I write this on a Christian cruise, exploring the British Isles. Not everybody on the ship is a Christian but it is wonderful just to be able to celebrate our faith without meeting resentment or militant aggression. Although there are Catholics on the ship, there is no priest. Obviously that is not a problem for ordinary worship but it posed difficulties for Sunday Mass.
The minister to the cruise is a most obliging Scots Presbyterian, the Very Rev Andrew McLellan, who had sourced a Catholic church in every port, including the Sunday we were due to spend on the Isle of Skye. Then the Lord of sea and sky sent unto us His gales, causing many of His followers to turn green and many non-followers to start praying. The captain decided we could not risk Skye but instead would seek shelter at Ullapool.
With great determination, Andrew tracked down a Catholic church near Ullapool, but it involved a journey of 47 miles each way. I announced I would be giving myself a traveller’s dispensation, but some of my fellow Catholics set their jaws stubbornly. They need not have bothered. We were blown away from Ullapool too and spent all Sunday at sea, just trying to stay the right way up whenever we left our cabins.
Tannoy announcements warned us at intervals not to carry hot drinks around, and then not to carry anything whatever but rather to keep both hands on the rails. Eventually we were urged not to move about the ship at all unless it was really necessary. The dining rooms were deserted and those of us with good sea legs feasted alone.
None of that was enough to deter a Presbyterian, and Andrew put on an inter-denominational communion service. He told us he understood that the Catholics would find it “difficult” to receive communion. No, I told him, not difficult, just impossible.
None of us need have worried about that either. The ship was pitching so badly that we remained seated throughout the entire service, the pianist slid off the swaying stage to be sick in a corner, Andrew held on to the lectern for dear life and gave a sermon one paragraph long, while the authorities vetoed any attempt at distributing the communion wine. So both it and the bread were taken away, unblessed and unused.
Afterwards I asked Andrew why he couldn’t simply have passed around the bread. He said it was contrary to his beliefs to take communion in one kind.
So there we were, a group gathered specifically to worship Christ on the Sabbath, a group which all believed in Calvary and the Resurrection, which said the same Lord’s Prayer and the same articles of creed, and read from the same Gospels. The Catholics could not take communion because it was not the Real Presence, though had it been they could have taken it in one kind; and the Presbyterians could not take it because it was not in two kinds, even though it was not the Real Presence. The Anglicans were, in their best tradition, divided over both issues.
This is in no way to question the Church’s solemn teaching on inter-communion, by which I faithfully abide. Once I left the Cof E I could sadly no longer receive communion from the ordained members of my own family, nor could they share in ours when they came with me to Mass. Yet I did wonder last Sunday if God really wants His flock unable to celebrate as he taught us at the Last Supper, simply because we perceive different paths to truth.
Had the ship keeled over (there was never any danger of that, despite the misgivings of the more timid) we would have all met the same Judge and I do not believe that He would have been preoccupied with such rules, but rather saddened that in our last moments on earth we were so divided. Yet I have no answer to the problem.
Next Sunday we will be in the only non-British port of the entire cruise: Honfleur. Andrew has found the Catholics a Mass but it is in French rather than English or Latin. So I shall take Communion, not having understood more than a few sentences of the Mass, but instead relying on guesswork as to where we are as the service progresses. I will be blessed if I follow a fraction of the sermon.
Meanwhile, back on the ship will be a service in which I could understand every word and share in every utterance, but which I am commanded to abandon in favour of the above Mass.
I wonder what that great sailor for Christ, St Paul, would have said?