Announcing the suspension of all worship services until further notice was heart-breaking. The last in-person meeting with our Vestry and Council members (and two joining via Zoom) was emotional and bewildering. Strong preference was expressed to find ways to keep the members of our two congregations connected. Online worship service, several suggested. And without much thinking we all thought we could do that.
Until one member cried from her heart: “That is not the same. Our faith is a relational faith, we need to gather in person in order to receive the fullness of the encounter with God and with one another.” But we all knew that “gathering as usual” was not an option. We are now asked to live the painful paradox of solidarity and communion by keeping apart from one another, all to fight this invisible enemy called Covid-19. We are asked to live a painful social separation just when we need one another the most. It’s not the kind of Lenten fast any of us had anticipated.
Within days of that last in-person Council/Vestry meeting, online worship services popped up like mushrooms growing overnight. Just like that, countless priests, pastors and ministers of all denominations became like televangelists, praying the daily office in front of a camera, celebrating the Eucharist/Holy Communion at the altar in an empty church or chapel. Some parishes began to live-stream Mass every day with the lone priest in a church with a seating capacity of 500+.
Now televised worship has been with us for a long time. It is definitely a worthwhile alternative for the home-bound and infirm. While they cannot partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus, they can in good faith be united through spiritual communion. And I guess, in a way, we are now all forced into this category.
And truth be told, we were truly caught off guard by this little nasty bug happily galloping around the globe. And everyone was scrambling to find alternatives to the current restrictions on gathering and the need for social distance. Certainly a spirit of grace and mercy, coupled with permission to fumble and slip up, is the least we can afford one another.
There are indeed surprising aspects to the online worship development. The medium connects us with one another beyond time and place, providing an acute sense of the universal nature of our Christian faith. Physical and denominational boundaries collapse as we encounter the face of Christ in one another’s virtual devotions and inspirational messages. One of my colleagues wrote: Now that so many different churches are doing online prayer offices, I can dip into a Catholic morning prayer, a United mid-day prayer, a Lutheran evening prayer, and an Anglican Compline. And then I can mix it all up differently again the next day. (FB posting, March 19, 2020, by Rev. Scott Sharman)
But in the frenzy of live-streaming versions of the real thing, and while I’m all for the ecumenical gift exchange in prayer, I still hope that online worship doesn’t become the new normal. I hope we will not forget to ask ourselves what makes worship worship. What distinguishes worship from private prayer or watching someone else pray? As Christopher Smith wrote in a recent article: “Worship was never intended to be a religious product that is passively consumed.”* And what about the faithful parishioners without internet and social media? How do we include them in online worship?
Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, is an incarnational worship experience. The distinct features that nourish the soul and grow our faith lie in joining our voices in song and prayer, in our corporate confession and the words of absolution, in the sharing of insights from Scripture, each person hearing what s/he needs at that time, and the partaking in God’s holy meal of Christ’s body and blood. Or in the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor. 14:26)
In other words worship, liturgy, is a corporate act, authenticated by the active engagement of the congregation, identified as the full, conscious and active participation of God’s holy people. The Greek word leitourgia originally means the public work of the people. If we lose sight of this, we risk cultivating a passive audience watching a spectator sport (with all due respect for the sincere efforts of clergy to sustain the spirit of the faithful as best they can). Recall Jesus’s words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:20) God is present with us as we are present to one another in prayer and conversation, in joint confession and forgiveness, in song and praise, in sharing Christ’s Body and Blood.
It remains to be seen how our churches will fare in this prolonged Lenten season of corporate fasting from public worship services. Once the worst of this health crisis is over and we will be allowed out of our places of self-isolation, just think how amazingly festive that first Holy Eucharist in the church will be. Like Christ rising from the grave, we will rise from our homes, shining like the sun, and singing for joy. Easter might come later than planned this year, but come it will: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:32-33)