Communion during confinement

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Communion during confinement

The Eucharist is a Christian rite that is shared and highly respected by most churches. As the pandemic forced churches to close their doors, have European churches found new ways to practice communion?

European churches have had to close their doors or reduce their activities to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Some church activities are relatively easy to transfer online, but the Christian practice of communion is not one of them. Many churches have tried their best to administer communion while adapting to coronavirus guidelines. Some have gone on with their business as usual, whereas others have been looking for new, creative ways of administering communion despite the restrictions.

Doing the best with ongoing restrictions
As Switzerland went into lockdown in March 2020, a local Catholic pastor came up with an idea. He started serving consecrated host (the bread in eucharist) in paper bags outside of his church for parishioners to take home. Soon after, the diocese ended this practice, appealing to strict Vatican orders.[1] Although taking the host home in a paper bag was a step too far for the Catholic Church, Catholics have made other adaptations to their Eucharist traditions in the course of the pandemic.

Following the lead of Pope Francis, Catholic churches are gathering where possible, following strict safety instructions.[2] Obligation to attend mass has been abolished, and instead of priests placing the host directly in the faithful’s mouth, it is now placed in their hand. Priests are also obliged to wear face masks.[3] Moreover, most Protestant churches have found ways to gather and administer communion following the coronavirus restrictions of their countries, using face masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. An Anglican pastor in the Netherlands even found a creative way to keep distance regulations by using long chopsticks to administer Holy Communion.[4]

In Finland, communion has been administered in small groups. Some parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church give communion privately, and some organise multiple gatherings with small groups of people. Other parishes open up church doors after online Mass to administer communion one by one.[5] The Anglican Church has a concept of ‘spiritual communion’, that has been used during the lockdowns. The idea of spiritual communion is that when someone is prevented from partaking in communion for a serious reason, they can still partake in eucharist through a prayer without the bread and wine.[6]

Do shared communion cups or spoons spread the virus?
The Orthodox Church has a tradition of giving communion with a shared spoon. Using shared utensils is not a rarity in Christendom. For example, the Anglican and Catholic Churches have used a shared communion cup. However, they did change their communion customs when the pandemic began.[7] This is not the case with the Orthodox Church, as in countries like Georgia, Greece, Belarus, and Russia,[8] conservative Orthodox Christians have continued using a shared spoon. They believe that it is impossible to catch any disease from the Holy Communion.[9] The practice has been widely criticised, especially since the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, was hospitalised after contracting coronavirus.[10]

Not all Orthodox churches have been as strict with doctrine. In Romania, Patriarch Daniel has stated that those who are “weak in faith” may refrain from kissing the icons and use their own spoon in communion.[11] The Finnish Orthodox Church has forbidden kissing of the icons and physical touch, and has started to provide communion using disposable wooden spoons that are burnt after the service.[12]

Online communion
The majority of European churches disapprove of online communion. Among these churches are the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican,[13] and many Lutheran[14] churches. They believe that Christ is present in communion, although in different ways. They also require ordained clergy to consecrate the elements. Thus, celebrating online communion is not seen as a possibility.[15] However, among the historic protestant traditions,  a wide variety of communion practices exist. Reformed churches also require ordained clergy to consecrate the elements, but at least the United Reformed Church in the UK[16] and the Protestant Church in the Netherlands[17] have been celebrating online communion during the pandemic. Moreover, whereas some other churches debate the validity of online communion, in the Netherlands questions are being asked about the possibility of online baptism.[18]

Even though some Lutheran churches are against online communion, [19] [20] others have been practising it. For instance, the Church of Denmark had a communion service broadcasted on the radio.[21] The Evangelical Church in Germany does not have an official stand on online communion,[22] but does not disapprove of member churches choosing this option.[23] For churches that do not require ordained clergy to consecrate the elements of communion, adapting to online communion is easier. This includes Baptist churches and many modern protestant churches.[24] The Baptist Church in the UK has even put together a recorded online communion, to allow faithful to participate in communion from their homes at any time.[25] Some Pentecostal and non-denominational churches already celebrated home communion or online communion even before the pandemic. Thus, the pandemic has not impacted their communion practices significantly.[26] [27]

Theology matters
Communion practices during the coronavirus pandemic show how church doctrine impacts behaviour in unexpected circumstances. Theology affects whether religious groups continue physical meetings during a pandemic and how they choose to follow safety guidelines, as is seen in the Orthodox Church in Greece, or with some evangelicals.[28]

The lockdowns during the current pandemic have made churches rethink central theological questions around communities, physical presence, and the consecration of the bread and wine in communion. Also, new questions are being asked about how Christ is present in the elements and how the consecration actually happens.[29]

Pietari Hannikainen and Meri Hannikainen

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[1] Swiss diocese bans coronavirus “communion to go” – Novena

[2] Bishop guidelines include use of face coverings to distribute Communion

[3] Catholic Church Changes Holy Communion Procedure | GreekReporter.com

[4] Afstand houden in de Engelse kerk: hoe moet dat bij de communie?

[5] Ehtoolliselle pääsee taas – seurakunnat ovat keksineet luovia tapoja jakaa ehtoollista

koronarajoituksia noudattaen

[6] Guidance on Spiritual Communion and Coronavirus

[7] Suspend sharing of communion chalice, says Church

[8] Coronavirus Vs. The Church: Orthodox Traditionalists Stand Behind The Holy Spoon

[9] Why does the Orthodox Church quarrel over a spoon?

[10] In Greece, a clergyman’s death reignites communion spoon debate

[11] Patriarch Daniel of Romania Speaks About Holy Communion and Epidemics

[12] Poikkeusjärjestelyjä koronaviruksen varalta

[13] On virtual communion: A tract for these COVID-19 Times (Part II) – Anglican Journal

[14] Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic

[15] Digital Communion: History, Theology, and Practices

[16] Wineless and Wireless Communion in the UK

[17] Moderamen over vieren Avondmaal in corona-tijd

[18] Avondmaal kan online, waarom de doop dan niet?

[19] Nattvard online? Här är fyra teologiska nej tack och fyra ja

[20] Piispoilta ohjeita pääsiäiseen: Striimattavassa jumalanpalveluksessa voi viettää pienen joukon ehtoollista

[21] Viikon debatti: Voisiko netissä toimittaa etäehtoollisen?

[22] Kann man online Abendmahl feiern?

[23] Abendmahl im Internet: Ein Experiment

[24] Wineless and Wireless Communion in the UK

[25] The Baptist Union of Great Britain : Virtual Communion

[26] Can online Communion be a substitute for the real thing?

[27] Digital Communion: History, Theology, and Practices

[28] Will “Faith Not Fear” Spread the Coronavirus?

[29] On virtual communion: A tract for these COVID-19 Times (Part II) – Anglican Journal