Wider in Welcome: a reflection from Thomas J. Brown
The Parish of the Epiphany has long been a community committed to welcoming all. In celebrating the Eucharist we have widened our welcome in two ways. First, several years ago, we began administering communion in front of the pulpit. We did this both to support the number of people for whom the chancel steps were a barrier, and also to expedite that part of the worship service. Second, in the last few years we have responded to people with celiac disease by consecrating rice or bean wafers.
Effective Sunday, 7 January 2018, we will use non-alcoholic wine or grape juice at the pulpit station. Holy Communion with sherry or port will continue to be administered at the rail near the high altar.
What follows are my theological and pastoral thoughts about this change. Basically, we are widening our welcome to people who are recovering from addiction, or who refrain from alcohol for other health reasons, or for parents who would prefer their children not receive wine. This decision is rooted not only in our desire to respond pastorally, but also in our theology: it is God who feeds us with the spiritual food of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, and God who welcomes us home.
Historically the Episcopal Church has suggested that “quality bread and wine should be used for the Holy Eucharist.” However, in some parts of the Anglican Communion, the 38 independent churches around the globe with historic ties to the Church of England, concerns abound regarding what can be used to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. These questions and concerns are subjects of lively debate here in our diocese, too.
In some Islamic nations where alcohol is carefully controlled or even banned, Anglicans make do with quite remarkable products, including Coca-Cola! In other contexts bread and wine carry different cultural meanings, or they are prohibitively expensive, leading Anglicans to use rice or corn products for their eucharistic feasts.
Consider our relatively recent addition of gluten-free wafers, made from beans or rice, as a species for consecration. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church does not suggest that gluten-free wafers are unacceptable. Given our local context, I can’t imagine we, the Parish of the Epiphany, would say to somebody with celiac disease, “sorry, only a wheat wafer contains the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.”
What is bread and what is wine? One wouldn't typically think of an overly crisp wafer (stored in an electric brisker in our sacristy) as bread, but wafers have been used since the 9th century. For some of us they represent “communion” because they are what we’ve always had. Others would much prefer to see and to taste actual bread. Yet for most of us, I think, whether we receive a piece of bread or a wafer doesn’t matter because each not only symbolizes Holy Communion, but also contains the Real Presence.
When a gathered community gives their consent to a priest to lead them in prayer, as you do every Sunday to me and Miriam and any other priest who is with you, we rely, together, on the Holy Spirit to bless whatever gifts we offer, sanctifying them to be for us the Body and Blood, “the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him” (from Eucharistic Prayer A in the Prayer Book).
Please contact me if you have additional questions, concerns, or comments. I welcome your thoughts.