This article was published in the July 2020 issue of the parish magazine.
I wrote last month about how much I valued being back in the church building. This month there has been the added pleasure of the church reopening for private prayer. Now, my experience has been a little different from yours, because I have been in the building regularly to livestream worship. But on the other hand, as I don’t live in the parish, I have literally seen no one from the congregation throughout lockdown, as I don’t bump into people (at a social distance!) on walks or when shopping. So the new experience for me was being physically present in the same room as those of you who came to pray. Sadly, there was no opportunity for conversation (we had been asked not to chat outside), but nevertheless, I felt greatly cheered just to exchange a smile. Somehow emailing, phoning, and seeing people in videos doesn’t convey the reality of someone’s presence. It reminded me that one of the cornerstones of our faith is our belief in the incarnation – that God has come to us in human form, and in doing so he has declared the created world, and our bodies in particular, sacred. Creeds and study have their place of course (we do not undervalue the mind) and prayer and meditation are absolutely vital to our spiritual health, but at the centre is the Eucharist, which is not just ritual and theory, but is the act of eating and drinking real bread and wine. Our bodies, as well as our souls, matter to God.
Now, I am very aware that some of you will be feeling sad reading this. You have not been able to share the bread and wine in the communion service, and some of you will still be protecting yourselves from the virus by staying away the church building, and will still have very limited meetings with others. I offer you this passage that was drawn to our attention at the clergy conference. It is from a book called The Tree of Life by Canon Gonville Aubie Ffrench-Beytagh. He was Dean of Johannesburg cathedral, when in 1971 he was arrested, held in solitary confinement and brutally interrogated. His crime was speaking out against apartheid.
Each morning, he stood in front of a piece of wall between two barred and grilled high windows, and imagined himself before the cross. “I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass.” From that first morning, he said the Creed, prayed generally, made a short confession, said the Sanctus and made a spiritual communion. “This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it, he recalled later. “But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.
“And you know, it was a reality. ‘Therefore, with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ – I don’t think I have ever known the reality of the company of heaven as I did in that prison cell … I’m no mystic. But I felt the presence of the Church, both in heaven and on earth. And then, when it came to the time of the consecration, I took – I didn’t have any bread or wine – I took nothing in my hands and I said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And again I took nothing in my hands and said, ‘This is the blood of the new testament which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this as often as ye shall drink it in remembrance of me.’ And I’ll tell you this … the communions that I received there in that prison cell, without the means of bread and wine, were as real and as glorious and as triumphant and as magnificent as any communion I’ve ever received in my own cathedral, with the organ going and the incense and the bells and all the glory. Just as real and wholly as healing and as complete.”
His experience of the Eucharist in the time of great darkness, was as real to him as, and as great a blessing as, any “real” Communion Service he had been to. And he also felt the presence of not only the saints and angels, but also the church on earth – all Christians everywhere. So, the other side of the coin is that although our bodies matter very much to God, in times when we cannot be physically present in church, God honours our desire to be there and blesses us. At the time of writing it is likely that some of us will be able to meet again for worship in church some time during the next few weeks. If you cannot be there with us, be assured that you are not forgotten, that our prayers and worship will include you, and I pray that you will feel not only God present with you, but the whole congregation, too.