Liturgy in Pandemic Times
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This week Heather and I went through another round of reflecting on and adapting the way in which we at Saints James and Andrew are worshipping God. The corona virus pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways, and among these is the way in which we function as the Church, the Body of Christ.
These last couple of months, figuring out how to move forward in a new set of circumstances, has stretched us is good ways, even as they have been painful and often exhausting. I think this is true for other aspects of our lives, and it has certainly been true for us as the Church.
Much of our concern as clergy has been around the outward and practical aspects of adapting worship:
Which media platform gives the best audio-visual results?
What do we have the technological capacity to use?
What’s going to be most accessible and comfortable for our members?
One thing we didn’t anticipate, as we embarked on this crazy and unsolicited corona virus adventure, was the degree to which managing worship in a pandemic was going to raise deep and complicated questions of theology – for us, and for the larger Church.
Beyond thinking about the outward and practical aspects of offering worship in a pandemic, clergy in the Episcopal Church, at least, have also been forced to think about how we understand the very nature of our worship:
How critical, really, is the centrality of the Eucharist in our worship?
What elements in the way we worship are necessary to make Eucharist happen?
Whose prayer matters in the Great Thanksgiving?
Does separation in space matter?
A few days ago we sent a message to you over email and social media to let you know about changes to our worship that we are beginning this morning, as a result of a Directive we received this week from Bishop Doug. I hope you’ve had a chance to read it. In it we wanted to offer explanation of why we are making changes in our worship yet again. During this service this morning, we also wanted to take the opportunity to dig a bit into the theological challenges that underlie these changes. So, please, consider this to be “Instructed Eucharist, Chapter two”. It is also an interesting case study in the way the Episcopal Church functions.
When the pandemic took hold and social distancing and stay-at-home directives were first issued, it was up to individual parishes to figure out how to worship; our first considerations, as I mentioned, were practical. Bishop Doug encouraged us to be pastoral in considering the needs of the community.
We adopted the practice of “virtual communion” for this parish, inviting members to receive the eucharistic bread and wine at home with the conviction that God would bless and be fully present in that bread and wine even though we were separated in space. Honestly, we knew that this practice was a bit “out there”, and was not something that had ever been given official sanction by the Church. We were not alone in taking this direction, either in the Diocese or in the national Church.
Concern and controversy about Virtual Communion quickly surfaced, as not all of the clergy of the church shared the view that Virtual Communion was an approach that ought to be accepted in the Episcopal Church at this time. (Virtual Communion was not the only practice drawing attention, by the way: other creative liturgical approaches were likewise up for debate.) Columns, blogs, podcasts and commentaries blossomed. Heather and I followed the conversation closely.
This week Bishop Doug informed us that, after considerable prayer and reflection, he was offering the Pastoral Directive that while we are unable to gather for worship as we would wish, we can practice any of four liturgical options. Virtual Communion is not among those four.
Receiving the Directive and figuring out what different approach to take actually provided a wonderful opportunity for the clergy and wardens of the parish to talk with one another about what we feel – as individuals, and on behalf of members of the parish – is most important and most meaningful for our worship. It wasn’t even remotely difficult to reach consensus on how we wanted to go forward, and so, as our letter explained, for the forseeable future under the quarantine, we will worship through a combination of Morning Prayer and Eucharist with Spiritual Communion.
So why is Virtual Communion not authorized? What’s wrong with it?
Basically, theologians have put forth the reasoning that physical gathering of the community of faith is critical to the celebration of the Eucharist. Embedded in this reasoning is the theological reasoning that it is the combined prayer of the people and the priest praying “in one voice”, that constitutes the Eucharist.
You’ll recall that in an earlier instructed Eucharist we spoke about the fact that it is through “the Great Amen” that comes at the end of the eucharistic prayer - which offers praise and thanksgiving, which invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and the wine so that we might receive the presence of Christ – completes the prayer and confirms the unity of the Church in praying it.
Bishop Doyle of Texas points out that “The Episcopal Church has always held that the Eucharist is not an act done by the priest and received by the people; it is an act in which the Body of Christ, otherwise divided and separate from one another, are reunited with one another and with God.”
The theology of the Church, according to this reasoning, is that this kind of union and unified prayer simply cannot take place from a dozen – or a hundred – separate living rooms.
A second concern raised in relation to a Virtual Communion liturgy is the fact that the way we pray affects what we believe. Those who have taken Episcopal 101 will remind us of the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi: the words we say and the things we do in worship shape the way we think and understand our relationship with one another and with God.
A potential implication of embracing Virtual Communion is that, in the words of Bishop Mark Eddington, “We’re saying that people don’t need to gather, and that community is second to individual preference.”
Again, from Bishop Doyle:
When we hold to our Eucharistic theology, we are reminded that we are not meant for individual flourishing alone. We are meant for communal flourishing. We are not a group of individuals gathered to get our own needs met. Instead, we understand the corporate grace of salvation and the reuniting of God's created kin and family. We come to understand that without us, others may not receive what is needed. It is an awakening to the idea that when we are not present with each other, we are not whole.
To be truthful with you, while I respect the reasoning in all of these arguments and am moved by the sentiments, I don’t think we were wrong in adopting Virtual Communion. Equally compelling arguments in support of the practice have been offered by theologians for whom I have profound respect.
What I AM fully persuaded by is that we are part of a bigger whole – playing on a team, and not just doing what makes sense to us as a particular parish. It is a hallmark and, I think, the genius of the Anglican way that we discuss, and compromise, and work things through together. We’ve lived through this before - in relation to the ordination of women and the ordination and blessing of marriages of gay/lesbian/bi/transgender and queer persons. Frustrating as it sometimes is, we in the Episcopal Church don’t make quick or facile decisions. We believe that the Spirit speaks through the Church (and not into my own individual ear) and so we pray and discern and listen. And this frequently requires patience.
As it does now as we at James and Andrew transition to another liturgical practice. I absolutely believe that engaging in Spiritual Communion and Morning Prayer will provide us new insights and new spiritual growth. We need to open our hearts to the mysterious ways in which God continues to speak, among us.
Heather and I so much appreciate the support and patience that all of you have shown as we slog through this together. It will not be forever: we will be breaking bread together again in one place, praising God together, singing the music we love together, in God’s good time.
In the name of the living God.
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