Bishops weigh liturgical options during pandemic, but resist stepping toward virtual Eucharist

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 29, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops concluded a two-day online meeting by voting July 29 on measures that commit it to confronting racism among its own members, as well as on a pastoral letter that raises concerns about the deployment of federal forces to quell local unrest in places like Portland, Oregon.

The bishops also spent much of the day’s session discussing ways the coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional liturgical practices, but several voiced opposition to opening the door to more controversial practices, such as virtual Eucharist. Many congregations have been unable to gather in person for Holy Eucharist since the initial widespread suspensions of in-person worship in mid-March to help slow the virus’ spread.

The Communion discussion responded to one half of the theme for this House of Bishops meeting: “Communion, Divine and Human: Holy Eucharist and Racial Reconciliation.” The first half, racial reconciliation, featured a presentation July 28 by New Yorker writer Hilton Als, who spoke of his own experience with racism as a Black man in America.

To kick off the following day’s discussion of Holy Eucharist, the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, who retired in January as bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real, encouraged her fellow bishops to consider how to respond to the “special circumstances” of the pandemic by using ongoing processes for prayer book revision as a model and a starting place.

The bishops then broke into two dozen small groups for an hourlong “Table Time” session. Episcopal News Service, though granted access to the House of Bishops’ plenary sessions, was not permitted to observe the small group discussions.

When the plenary session resumed, however, several bishops argued that prayer book revision was not the appropriate model for deliberating over the liturgical constraints imposed by the pandemic and the related growth in online worship. Some voiced concerns about undercutting bishops’ authority over worship in their dioceses.

“The church has already authorized and ordained the bishops to guide the liturgical reality in our dioceses,” Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn said, and bishops have actively consulted with each other on such matters in recent months. “The structure to navigate these waters is already in place and is, in fact, already happening. … We don’t feel like we need authority that we already have.”

Reeves agreed bishops don’t need permission to respond to their own congregations’ needs, “but some framework for the whole church might be helpful,” she said. Such issues, she added, are expected to be back on the agenda when the House of Bishops meets again in September.

And though the discussion was framed somewhat broadly, several bishops focused in on the question of virtual Eucharist – generally whether it is theologically sound to allow Episcopalians to gather separately and receive Communion that has been consecrated by a priest remotely during an online service.

Delaware Bishop Kevin Brown said bishops in his discussion group expressed “a strong reluctance to be going anywhere near virtual Eucharist.” Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter said he was open to “a really good conversation about virtual Communion” but didn’t think it was appropriate to encourage congregations to experiment.

Such an approach “could quickly get out of control and do some significant damage,” Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano said. “This was feeling like an attempt at a long-term change in sacramental theology for what we are experiencing as the short-term shifts that have had to happen because of the pandemic.”

As for the parallel discussion on racism, the bishops capped their work by adopting a covenant that commits them to addressing the need for racial healing within the House of Bishops and to extend that work into their dioceses. They pledged to create a timetable for further action by their September meeting, and they plan to organize “a series of Truth and Reckoning convenings” in 2021.

The bishops separately approved an update to the House of Bishops’ core values to add an eighth: “reckoning with racism.”

The addition requires the bishops, upon witnessing a member “being demeaned or oppressed,” to “intervene by naming and stopping the painful speech or behaviors and seek reconciliation in the moment,” the approved text says. “We shall also hold one another accountable for creating and supporting environments where racial healing and justice can flourish.”

The House of Bishops has spoken against racism in the past, “but we have not seriously addressed racism that exists in this house,” said Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Gayle Harris, who introduced the covenant and update in core values on behalf of the Pastoral Development Committee. “The covenant moves us from pronouncements to actions, from intentions to constructing engagement with each other on a truly mutual basis of respect and celebrating God’s gift of diversity among us.”

The bishops’ pastoral letter responding to the protests in Portland was not immediately available for full review and inclusion in this story.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at