In the late 1970s, the Episcopal Ad Project began releasing spots taking shots at television preachers and other trends in American evangelicalism.

One image showed a television serving as an altar, holding a priest’s stole, a chalice and plate of Eucharistic hosts. The headline asked: “With all due regard to TV Christianity, have you ever seen a Sony that gives Holy Communion?”

Now some Anglicans are debating whether it’s valid — during the coronavirus crisis — to celebrate “virtual Eucharists,” with computers linking priests at altars and communicants with their own bread and wine at home.

In a recent House of Bishops meeting — online, of course — Episcopal Church leaders backed away from allowing what many call “Virtual Holy Eucharist.”

Episcopal News Service said bishops met in private small groups to discuss if it’s “theologically sound to allow Episcopalians to gather separately and receive Communion that has been consecrated by a priest remotely during an online service.”

Experiments had already begun, in some ZIP codes. In April, Bishop Jacob Owensby of the Diocese of Western Louisiana encouraged such rites among “priests who have the technical know-how, the equipment and the inclination” to proceed.

People at home, he wrote, will “provide for themselves bread and wine (bread alone

is also permissible) and place it on a table in front of them.

“The priest’s consecration

of elements in front of her or

him extends to the bread and wine in each ... household.

“The people will consume the consecrated elements.”

Days later, after consulting with America’s presiding bishop, Bishop Owensby rescinded those instructions.

“I understand that virtual consecration of elements at a physical or geographical distance from the altar exceeds the recognized bounds set by our rubrics and inscribed in our theology of the Eucharist,” he wrote.

However, similar debates were already taking place among other Anglicans.

In Australia, for example, Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney urged priests to be creative during this pandemic, while churches were being forced to shut their doors.

During a livestreamed rite, he wrote, parishioners “could participate in their own homes via the internet, consuming their own bread and wine, in accordance with our Lord’s command.”

While following the rite online, “their fellowship with the body of Christ would be no less spiritual and no less real.

“We must not fall into the erroneous mindset of thinking that consecration of the elements is only valid for us if we are physically present to consume them, as if there were magic in the hands of the minister.”

These debates may seem strange, following decades of news about Episcopalians and some other Anglicans voting to modernize church traditions in many ways — from the arrival of female priests and bishops to the decision to allow noncelibate gays and lesbians into the priesthood and the episcopate.

However, churches throughout the global Anglican Communion have continued to maintain Eucharistic altar traditions common in Western Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, the American church’s modern Book of Common Prayer states, when describing the consecration of bread and wine: “At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrated.”

But these are not normal times, stressed the Rev. Dana Delap, in a Church Times essay entitled, “How we shared the bread and wine on Zoom.”

She is a vicar in the Diocese of Gloucester in England.

Delap stressed that she knows Anglican leaders are reluctant to “make a theological statement without consideration.”

Still, at Easter, she allowed what she called the “least-worst way” to have Mass.

After all, she wrote, “What is the essence of consecration?

“Surely, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose action is not contained within the crusts of a loaf, the walls of a church or the doctrines of the Church, but who, through God’s grace, meets us in bread and wine.

“We unite with one another when we gather for communion, but also with the saints and witnesses of our faith through history.

“I want to believe in a God who meets us in our homes and places of work, as well as in our churches.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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