Celebrating Eucharist through the medium of Zoom: A radical experiment.
”The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27)
(This article was first published in SEARCH, a Theological Journal of the Church of Ireland, Spring 2021, Volume 44.1)
I am writing these lines in Ireland at the very end of a year marked by a pandemic, on the cusp of a new year where our hope for the resumption of any form of safe physical human contact depends on mass vaccination. Our church buildings are presently closed again to group worship, as they have been on and off throughout the past ten months. And when they are open, it is possible for only very few to congregate. In other words, our church worship, as well as our family lives, social lives, working lives, travel and of course health are massively impacted…turned upside down. We have been and continue to be in uncharted territory, and will be so for the foreseeable future.
It is this context which gave birth to a new form of liturgical participation. Some will call it a radical experiment, and this may be a very apt description. Certainly, a year ago I wouldn’t have imagined myself being part of it, still less making the decision to proceed with it. What I am referring to is the participation in Eucharistic celebrations through the medium of Zoom and other internet platforms.
What follows is not a fully worked out, detailed theological argument, nor is it a comprehensive description and assessment. It is merely a first and early attempt at sharing some of what I have experienced. It is therefore both personal and partial, but written with the awareness that an increasing number of Christians are having similar experiences. My hope in documenting this new liturgical phenomenon is that it will stimulate reflection, conversation and personal and communal discernment.
Before this, I and many others had already been part of another ‘radical experiment ‘ which, for me, had its roots exactly a quarter of a century ago when a friend of mine, a missionary sister, presented me with a chalice and a paten. I first presided at Eucharist on the feast of the Epiphany in 1996.
Over the past twenty-five years a domestic church movement has grown in an organic manner, and with it celebrations of Eucharist in each other’s homes. While it is mainly Roman Catholic it is also ecumenical, with members of the Church of Ireland and other denominations sometimes taking part.
With many of us being active members of various world church reform movements we would also have celebrated Eucharist at our international gatherings, usually on a yearly basis.
This is the background to the next step we took in March 2020 when not only were church buildings closed, but we also had to close our homes to any outsiders. Physically isolated, but moved by the desire to continue worshipping together we decided to move our Eucharistic celebrations online. Zoom enabled these gatherings.
Organising the Gathering
Participants are sent the text of the liturgy in advance by the person who has compiled it and who will lead the celebration. We follow the church liturgical calendar and the general Eucharistic format, but with room for creative adaptations. The Readings from Scripture and the prayers are shared, so that there is as much diverse active vocal participation. Instead of a set homily there is an open space where people can share their reflections and insights on what they have heard and what has resonated with them. The Prayers of the Faithful which follow are spontaneous prayers expressing the needs and desires of those gathered. There is also frequently time for playing instrumental music, singing hymns and / or showing visual representations.
As the pandemic and the physical restrictions have lasted there has been an increase both in the number of church reform groups moving to hold these Zoom Eucharists (for want of a better word), as well as in the number of participants.
Personally, I have now taken part in about twenty-five of these Zoom Eucharist since March 2020. They have become so ‘normal’, it is now already hard to remember the time we didn’t ‘t have them. We miss of course the physical gatherings, the sharing of physical space for worship, together with the cups of coffee and chat after the celebrations. We miss the possibility of shaking hands, hugging, embracing, and all other forms of exchanging the Kiss of Peace. We also miss singing together physically. And of course, we are aware not everybody has the necessary internet facilities or skills. However, it has been quite a miracle to see how many, including people of advanced years (like Simeon and Anna!) have taken to this in their stride. I cannot but marvel at what ‘ journey’ these have travelled, having grown up with Mass in Latin, a priest with his back to the people and lay people, especially women, kept well outside of the sanctuary!
The initial intention was to pray together through the medium of the internet with a Service of the Word, but almost immediately the idea of conducting a Eucharist surfaced and met with approval. Looking back, it is quite remarkable that it was embraced so quickly, so widely and so wholeheartedly, including by some vowed religious and clergy. The issue of the Offertory and Consecration of the bread and wine of course had to be dealt with. From a practical point of view, each person or couple has some bread and wine (or water when wine is not possible to procure) on a table in front of them before their screen. These gifts are offered and consecrated through a communal prayer and then all of us at our own screens, receive communion – the Body and Blood of Christ.
We are of course not unaware that this way of celebrating Eucharist prompts what would be considered by some as major theological objections, deeming it illegal and invalid. Official theology and church laws require a cleric to preside and sacramental consecration can only take place physically. The elements would have to be on the altar, under the priest’s extended hands.
None of that is present in an online Eucharist. The extended hands over the elements are those of the people of God, separated by often huge physical distances, sometimes across continents.
The belief which sustains us and gives us the necessary daring is our belief in the reality of the Presence of the Holy Spirit, and that there is truly an epiclesis at the heart of our celebration. We are gathered as the Body of Christ and we receive the Body of Christ. Though many and scattered across Ireland, North and South, and also on occasion literally across the face of the earth, we are One.
We believe that the action of the Holy Spirit transcends space. As each one of us, indwelt by the Spirit pray together and invoke the Spirit, we believe we are truly giving praise and thanks in memory of Jesus, as He asked his followers to remember Him. And we believe Christ is truly present when we gather, even if this gathering takes place, by necessity, online rather than physically. When Jesus promised his disciples He would be present ‘when two or three gather in my name’, He didn’t specify conditions to that gathering. Of course, there was not the possibility then to gather through the internet, but in the 21st century this is a possibility. We can choose to see the availability of internet platforms like zoom as God-given means to gather in Jesus’ name.
As I cast my mind back to these internet celebrations , there are several stand-out moments for me, signs of divine Grace flowing while we struggled to upskill and master the basics of virtual technology; to name a few: The extraordinary experience to be praying with people each in their own home (or office ) in such diverse cultures as Pakistan, India, Australia, USA, South Africa, Austria, Germany, France, Brazil, Portugal etc; the Scripture readings coming to us from miles away; the communing together – even within Ireland, being together with people from Cork to Co. Antrim, Limerick to Dublin – forged a bond when everything was conspiring to keep us isolated and apart. Through these Eucharistic gatherings God has nourished us and kept our faith, love and hope alive and increased our sense of community, solidarity and unity. It has been manna from Heaven.
Change and the future
It cannot be denied that we are going through a time of profound change in our world and in our churches – a time of crisis, and it can be argued, even a change of era, entailing no less than a paradigm shift. This quote from Eric Hoffer seems appropriate: ”In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
There is a whole ecclesiastical world which is increasingly disappearing. While this pandemic will, in time, be over, it will have contributed to some lasting changes which were already under way.
I will not venture to speculate on precisely what these changes will be. But it seems to me that for some Christians the experience of these Eucharistic celebrations will have affected a breakthrough and empowered them as a priestly people.
I am aware that some will consider all this as too extreme, too outside the established ecclesiastical norms, too ‘wild ‘, in other words a step too far.
But is it?
At the beginning I referred to it as a radical experiment…but isn’t the Bible full of radical experiments? We could argue that the whole of creation is a big risky experiment on the part of God. We could also view Jesus as a radical divine experiment: His whole life certainly didn’t fit in with the established religious conventions of his time.
Participating in a Zoom Eucharist is a bit like walking on water. We have left the solid ground of our long-established theological frameworks, with its sense of safety, and find ourselves at large, sustained by the One who calls us to cross over to another shore. I cannot but marvel at the breadth and depth of that Love, whose faithfulness is unfailing. For this I give thanks and praise: “Glory be to Him whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3 :20).
Soline Humbert was a founder member of BASIC (Brothers And Sisters In Christ). She is a Member of WAC Ireland and is a Spiritual Director.
Eucharist : A Radical Experiment
SEARCH -a Theological journal of the Church of Ireland. Spring 2021. Vol. 44.1.
Copyright SEARCH and Soline Humbert.