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Thoughts from a Cloistered House

Written by Canon Dr Grant Bayliss, posted on Thursday, March 19, 2020

Spiritual Communion for Anglicans

I don't know about you but I'm shut in - cloistered in the Cloisters since Tuesday, doing a not very good impression of a human shield for my lovely wife, Chris. Never in our wildest dreams did we think four months battling cancer wouldn't be the scariest part of getting up each day.

All my life I've found hope in the darkness by going to church. I’ve been to evangelical ones and Anglo-Catholic ones, Quaker meeting houses rich in silence, Orthodox churches bright with icons, vast cavernous Cathedrals (not Christ Church obviously!) and chapels with barely room for two or three. And everywhere I’ve met people and met God.

At the heart of that has been the eucharist – a reliable moment of grace, a tangible encounter that I can touch, taste, smell, as God’s presence is made known through the very matter of creation. Many of my old students will remember me going on (and on, and on) in Sacraments classes that ‘matter matters’, and, to misquote Thomas Aquinas, that ‘we can’t hope to understand anything with our minds that we haven’t grasped with our physical senses first’.

So what do I do when the matter has been taken away? When I can’t touch the blessed bread or taste the wine?

Well, this Sunday, I’ll be making a ‘spiritual communion’. It’s an old idea that was important in the medieval Church and has often got a little lost or confused. But even when the Reformers rewrote our service books to bring back all the tasting and the touching, restoring the breaking of real bread and the sharing of a common cup to the people, it found a home in the new Anglican theology of Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book. At the end of his service for ‘the Order for Visitation of the Sick and the Communion of the Same’, he wrote:

But yf any man eyther by reason of extremitie of sickenesse, or for lacke of warnyng geven in due tyme, to the curate, or by any other just impedimente, doe not receyne the sacramente of Christes bodye and bloud then the curate shall instruct hym, that yf he doe truely repent hym of his sinnes and stedfastly beleve that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the crosse for hym, and shed his bloud for his redempcion, earnestly remembring the benefites he hath therby, and geving hym hertie thankes therfore; he doeth eate and drynke spiritually the bodye and bloud of our savioure Christe, profitably to his soules helth, although he doe not receyve the sacrament with his mouth.

And there it has stayed through all the editions ever since. A little disclaimer – or small print, if you like – that, even as the main Communion service put a renewed and powerful emphasis on eating and drinking, on God coming close through the chosen things of his creation, he was never limited. God chooses sacraments like the eucharist to meet us but he never said he would only meet us there, only love us if we physically ate, only bless us if we literally drank.

Cloistered up in Cloister House as a precautionary measure to protect my wife, I can’t claim ‘extremitie of sicknesse’ but there is another ‘just impedimente’ that means not just I but almost all of us cannot receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. So on Sunday at 10am I’ll be watching Facebook to see Bishop Steven celebrate the eucharist I know so well – he’ll only be a hundred metres away, yet it may as well be miles for all I can’t be with him.

But I will watch and I will pray. I will repent me of my sins and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ has suffered death upon the cross for me, for you, for the whole world. I will remember Christ’s benefits to me and give hearty thanks.

And as Bishop Steven lifts up the bread and holds the cup, I will cross myself and pray like St Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God!’. And be reassured by the Prayer Book and the testimony of Christians throughout the ages that I am eating and drinking spiritually the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, profitably to my soul’s health, although I do not receive the sacrament with my mouth.

Wherever you are this Sunday and whatever you do, while our churches are shut and so many self-isolating, may you know God’s love, his presence and his peace.