The curious case of the bishop who didn’t celebrate the Eucharist

Here’s a picture of the Rt. Rev. Stephen Conway, the bishop of Ely in the Church of England.

By chance, I’ve been to two services in the past week at which he’s presided: one, a re-dedication of a refurbished church, the other, the installation of a new rector.

What was interesting to me is that at neither service did Bishop Stephen celebrate the Eucharist. I can’t remember the last time I saw an American bishop conduct a service at which he or she did not celebrate the Eucharist.

I was reminded of a comment my (English) liturgy professor once made in class: the American church, he said, had a case of “Eucharistic inflation.” That is, we celebrated the Eucharist at every possible juncture. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes it the “principal” service on Sundays and that thinking has spread to lots of other services such as, for instance, re-dedications and installations.

There are very good theological reasons for doing so and I do not for a minute want to minimize the significance of the Eucharist. Nor do I want to suggest that the Eucharist is not an important part of my (daily) devotional life. However, it occurred to me that if Episcopalians celebrated the Eucharist less, we might not be in such a knot about communion and baptism. We might also be able to lift up the many other significant services that form our life of prayer together. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the installation not to celebrate the Eucharist. There were many members of the community there—including the mayor and several other secular representatives—who were not necessarily religious types.

Perhaps the conversation about communion and baptism is, inter alia, a chance to think about opportunities not to celebrate communion and who we include—and who we exclude—when we do and when we don’t. What would Eucharistic deflation look like?

After all, if a bishop can happily conduct services without celebrating the Eucharist at every turn, can’t we learn something from that?