Spiritual Communion in the Age of Coronavirus…

…and at the time of the Reformation

At this time of physical isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, clergy offer worship from their homes or, as is still possible here in Australia, from our empty churches. Congregants who still want to partake in Holy Communion have to reframe their understanding of what it means to participate in the sacrament. How can someone still receive the sacrament without being in church, or without being visited by a clergy person? This is a question that kept many liturgists pre-occupied in the past few weeks, as well as many ordinary Christians and parish clergy. 

In the Church of England, they drew on the wellsprings of the Book of Common Prayer and re-introduced people to the understanding of making our ‘spiritual communion’. Prevented from access to the consecrated bread and wine by serious reasons, such as a public health directive to remain at home in times of a pandemic, Christians may still share in communion both with one another and with Christ, the argument goes.

Rather than receive bread and wine, we spiritually share in the body of Christ, and in fellowship with one another. The church is not only a communion defined by the four walls of a chapel, church or Cathedral. What’s more, ‘Holy Communion’ is not just bread and wine, properly consecrated. Both ‘church’ and ‘communion’ are the body of Christ, distributed across the whole world.

In this time of pandemic, when people are unable to come together in worship and clergy prevented from visiting their congregations, therefore, Christians may share in communion by an act of faith that is entirely spiritual. In spite of their separation, we may be united as the body of Christ by our spiritual communion.

Treasures Old…

Defining communion in strictly spiritual, rather than physical terms, is one of the hallmarks of the Edwardian reformation. The concept has its roots in the Reformation debate on the nature of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Theologians across Europe debated whether Christ truly could be said to be present in the Eucharist and, if so, how.

The concept of a spiritual communion derives from a strictly reformed understanding of the Eucharist. In this view, Christ’s physical body is solely located at the right hand of God. The gifts of bread and wine that the faithful receive in church are mere reminders of the spiritual presence of Christ among us. When we receive them, we physically receive only bread and wine. But by our act of faith, we share in communion with Christ in heaven.

If Christ is not physically present in the sacrament, then the step from receiving bread as a reminder of our spiritual communion with the ascended Christ, to only the reminder of our spiritual communion with the ascended Christ is a small one.

It was during the Oxford Disputation on the Eucharist in spring 1549 that this concept was explored at length in England. In a scholarly debate held at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Cranmer’s newly-appointed Regius Professor of Divinity, the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigili, argued a theology of the Eucharist that was much closer to that usually held in Zurich, where Zwingli led his reformation, than to Oxford, where scholars still sought to hold onto the old doctrines including the transubstantiation (where the bread and wine literally became Christ’s body and blood).  Christ was not physically present in the sacrament, Martyr maintained that instead: ‘we eat the body of Christ with the mind and spirit’.

Martyr suggested that when we make our communion, it is not through the sacrament (per sacramentum) that we share in communion with Christ,  but rather in conjunction with the sacrament (citra sacramentum). According to Martyr, our communion with Christ in heaven is an entirely spiritual and Christological act.

Not every reformer agreed with Martyr. The Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body in the Eucharist, for example, said that Christ was both at the right hand of God and in the bread and wine of the eucharist. For Lutherans, as for Roman Catholics, without the bread and wine, there could be no communion.

But Martyr told the Oxford scholars that it was not by a process such as transubstantiation, but through a ‘sacramental interdependence’, that the body and blood of Christ may be said to be present under bread and wine. Believers have a more profound experience of Holy Communion when they eat the bread and drink the wine (per sacramentum), Martyr held. But believers can still be said to ‘feed’ on the body of Christ by  an entirely spiritual act of Communion (citra sacramentum) through their own devotions.


…Made Treasures New

When Peter Martyr redefined the Eucharist in terms of allowing for a spiritual communion, he did so mainly so as not to exclude children (who were unable to receive the bread and wine because of their age) from the spiritual benefits of the Eucharist.

In the age of the coronavirus, Martyr’s theology of the Eucharist has come into its own again. It reminds believers that our unity with one another, and our communion, is maintained in spite of our physical absence.

The channels of grace remain open, even though our churches are shut, and we may no longer physically receive the body of Christ. We may still partake of the sacrament and receive its grace spiritually, Martyr would assure us in this pandemic.

This is how Martyr put it: ‘Christ gave in the supper, bread and wine for signes, the which by his institution and his wordes are made sacraments, that is to wit instruments, whereby the holy Ghost stirreth up faith in our mindes, that by the same faith we may be spiritually, but yet truely nourished and sustained with his bodie and blood’.

The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and an ecclesiastical historian.

This blog post is based on research published by the author in 2001: ‘”The bodie and bloud of Christ is not carnallie and corporallie in the bread and wine”. The Oxford Disputation revisited: Zwinglian traits in the Eucharistic theology of Pietro Martire Vermigli’, in: Alfred Schindler, ed., Die Zürcher Reformation: Ausstrahlungen und Rückwirkungen (Bern 2001).