The Venerable Dr. David Anderson
Slideshow image

What is spiritual communion?

In this time of global pandemic, physical distancing, and stay at home orders, it has been a long time since the church has been able to gather in the usual manner. We miss it. We miss one another. We miss the opportunity to gather around word and sacrament.

While we have faced these challenges we have seen some creative responses by worship leaders of various denominations with respect to the manner and mode of Holy Communion. I have heard of virtual communion services, with the faithful bringing their own bread and wine to the computer screen. I have also heard of "drive-by" communion services. Many of these innovations point to a deep hunger among God's people to receive the body and blood of Christ.

The desire to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis is indicative of the renewal in Eucharistic piety among Anglicans during the twentieth century. The liturgical renewal movement was effective in transforming Anglican spirituality so that the expectation is such that the Holy Eucharist will be the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day. Prior to this renewal, Morning Prayer, was typically the principal service Sunday service. Few want to return to those days.

Anglican Eucharistic theology and practice

A basic theological principle is expressed in the words of Jesus, "What God has joined together, let no one separate." This statement is normally taken to apply to marriage, but it can be applied in many spheres. The theological principle is that while in the real world we may be compelled to separate things God has joined together, we should do so only with great care, since we do so at our peril. In Eucharistic theology and practice, God binds together a number of elements: bread, wine, word, community, and real presence, to name a few. We seek to hold them carefully together.

Anglicans have been reluctant to adopt some of the innovations we have seen in other places because of the Eucharistic theology that has served us well and which emphasizes, among other things, the importance on the one bread and the one cup. 

In the celebration of the Eucharist we experience the real presence of Christ, not only in the bread and wine, but in the word of God proclaimed and broke open, and in the community gathered. This real presence is sacramental. It is a sign, a taste of the future God prepares for us. Physical distancing has made us all hungry for real presence in all its forms. We feel diminished by real absense. We desire to gather as a community again and to know the Lord's presence among us.

About spiritual communion

Our Christian tradition offers us the practice of spiritual communion for a time when we are ourselves unable to be present at the celebration of the Eucharist, or for other reasons unable to eat the bread or drink the wine. Thomas Aquinas describes the practice of spiritual communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him”. 

Early editions of the Book of Common Prayer and ancient pastoral practice has directed priests to assure a person unable to eat or drink the bread and wine  “that all the benefits of Communion are received even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth."

The Prayer Book for the Armed Services (ECUSA) suggests a prayer for spiritual communion:

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer to you praise and thanksgiving. I remember your death, Lord Christ; I proclaim your resurrection; I await your coming in glory. Since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

An important strain of Anglican Eucharistic theology has taught that our reception of Christ in the Eucharist is not merely made real as physical experience, but made real as a spiritual experience. In the Book of Common Prayer, the priest is instructed to distribute the bread to the communicant with these words, "The body of Christ which is broken for you; feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving" (emphasis added). An act of spiritual communion reminds us that even when we are not able to receive the Eucharist physically, we are able still to feed on Christ in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.

During this time of pandemic a Prayer of Reception has been added to the Eucharistic liturgy you will find in our Order of Service. This prayer is meant to help us remember that we all may receive Christ in communion with the saints, where many are made one in Christ. Additional prayers are also provided in the Order of Service which may be helpful for those who are making a spiritual communion. 

I realize that none of us will experience this provision as ideal. We would much rather be present in person to share in the community's meal. As I've said, we long for real presence in all its forms. I do pray that you will take comfort that, although we cannot be physically present, we are able by both virtual and spiritual means to be present in a manner. Let us pray earnestly for an end to the pandemic and the opportunity to gather in person once again.