Presiding alone in a crowded chapel

By The Revd Canon Andy Bryant, Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care - 16 November 2020
St Lukes Chapel (c) Bill Smith

It is not something I thought I would ever do, after all it was something that had ended at the Reformation. The priest presiding at the Eucharist alone with no congregation present. Nobody with whom to break bread, nobody joining in the responses, nobody to absolve, to share the Peace or to bless. It is a community act, even if only with two or three.

Yet here I am, in lockdown, presiding alone in this chapel. No live stream - just me, the sacrament and God. But that which I had expected to feel strange starts to take on new life and new meaning. And then the chapel starts to fill.

At first I see the faces of those who would normally have joined me for this service, sitting in their usual places. Then I start to notice the presence of our wider worshipping community and then I notice they have been joined by some of our many volunteers. At this point the chapel starts to feel uncomfortably full and just then the walls of the chapel fall away and I can see the landscape of the city, the market place, the shops and the residential streets. And amidst the crowds I spot the faces of politicians and scientific advisors and there are the uniforms of paramedics, nurses and care staff.

If God is the one from whom no secrets are hidden, then each of these faces is known by God. In the light of the confession and absolution these faces are received not in judgement but in love, not in acknowledging what they have got wrong but in affirming the gift of being able to make a new start. In the breaking of the Word, the message that the world needs to hear is whispered into the universe waiting to be heard by those who are willing to hear it. In intercession their needs are held before their heavenly Father and, in the acknowledging of those needs, God’s peace is gifted.  Bread is broken and with it the longing to feed all the hungers of the word that this food alone can satisfy. And with the final blessing comes the deep desire for each of these who have become present in the chapel to know they are beloved of God and for each to be enfolded in God’s protection.

I hang up my robes and as I leave the vestry my footsteps echo around the empty building. Has this all been the product of my lockdown fevered imagination? It was surely just me alone in that chapel and yet I did not feel alone. In this the Lord’s Supper, in this moment of holy communion, in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet, there is always something more happening than the eye can see or even the heart feel. Presiding at the Eucharist is never just about those present, not even about those we are carrying in our hearts.

Each celebration of the Eucharist matters and is always of significance beyond itself even as the death of Jesus on the cross matters and was never just about those present at the time. It was the turning point of all history, of the very creation itself. In some deep and profound way, each offering of the Eucharist is caught up in that same turning point and has an impact beyond that one moment in time.

As I stand alone in the Chapel, I am like the small child offering their five loaves and two small fish to Jesus. It is of course a ridiculous thought that this could feed five thousand people. It is ridiculous that me standing alone in this chapel behind locked doors can have any impact on the world. Yet offered to Jesus that packed lunch fed the crowd and with twelve baskets of leftovers. Does then this lonely Eucharistic vigil not have a significance beyond itself?

In a world facing a pandemic which has shone a searing light on the inequalities that beset our world, a lone priests reciting an ancient ritual in a locked building to many must seem the height of irrelevance. Yet what if the words spoken in this rite are the words the world most needs for its healing? What if the bread broken is alone the food in which all our hungers are satisfied?

All I know is that each time through lockdown I stand at that altar, I am not alone; the chapel is crowded. Feeling powerless and helpless with all that is happening around me, I stand there with the deepest conviction that this seemingly irrelevant act matters. Amidst the challenges that surround us, this is the one place where I start to make sense of it all. Maybe me alone in that chapel, presiding at the Eucharist, is exactly what the world most needs me to do right now.

I offer my loaves and fishes, and trust God to take them to minister to the needs of those beyond the walls of this building. I preside alone but the chapel is crowded.

For more information about worship at Norwich Cathedral click here

Picture: Bill Smith

Leave a comment