Face to face worship is now becoming possible within certain parameters. Many people, me among them, are longing to gather in worship with others to share in Holy Communion together. However, there are a significant number of safety factors that each congregation needs to consider, and plan for, before returning to face to face worship. Completing a COVID Action Plan (the Synod’s Recovery Plan Checklist helps with this) is an important, compulsory tool to utilise for clarity in this process.
With regard to sharing in Holy Communion in person there are both elements of safety and theology to consider. Some of this tension is reflected in the Victorian Government COVID-19 Directions which state that in religious ceremonies: “no food, drink, crockery, utensils, vessels or other equipment are permitted to be shared by participants”. However, these Government directions also state that “Eucharist“ (Holy Communion) is permitted in religious ceremonies.
The following thoughts are not directives. Instead, these thoughts are offered as a way of trying to wisely balance the tension between honouring safety concerns, the Government directives and our theology of Holy Communion.
How might we share in Holy Communion Safely?
Where do we stand?
With all the social distancing required in worship, gathering intimately in a circle for Holy Communion around the table, the beloved practice of so many of UCA congregations, may not be possible. If you have enough space to stand 1.5 metres apart on marked spaces and form this circle that is fantastic. Or you could have groups of people coming to the circle, in turn, and then returning to their places. A different idea is that people could stand up at their pew/chair (1.5 metres apart). One gift of this would be that those with limited mobility, who cannot walk to the Communion Table, would be on equal terms with those who are more able bodied. However delivering the elements to each person – while not sharing and keeping distancing – could be difficult. As an alternative to these ideas, if numbers are too many to gather in a safe intimate circle, as Holy Communion begins, the congregation could form a huge circle with people standing at the very edges, all around the walls of the building, at marked spaces 1.5 metres apart. This would work especially well if your Communion Table was in the centre.
What about singing?
Singing is integral to our being Christian. Lockdown has made this painfully clear to me. However, evidence indicates that singing is a higher risk activity for the spread of the virus. Synod has been working on guidelines, and at the time of writing, we are at the Victorian State Government’s Step 3. This means only 5 people can sing at certain distances from others. This may be expanded to 10 people soon. Check the Synod website for updates. Because we Jesus people all tend to join in singing if others begin to sing, it may be best if one person sings and others listen. Alternatively, instead of someone singing, choosing some recorded music that fits with your congregation could be an excellent alternative (though it can be hard to decide what type of music “fits best” for all). There is some beautiful music out there. This new-ish “hymn” by The Porter’s Gate is a refreshing song for Communion: Hallelujah Sing. (Warning: because of our tendency to join in singing, clear instructions should be given about who is able to sing before worship begins. When we are finally able to all sing, hymn/song books cannot be shared, instead words should be printed in the Order of Worship or on Power Point).
Receiving the Bread and Wine without sharing?
This is the most difficult element of participating in Holy Communion in COVID-19. From a theological perspective giving and receiving the bread and wine are integral features of our worship and losing this powerful sign would be terrible. Unlike our culture that is focused on self-service (from shopping to life choices). And unlike the ‘Zeus’ God images that still abound, in which people assume that they have to appease or impress an unpredictable God with (food) offerings, in Jesus we are confronted with the disruptive God who serves us: gives of divine self, feeds us and nourishes us and who then says, “join me – go and do the same thing”. To share in Holy Communion together, both giving and receiving, being served and serving, is to participate in being “re-membered”, “re-storyed”  into the being of God who is love.
One (imperfect) way in which we may safely seek to maintain this feature of Holy Communion as we gather face to face, and do not share the elements, could look like this. With the presider/elders maintaining all hygiene rules including hand sanitising:
One loaf is used. But, in order not to share, one large slice is left whole for the presider to break in the prayers. The rest of the bread is cut before worship by someone observing all of the COVID-19 safety rules. These individual pieces of bread are each placed on a separate plate/saucer or napkin. And they are laid out on the Communion Table before worship.
One kind of juice/wine is used. One cup is used for the presider to hold in the prayers. The little cups are used with the same kind of juice/wine already poured into them before worship. They are laid out on the Communion Table before worship.
Receiving – serving and giving:
In order to maintain social distancing, and not have people breathing all over the elements, but with the hope of still maintaining something of the theological focus on being served and serving, the following idea may work: In front of the Communion Table two smaller tables are placed at least a meter in front of the Communion Table – one to receive the bread and one to receive the wine. When it comes time to receive, one person comes forward at a time. When they stand in front of the first small table, a person e.g. minister/elder takes a plate/napkin with bread on it from the Communion Table and puts it on the smaller table with words like: “N, the body of Christ given for you” or “N. Christ the bread of life given for you”
The person receives this bread, then, moves to the second small table, where a second person: e.g. minister/elder takes a wine glass from the Communion Table and places it on the small table, with words like: “N, the blood of Christ given for you” or “N, Christ, the true vine, poured out for you”
Each person is given time to receive the elements and they then return to their space before the next person comes forward to receive.
Some Further thoughts:
- In this less ‘gathered in’ way of sharing in Holy Communion (that in some places may not include singing) sharing together in the prayers seems even more important. Having Holy Communion prayers that are simple and participatory would provide such an opportunity e.g. with the prayer responses written in the Order of Worship/on PowerPoint
- Everyone may be invited to raise their hands (from wherever they are standing in the space) as the Presider prays for the presence of Holy Spirit to saturate the gifts of bread and wine.
- Embracing the sacredness of collective quiet might also be a gift at this time. Being still together in prayer can have a profound richness in giving and receiving as we lean into God.
- If Holy Communion is shared any remaining bread and wine should be consumed safely and with reverence.
 In a different context, talking about activism, theologian Robyn Henderson-Spinoza plays with the language of being ‘restored’ and wisely speaks of the need to be ‘re-storyed’: Henderson-Spinoza’s work Activist Theology.