Liturgically speaking, Anglicanism is remarkably simple. Sure, the Prayer Book requires something of a learning curve, especially modern Prayer Books with all their options and possibilities and multi-year lectionaries. But when you compare the historic Prayer Book tradition to the other great liturgical traditions, particularly Rome and the East, ours is greatly simpler to follow, understand, and implement. This is, I believe, part of the Reformation principle: paring down the extraneous developments that clogged up the system to unveil the Biblical and Patristic core of historic Christian worship.
This doesn’t mean Anglicanism cannot be complex and beautiful – many rituals and traditions, both ancient and medieval, have been re-appropriated in our context. We can have incense and chasubles, altar candles and art, icons and organs… but when it comes down to it the “smells and bells” are optional. These beautify worship but are not integral to it.
And yet, amidst our grand simplification of Western liturgical tradition, there is one rubric – only one – that has survived every Prayer Book revision, dealing with the gestures (or manual actions) of the Priest. The 1549 Prayer Book had a couple other gestures directed which are often used today, but only one survived through the course of the Reformation and is fixed in every Prayer Book since the beginning. Here it is, according to the wording of the 2019 Book:
At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon it, and here* may break the bread; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing the wine to be consecrated.
There are other rubrics, too, that deal with movement and location, standing and kneeling, but these are the only instructions left that deal with the manuals, the hands. The celebrant MUST touch the bread or the vessel(s) containing it; the celebrant MUST touch the flagon or chalice or other vessel containing the wine. These are the only requirements, amidst the many traditional gestures and symbols that prior tradition demanded.
Why is this so? There may be different answers to this question. Perhaps it’s as simple and practical as to indicate to all gathered what is to be consecrated. Perhaps it’s part of a larger system of sacramental theology in which the celebrant has to indicate the intent to consecrate particular elements. Perhaps there’s something incarnational in the celebrant’s imitation of Christ, or service in the place of Christ, in physically handling the elements in the same way our Lord did on the night that he was betrayed. The explanation may be different according to whom you ask, but the rule or rubric is the same.
One of the important realizations that we must take from this, today, is the fact that we are NOT permitted to consecrated bread and wine via the internet. There are a lot of simplifications and extraneous traditions that were removed during the Reformation, but physical contact between the minister and the elements is the one thing we’ve made a point of keeping. Sadly, a number of priests, and even bishops, have advocated a sort of “remote consecration”, where the congregation has bread and wine in front of their TV or computer screen and the priest or bishop they’re watching live “consecrates” them for the recipients at home. This is not permissible according to the Prayer Book tradition. And, depending upon one’s theological explanation of this rubric, it’s probably also not possible or valid.
So I urge you, dear readers, not to hold or participate in such liturgies involving “remote consecration.” These are, admittedly, extraordinary circumstances; but that does not mean we can abandon our beliefs and godly authorities. Whether we like them or not, the Prayer Book already has resources for this sort of situation: pray the Daily Office, pray Antecommunion, ask the parish priest to deliver Communion house to house after celebrating with a small group. Use the prayer of Spiritual Communion; it’s #106 in the 2019 Prayer Book. True, none of these are quite replacements for the regular participation in the liturgy of Holy Communion, but these measures exist precisely to keep the people of God fed and nourished, even in times of infrequent reception of the Sacrament.
We can get through this. We don’t need to violate our beliefs, practices, or rubrics. We certainly don’t need to introduce strange, novel , and illicit inventions as “remote consecration.” Honestly, to do so reveals a surrender to worldly conditions and a lack of appreciation (let alone understanding) of the beautiful and robust tradition we already have.