple Zwinglianism. There is not space in this essay to give an explanation of every aspect of ecclesiastical polity, and all would be richly rewarded to read Richard Hooker on the matter anyway. The powerful insights of our greatest post-Reformation divine should be commended to all on why bishops, why buildings, why corporate prayers, etc. For the current push by some -- if even a minority -- to do away with these things manages to sound an awful lot like the iconoclasm of the Puritans that he so nobly combatted.
But many defenses of the necessity of a physically-gathered body for the Eucharist fall short of serious insights. For instance, it simply is not true that “online” friendships “aren’t real.” This magazine was itself started by two friends who have never met “in real life,” but who have managed to be truly enriched by their relationship. It may be that we also need “physical” friendships for a healthy soul, but that doesn’t detract from the reality of online fellowship.
Likewise appeals to “incarnation” or “materiality” get at something true, but on account of their abstract character, are unable to become full-fledged articulations of why we must celebrate the Eucharist in person. It is not enough to point to the name of a doctrine as if the appeal alone is sufficient to establish the argument, without spelling out the shape of the logic inherent in the doctrine. Thankfully for us, the Incarnation has been deeply explored throughout the history of Anglican socialism, and if one were to attempt to ground the sacraments in the Incarnation, one could do much worse than turn to the Lux Mundi school and her children.
But this essay will not use the Incarnation for its argument, though it could be enhanced by connecting it with that central truth of the Christian faith. For the Incarnation of the Word of God is that on which every other doctrine hangs, and without which we may as well shutter all our windows, and turn our buildings into hair salons. Neither will it rely on that staple of modern Anglicanism that is “liturgical theology.” If we didn’t know this before, surely we know now -- on the brink of yet another global economic collapse -- that no liturgy, however divinely constructed, however perfectly rehearsed, can by its own performance deliver us from the principalities and powers now prepared to slay millions on the altar of the Dow Jones.
Some who would want to defend the Eucharist take their stand on “community.” The idea being that the church exists to curate a voluntary association of affective relationships. No online interactions, however real, can adequately address our need for such “embodied” relationships. While this at first seems a good route to take, it is a dead end. It only makes sense for those who think of “religion” in purely sociological categories, where “religion” serves a social “function.” Humans “need” community, and religions supply that need. This assumption is plainly an anthropological etiology, reverse-engineering for the existence of “religion” as a phenomenon. It is a term already defined in advance. On this scheme, religions exist to give structure and shape an individual’s “experience” of “the divine” (however one wants to use that phrase) and to allow for a measure of broader social cohesion. But if one’s “connection to the divine” can be as easily met through a screen as in a nave, there is no reason why one could not supply community through their already-existing networks of friends, family, and coworkers. Indeed, they already do, and their friends don’t ask for a priest with a stipend, or a sanctuary with a mortgage. The days are coming and are already here, when this relic of 19th century anglo-american philosophy of religion will pass away, and nobody will feel the cultural pressure to connect their “experience of the holy” with their social community. It can remain in the pure interiority of each person, where it belongs.
What we need, therefore, is an explanation of the inherently social character of the Holy Eucharist. It is hoped that in showing it, we as a Church might have more substantial resources for standing firm in the belief that the Eucharistic elements cannot be thought or performed in physical isolation. Because the Lord’s Supper is not simply a vehicle for invisible grace, but the effective sign of our entire ecclesial existence.
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
This famous passage is sometimes invoked in discussions about whether the Church “needs buildings”, and has been used by some to legitimize virtual consecration. The passage is understood to mean that locality is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship can happen anywhere. And since the grace conferred in worship is commonly conflated with “experiencing” the Spirit, there should be nothing that stands in the way of anyone encountering God on their own terms. The Church isn’t the building anyway, it is said; it’s “the people.”
This last point is certainly true as far as it goes. The Church is not a building, and in that sense is not ultimately dependent on a specific building in order to exist. St. Paul says “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1Cor 3.16),” and the Psalms also witness to this truth: “When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judah became God’s sanctuary and Israel his dominion (114.1-2).” But the passage in question isn’t about geography or buildings so much as election and legitimacy.
In our rush to wring essential truths from particularized passages, we often overlook the larger contexts of the biblical witness. St. Photini, our “woman at the well,” is a Samaritan. And the Samaritans were members of Israel. In the book of Kings, the united kingdom of Israel rapidly divides after Solomon into the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The monarchs of northern Israel by and large reject the sole worship of YHWH and do not acknowledge the temple of Jerusalem to be the only legitimate place to offer sacrifice to the LORD. According to the biblical witness, in response to this infidelity, and at the behest of the LORD, Israel is conquered by the Assyrians and many of its people are sent into exile. Those left behind apparently stayed in the land -- albeit as participants in a vassal state under Assyrian control -- or fled to Jerusalem. But even in the first century, Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim and had their own Samaritan Torah.
The Kingdom of Judah managed to evade destruction for two centuries after Israel had fallen, but it too eventually was defeated by the Babylonians, and its ruling classes exiled. This gap of two centuries between exiles, however, was understood by the southern Kingdom to be a verdict in favor of the sole legitimacy of the Temple of Jerusalem. This belief managed to continue well after Judah’s own destruction, and the literature of the second Temple period is unshaking in its supersessionism. Though Ezra and Nehemiah show strong examples of this tendency, perhaps nowhere is it found more clearly than in Psalm 78.67-69:
“The LORD rejected the tent of Joseph and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; he chose instead Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the heights of heaven, like the earth which he founded forever.”
So when the Woman at the Well challenges the idea that Samaritan worship is invalid, she is not making a point about “material” worship, so that Jesus can tell her about “immaterial” worship. She is not saying God is “confined” or “limited” to one spot. She is questioning the authority of Judeans to have declared the LORD’s covenant with them void. Do the Samaritans not have a temple? Do they not have the Torah? Are they not the people of Israel?
But what of Jesus’ reply? There are two important aspects to keep in mind. The first is Jesus’ prophecies concerning the temple of Jerusalem. This enacted parable of the Temple’s coming destruction manages to find its way into all four canonical Gospels. The centrality of the incident cannot be overstated. While John seems to place it at a different point in Jesus’ public career, it is still there. Moreover the justification given for driving the money changers out is the same for all. Drawing directly on the prophecies of Jeremiah, Jesus condemns the temple because the Judean poor are oppressed and true worship of God is thus obscured. By the time Jesus visits Samaria in chapter 4, he has already predicted the Temple’s destruction. John tells us in an editorial aside that “the temple of [Jesus’] body” will be raised, and this resurrection is a sign of the authority he has to perform the prophetic action. But the Temple of Jesus’ Body, the Body of Jesus the Anointed, is an irreducibly social body, a corporate phenomenon, a visible Church, a renewed and reunited people of Israel. Jesus, in choosing twelve disciples, gives us a sign that the Northern Kingdom is not excluded from his own work. God has not rejected Joseph and Ephraim, but has reunited them to Judah in his own flesh. Yes, Jerusalem will no longer serve as the exclusive site for authentic worship, but this is not because God has given individuals the ability to go it on their own; rather it is because the Temple is his flesh given for the life of the world, the blessed Body and Blood of Jesus, which is at one and the same time the Church itself -- Israel and the Gentiles he has included -- and the Holy Eucharist. Christ is both priest and sacrifice; so also is the Church both a kingdom of priests, and the offering: All things come from Christ, and of Christ’s own do we give in the sacrifice of the Mass.
This is made clearer by a closer look at “spirit” and “truth” in the Fourth Gospel. Again Jesus is not making a point about mystical truths and immaterial worship. The opening prologue of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is “full of grace and truth (1.14;17).” St. John the Baptist testifies to the truth of Jesus’ witness (5.33). Jesus not only tells the truth (8.40; 44; 45; 46), but is himself the Truth (14.6). Jesus’ disciples are those who follow his words. They will know the truth, and be set free by it (8.32). They are to be sanctified and consecrated in truth (17.17; 19). Moreover the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (14.17; 15.26; 16.13). It will glorify Jesus and will lead Jesus’ disciples into all truth (16.14).
The most dramatic story about truth in John is found in chapter 18, when Jesus is brought before Pilate. In the course of being questioned about whether he is the King of the Judeans, Jesus says: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice (18.37).” To which Pilate responds cynically “What is truth?”
Normally, it is not a particularly reliable interpretive method to rely overmuch on a lexicon. The meaning of words is derived from their use as much in Koine as in English. But I bring together these incidents of “spirit” and “truth” in John in a highly compressed form because the Fourth Gospel intentionally repeats key words and tropes to develop its theological points. In John, God the Father’s identity is not easily known: “No one has seen God at any time” the Prologue tells us, “but the only unique one in the bosom of the Father has made him known.” Jesus reveals the Father. So when Jesus says that we will worship God in spirit and in truth, we must see that this means nothing less than worshiping by means of the same Spirit he breathes on the disciples (20.22).
To worship God in “spirit” and “truth,” then, is not about bucking a religious establishment, it’s not about getting rid of buildings, even less is it about isolating the sacraments from the gathered Body. It’s about the revelation of the God of Israel through Jesus in the people he constitutes in his Body.
“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
First Corinthians 11:18-34 is something of a locus classicus for establishing there was a relationship in the early church between class politics and the Eucharist. Written decades before Luke told us about the communism of the Jerusalem assembly, here St. Paul stridently chastises the Corinthians for intra-ecclesial factions that fell along class lines. The picture is stark: Some devour for themselves the church’s common meal, leaving others hungry who were counting on it. In doing this those who have enough to eat at home fail to “discern the body” and eat and drink God’s judgment upon themselves.
It’s telling that Paul moves immediately into a discussion of the nature of the body they are to discern. Chapter 11 clearly enough tells us that the communal meal, set apart for this specific function, is the body of Christ. But Paul also tells them in the next section that they, the Corinthians themselves, are the body of Christ (12:27). There is no clear delineation between the body of Christ as the Eucharist and as the Church. The meal is produced by the Church and for the Church, and yet the meal in a sense “creates” the Church in being made into an effective sign, a (re)presentation of itself, to itself. The body is at the same time the one and the many. In the form of bread and wine it is one until distributed, and in being distributed to all, becomes one again. But the body cannot even be one without being also the many: “The point of [12.15-21] is not that the different members must be united among themselves…but precisely that there must be more than one member if there is to be a body at all.” (JAT Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology. SCM Press, 1961. pg.59)
Failure to facilitate a life sufficient to all the church is a failure in that it prevents the fullness of the Spirit’s life to be offered for the sake of all. Each member has received unique gifts, of which every other member has need. No one can say they do not have need of any other (12.21) and no one can claim they don’t belong to the others (12.15-20). This solidarity is in excess even of a local gathering and extends to the whole international body. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he speaks about the collection being taken for the church in Jerusalem. Using the example of Christ’s self-offering (II Cor 8.9), Paul exhorts them, saying he has no intention of impoverishing them, but “relief for others...follows from equality. At the present juncture, your abundance is for their lack, so that their abundance may be for your lack, in order that there might be equality.” (8.13-14, David Bentley Hart’s translation. YUP, 2017)
Notice there is no differentiation between “spiritual” gifts and “material” gifts. All gifts are in fact “spiritual” in that they have been given by God’s Spirit. Thus the material excess of Paul’s churches can be given away because giving is itself an operation of the body for itself. But so long as the material well being of any assembly is compromised, the Church is not being sufficiently dispossessive. Jerusalem is not the only one that “lacks,”. The mere fact that the Corinthians have more than enough is in reality their own lack, which they can fill up only by giving away.
This is how we must take the words of Our Lady in the Magnificat, “the rich he has sent away empty.” So often the image we have of this passage is of the rich being turned away in bitter disillusionment, condemned to live with what they already had, and doomed to the insularity of their private estates, shut out from the life Jesus makes possible. And certainly Jesus - especially in Luke - is unambiguous that as it stands, the rich cannot inherit the life of the age, even if “all things are possible with God.” Instead we can imagine the rich coming before Jesus and receiving everything in the only way it had ever been possible - by having it taken away from them. The discussion about virtual consecration deals only in abstractions when it becomes a question of “powers” granted to priests rather than laity; about what is “valid;” or about whether online fellowship is “real or not.” Rather, as these and so many scriptural passages indicate, the eucharistic elements simply dissolve into meaninglessness when isolated from the gathering of mutual support, of giving and receiving, both material and spiritual that constitutes the life of the Church, that body that is never fully free or substantial so long as a single member lacks bread and wine.