As part of CEC’s monthly Theological Reflections series “Communion in Crisis: The Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Dutch theologian Jutta Eilander-van Maaren reflects on Church solidarity, togetherness and Eucharist during the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing practices from the life of the Old-Catholic Church of the Netherlands.
March 2020 saw the start of COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in the Netherlands. The Dutch government ordered an ‘intelligent lockdown’. Schools, shops and restaurants were closed and people needed to stay and work at home. The Old-Catholic Church of the Netherlands (OCCN) chose to close its doors, just as almost every other member of the National Council of Churches. The lockdown took longer than expected; it was June before celebrating the Eucharist with a small group of people was once again possible. In summer, celebrations with a maximum of a 100 people were possible but soon the number had to drop down again, only to end up in a second lockdown in November that lasted until today.
Legally, the government cannot interfere in gatherings of people on the basis of their religion. It can strongly advise the churches, but it is their decision whether or not to follow the advice. From the start, the OCCN chose a clear view on the position of the church regarding the government protocols. The bishops decided that solidarity was their main focus point – solidarity with the people that were ill, solidarity with the society that was grinding to a halt, solidarity with the care workers who did not need any more patients, solidarity with the government protocols. They framed it a ‘voluntary solidarity’, fitting in with the time of Lent .
Although the pandemic has lasted longer than anyone expected, this view on solidarity remains. The churches have stayed closed for as long as it has been necessary, although it pains the hearts of the community. But churches being closed does not mean that the Church is not present. Every Sunday the Eucharist is celebrated and streamed online. At the start of the pandemic, the bishops of both dioceses of the OCCN celebrated together, and then took turns every Sunday, assisted by one of the clergy of the other diocese, thereby underlining the bond between the two dioceses. Since November, every Sunday there has been a livestream of the celebration of the Eucharist from the cathedrals of the dioceses, with only the presiding clergy, acolytes, musicians and technicians present. All the parish churches have remained closed.
This is, in a sense, a strange form of celebrating the Eucharist: ‘the community gathered around the table’ is largely absent. Archbishop-elect Bernd Wallet said: ‘We celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the day of our Lord, but in a way we miss the third component; the communion of the Lord is not present as a whole.’ The pandemic makes the embodied character of Christian faith even more tangible, in the lack of the community. The Church is not only in thought, but also in a very physical sense, the Body of Christ. On the other hand, you can see that (part of) the community is still present online and actively participating in the Eucharist. Via the live chat function of YouTube, people wish each other the Peace of Christ, they comment on the sermon, they add their prayer intentions. A by-product of celebrating online is that people who were not able to come to church before are now able to participate in the celebrations online. They feel part of the community again. Another effect is that more than before people feel themselves being part of the local diocese or the ‘national’ Old-Catholic Church. They see the different clergy preside in the Eucharist, as well as both the bishops, they meet parishioners of all parishes in the live chat. It opens up the sometimes somewhat closed view of the parish and its traditions.
But not all people feel involved in the celebration. To them it is more like watching a TV performance than participating. The liturgy is meant for a community to be involved. By just watching it, it sometimes feels long and slow. Some people stop watching the livestream after the sermon or after the intercessions, saying: ‘We do not feel we can participate in the communion’.
Being church is more than celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday. The focus on solidarity is also present in the parishes. There are a lot of initiatives for being present in the community and society. We have seen this in the diaconal help bringing children’s drawings and presents to the elderly and people in hospital, to online coffee-Zoom-meetings and online quizzes for the teenagers of the parish. A lot of parishes also try to add more to celebrating together. Some celebrate the Prayer of the Hours every day on Facebook, some have a weekly celebration of Compline via Zoom, some stream a small gathering of people of the parish making music, some offer a short sermon and pray  as a prelude to Sunday. Essential to all those initiatives is that they try to include the parish as a whole, old and young, and that they try to accentuate the sense of belonging together, the solidarity to each other and towards society. Although flawed, both the online celebrations and the parish initiatives add together to the experience of being church in a pandemic. The Eucharist, in which people come together to celebrate and to participate in the coming of the Reign of God, can be a catalyst in bringing this attitude into the society as a whole. The best way of being church during a pandemic might not have been found yet, but staying together with a focus on solidarity, inside and outside, is a good start.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Ploeger Mattjis, ‘A New Sacramental Theology for e-Eucharist?’ in: Yearbook for Ritual and Liturgical Studies, Vol. 36, 2020.
- Ploeger Mattjis, Celebrating Church. Ecumenical Contributions to a Liturgical Ecclesiology (Tilburg/Groningen: Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap Rijksuniversiteit Groningen & Liturgisch Instituut Universiteit van Tilburg, 2008).
- Smit Peter-Ben, Old Catholic Theology, An Introduction, (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
About the author:
Jutta Eilander-van Maaren is lecturer in Practical Theology at the Old Catholic Seminary in Utrecht, and a PhD candidate at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She is a member of the clergy of the Old Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht, having been ordained as a priest in 2017.
Disclaimer: The impressions expressed above are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the Conference of European Churches.