The Gifts of God for the People of God
One of the great features of St. Georges parish I found when I went to become its Rector was a strong tradition of care for the sick and the house-bound. At the heart of that care was a practice of carrying the sacrament to peoples homes.
In case you are not familiar with this practice, let me describe it: at a prearranged time one of the clergy (or some church leaders, if licenced to do so by the Bishop) would arrive at the house carrying a small case containing some of the wafers and some of the wine which had been consecrated as part of a Sunday morning service of Holy Communion. After a few friendly greetings, things would become very solemn and prayerful. The consecrated bread and wine would be brought out of the carrying case, some prayers would be said, and perhaps some passages of Scripture read. Then very reverently the visitor would serve this sacred food to the shut-in person, saying, The body of Christ, given for you, and The blood of Christ, shed for you. Always the Lords prayer would be said, and sometimes additional prayers would be offered for the health and well-being of the shut-in individuals. Afterwards there might be some friendly conversation.
One benefit of this rite should be instantly obvious: Holy Communion is - as its name suggests - a means of linking us to one another and to the divine life of Christ. The people who receive the consecrated bread and wine in their homes are thus quite clearly linked with the Sunday congregation, and can readily feel like they are still part of the worship of the church, even though they are unable to get out as they used to.
But there is a more intangible benefit: those of us who receive Communion affirm that in this solemn moment of eating together, we are fed heavenly food: as the wafers enter our mouths, the Risen Christ feeds us with his own life. Those who get the sacrament brought to them in their homes have every right to assume that they, too, are being spiritually fed in exactly the same way.
Under the Surface...Now, the Anglican church has never been anxious to define with precision just how Christ makes bread and wine into the means of divine communion. We affirm that His presence is real in the Communion, but the hows and whys we dont presume to describe. Is the bread and wine altered in some mystical way? We dont say.
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer promotes this indeterminacy. There is a regulation which insists that at the end of every Eucharist all the consecrated bread and wine left over from the service be completely swallowed by the presiding priest (see page 86 in the 1962 Canadian book).
How subtle! If the framers of this regulation wanted us to believe the bread was still ordinary bread, why not instruct that the remaining sacrament be put back with the rest of the supplies in the cupboard? But, by decreeing that all the sacrament be consumed, our forebears also neatly avoided defining what exactly the consecrated bread and wine might have become! If there is nothing left of it following the service, there is no need to determine what our attitude toward it must be.
The practice of reserving the sacrament, as it is called, is an ancient one, but because of several abuses it was banned in the Anglican church for a couple of centuries following the Reformation. Article 28 of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles declares that it was not ordered by Christ.
However, since the 19th century it has gradually returned to common usage. It now has official sanction in Canada and throughout the Anglican world. The Canadian Book of Alternative Services provides a rite for carrying the reserved sacrament to the sick (p.257), and bishops are now officially licencing lay people to do this.
When Barbara Andrews was the lay parish worker at St.Georges, she received such a licence from our bishop. With Barbara gone, the parish is now applying to the bishop for a similar licence for four members of the congregation: Sue Foley-Currie, Ruth Stirk, Shirlee Anne Smith, and Bunty McDonald. By this means we hope our practice of carrying the sacrament to the house-bound will continue at the level it was under my predecessor and his colleagues. There are are over 30 people who currently receive the sacrament from the Rector at Christmas and Easter, and up to 10 who will receive it monthly at the hands of the soon-to-be-licenced lay administrants. These numbers will probably grow.
The Quandary we have made...However, once we began to reserve the sacrament in this way we walked head first into the problem that our forebears had so subtly avoided: we must now determine the proper way to treat the consecrated bread and wine.
And, determining how to treat it also forces us to ask what we believe it is!
When we come forward to receive the consecrated food during the service, it is delivered to us with the words The body of Christ... the presider having also proclaimed, The gifts of God for the people of God. But, after the service is over and the people have all gone home, then what? Are they still the gifts of God? Days later, if you eat and drink them, are you still partaking of the body and blood of Christ? Certainly this is the message we are giving to the house-bound.
And, where should we keep such a thing until it is time to go to someones bedside with it? What do we do, and how should we behave, when we are in the presence of this consecrated material?
The ancient tradition is to keep it in the church. Separate it from everything else. In an obvious container which will - by its location and appearance - remind people to show a proper reverence. Normally a candle is left burning in a bracket beside it - extinguished only when there is no reserved sacrament present. A prayerful silence is recommended (I have known some priests who will not talk at all - to anyone - from the moment they collect the sacrament at the church to the moment they begin praying at the recipients bedside!)
What I found when I arrived at St.Georges, was the reserved sacrament kept on a counter in the sacristy (the room in the back where the tools of worship are stored, arranged, cleaned, and polished). Consecrated wafers were in a recycled plastic box, the wine in a used wine bottle. The only identifier was an assortment of linen cloths draped over the containers. Many who came and went from that room were not even aware of the significance of these objects on the counter!
Letters of ObjectionBut even before such drawings were done, some members of the congregation began to raise concerns. Letters of objection were sent to the parish council.
The problem created by reserving had come to a head.
Many people believe that the meaning of Communion lies in the service and not in the food itself. Those who hold to this doctrine quite naturally also hold that being silent and worshipful around the reserved sacrament is an unacceptable, superstitious, primitive, even idolatrous act. That such reverence is wrong is the official doctrine of some parts of the Protestant church, and is sincerely held by many Anglicans.
For others, the centrepiece of Communion is that the consecrated food is in some ways Jesus himself. Under this view, we should treat it the same way we would treat Him. This belief is the official doctrine of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and is sincerely held by many Anglicans.
As long as all the consecrated elements are used up at the end of a service, these conflicting beliefs can be held in tension. Both sides can hold to their belief and not be challenged.
However, once any parish begins to reserve the sacrament, the tension between these two views is broken. A choice has been made. Intentionally, the consecrated bread and wine are taken to the home-bound as Christs divine food, and the elements are by that very act being treated as distinct and holy and set apart long after the Sunday worship has ended.
I honour those of our parishioners who are affronted by the thought that the reserved sacrament demands awe and reverential treatment. But the only way I can think of to do their view justice is to return to the practice of consuming all of it at the end of every service, and to discontinue the practice of carrying it to the home-bound.
Building an AumbrySo long as we have chosen to reserve it, I believe we are committed to building a proper place to store it in the church (such a container is sometimes called an aumbry, or a tabernacle, the terms vary in usage). I commend that it be designed in such a fashion as to blend tastefully with our present church decor, and that it neither be too ornate, or too garish. Simplicity is good.
I dont recommend building an aumbry in the sacristy or in the vestry, because seeking to maintain an appropriate reverential quiet would be unfair to those who work there each week setting up for worship.
I recommend that those of us, who feel uncomfortable at the prospect of a reserved sacrament container in the church with a candle mounted on a bracket nearby, wait before reacting until some good drawings are available. At the time of writing, the Worship Committee is preparing to build a full sized model for everyone to see, and is suggesting that Parish Council find a way of getting everyones input so that no one will be affronted by the end result.