Our current Prayer Book is the first to define the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass…) as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s day.” That was a huge shift for us and it’s hard to remember that only forty years ago, many Episcopal Church’s would have offered the Eucharist only once a month at the main service. Morning Prayer (a service of Scripture, song, and prayer) three Sundays a month; Holy Communion once.
There are still some of our churches which follow that pattern, but they are in the distinct minority today. Ecumenically, there is a real re-discovery of the centrality of the Eucharist and more Protestant churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) find themselves increasing the frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist. This has been one of the real fruits of the ecumenical movement.
Of course, this development also presents challenges. What about small Episcopal churches (and there are many!), churches which cannot afford a fulltime (or maybe even a part-time) priest? How about those Episcopalians who have become accustomed to, and deeply value, at least weekly celebrations of the Eucharist when their church does not have access to priestly ministry?
Well, that has often driven new experiements in “ministry development!” Ministry teams, made up of lay persons, presbyters, and deacons who may be trained locally, ordained and commissioned by their congregation and diocese, and who function in non-stipendiary ways in service to the church. The Diocese of Nevada (from which our Presiding Bishop recently hails) and the Diocese of Northern Michigan (which our late friend, Jim Kelsey, served as bishop) have pioneered some of these efforts.
Being “in communion” is defined and celebrated these days by being able and willing to receive Holy Communion together. Officially, we can receive this sacrament together with all those who are baptized with water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; who repent of their sins; and who discern the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some churches (like the Roman Catholic) hold to a liturgical discipline which refrains from offering or receiving Communion from other Christians until all issues of faith and order have been resolved and a relationship of full communion has been officially reached.
All this is why it is so distressing when some members of our own Anglican family refuse to receive Holy Communion with, say, our former or current Presiding Bishop because they disagree with our positions on some theological or ethical issue. They are, in a sense, “excommunicating” themselves since one refrains from receiving the sacrament, historically, when one perceives sin — not within someone else — but within oneself and wishes to avoid “eating and drinking judgment upon themselves” (I Corinthians 11)
And when bishops refuse to receive Communion together, it is hard to see how we are — truly — an Anglican Communion today. We may be a “wannabe” Communion, but sadly, we are currently more like a federation of churches.
That’s why, with all its present imperfections, we may need something like an Anglican Covenant to give shape to this global fellowship of churches, at least for those of us who desire to be “in communion!”