One of the greatest gifts that the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England gave to the wider C of E in the twentieth century—that is to say, that the Anglo-Catholics offered it, and the other traditions that together make up the Church of England, such as Evangelicals, chose to receive it; or, also, that the Holy Spirit gave it through the Anglo-Catholics, and the wider Church discerned the Holy Spirit to be the Giver—was the parish communion.
Prior to this, the principle expression of the gathered church was a church at Morning and Evening prayer. While holy communion was to be celebrated every Sunday, the requirement to attend was on three occasions a year. For those who attended habitually, before or staying on after the ‘main’ act of worship, it was very much an act of private devotion. The parish communion movement changed that. In time, the weekly celebration of holy communion became the focal point of ecclesiology: a community being shaped as they gathered together around the Lord’s table on the Lord’s day. This was, now, a communal drama, undertaken together. There was music, with some members of the body bringing rehearsed voices or instruments, and all joining in. There was seasonal colour. There was the procession of the Gospel into the middle of the congregation, standing and turning to face it, read aloud beneath the cross of Christ and flanked by candles symbolising illumination. At the churches I serve, the processional cross and candle stands might be carried by teenagers, or asylum seekers, or a man who has Down Syndrome; or by pensioners, retired from employment but still deployed in and through the church. There was the bringing forward of the gifts of the people, their financial offerings, and the bread and the wine to be consecrated. There was the movement to the communion rail, and back again, the (more) steady on their feet providing an arm for the more infirm.
Of course, being Anglican, provision was made for those for whom this went beyond the pale. And so, in many churches up and down the land, those for whom communion remained an essentially private matter came at 8.00 a.m. to a quiet, reflective, spoken service; while those for whom communion had been rediscovered as a collective remembering and re-membering, came to a noisier more joyful celebration at 10.30 or 11.00 a.m.
Meanwhile, Morning and Evening Prayer retreated from the public to the private sphere. The recent mini renaissance of attendance at Choral Evensong is part of the mindfulness response to stressed lives, self-care rather than giving even more.
In these present days, the church is unable to gather together in our buildings. Anglo-Catholic priests are celebrating communion from their homes and inviting parishioners, watching online, to receive ‘spiritual communion’, the benefit of the sacrament without the outward substance of bread on the teeth and wine on the tongue. Some Evangelicals are leading their congregations in communion via video conferencing, each household providing its own bread and wine. Most Centrists are abstaining from communion, until such time as we can share together person to person again. For all, however we are responding, there is a real sense of loss. But there is also potential for gain, including the discovery or rediscovery of things marginalised by previous practices.
For me, the key question is, what is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church of England in this season; and, through whom will it be given?
Right now, it is too soon to be able to answer that question, and for this reason I, for one, am in no rush to return to the church building.
But if I were to risk a guess, it might, at least in part, have something to do with a reimagining of the public/private divide into being the church expressed as intimate space (2-4 people, in vulnerability), personal space (5-12 people, in accountability), social space (20-50 people, in availability), and public space (70+ people, in visibility; and, these days, all taking in virtual as well as physical space—such as the wonderful UK Blessing) [to draw on (developments to) Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics]; and given through the experience of the body of Christ, as a whole, in time of pandemic.