May 19, 2020

A Reflection on the Church in COVID-19

I’m studying Matthew 9:35 – 10:23 for lay preacher school and Jesus is filled with compassion for the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He calls for laborers to help with the harvest at hand and sends out the disciples to proclaim and heal. Jesus did not call for biblical scholars, grand speech-makers, top-notch administrators, or anything other than ‘common laborers’.

I’m content to be a laborer and it’s from this place that I find such disappointment in the church’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All denominations come under my disappointment, none is singled out.

What you are about to read is my sense of things and mine alone, although I did see a glimmer of solidarity in a video from Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP), Mourning Our Changing Church, when I heard the comments of Micah T.J. Jackson, President, Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago. In any case, I know this is a minority view. Here goes.

It appears to me that churches scrambled to the internet without much pause or reflection. Initially some expressed defiance – “we will not stop worship services!” It all changed quickly from “we will remain open” to “we are closed” because it became a life or potential death decision. Many churches had a steep learning curve as they ran head first into livestreaming, some buying new equipment in order to come into the digital world. The surge was underway almost immediately to establish ourselves online as if the only change in the world that needed attention was the delivery method of our own church services.

Oh how I wish a denominational leader/bishop somewhere would have sent a letter like this:

To the churches in our state/conference/synod/diocese, we find ourselves in a new place. Some would say a foreign place. Our patterns, habits, preferences, routines are all being disrupted. Many will turn themselves inside out trying to maintain those routines. The desire to keep them can come from a deep and wonderful need to hold community together. If you feel you must duplicate your weekly services digitally, then by all means, proceed. I offer another possibility.

I have spoken with the staff at “____(fill in the blank)_____ Church or the Cathedral” and they have been livestreaming since 2018. They have the necessary technology already in place to conduct all the weekly services we need and love. Instead of creating an entire conference/synod/diocese of individual digital church services, 70 or more, I invite each member congregation to attend services with me at “____(fill in the blank)_____ Church or the Cathedral”. I know it’s a sacrifice, for now, to give up your own Sunday habits and preferences. We are not abandoning what we love but rather, for a time, laying aside our preferences and seeking ways forward that are different and yet still enriching.

And what will your pastor/minister/priest do with her/his time? I’m glad you asked.

The clergy in the 20[1] and 21[2] century is a much different lot than in decades past. Business meeting conveners, human resource managers, administrators, fundraising geniuses, and oh yes, shepherds and preachers! I invite the clergy to turn all their attention to their congregation as their primary task and by personal phone calls or zoom calls, letters and cards, connect with members and take a deep dive into the relationship of laity and clergy. I also invite clergy to use some of this time to study, contemplate and pray for direction toward life post-COVID-19. It will be different in ways we don’t yet even understand.

And to the laity of the church, I invite you to turn to your neighbors and see what they need. An errand run, groceries, or simply your ear to hear their worry and fears or share their joys and celebrations. Maybe morning coffee or afternoon tea in the driveway sitting in lawn chairs 6 feet apart. I know you will creatively come up with wonderful ideas. Further, reach out to your friends at church through phone calls and zoom calls, notes and cards. And you, as well, take time to pray and study.

I believe good will come from this and that God can and will use this to bring the Kingdom near. I believe this is a time, a gift of God-given time, where it’s unnecessary to keep up appearances, work furiously to maintain the status quo, or over-function at anything.
Imagine the great joy when once again we gather in our own churches seeing familiar faces, hearing our pastor preach, receiving communion, joining in hymns and liturgy, and more. The absence of that now will create a joy unspeakable then!

Pray for the world. For those who have died and those they left behind. Pray for decision makers and frontline workers. Pray for your families, your friends as well as for your own needs and concerns.

The Peace of Christ be with you.

You can imagine my surprise when watching the CEEP video, somewhere around 37-38 minutes in, and I heard the president of Bexley Seabury Seminary say that some priests have directed their parishes to the National Cathedral for services and “I’m going to spend my time phoning my parishoners, checking in with them and doing the pastoral care of holding those relationships.” Holy cow – maybe I’m not daft after all. Or at least not completely.

So now, what do I do with what I have written? Does it have a purpose? Is it too late because after all, every church is livestreaming and zooming now. So, what’s the point? I don’t wish this to be a critique of my church, priest or our leaders and yet I know that it will, without a doubt, have that feel and possible sting. For that I apologize. So, then, what?

For a people who are to have vision, I think we blew it. For some reason all this was clear to me very early on. What isn’t clear to me is, “what now”? The pressure is on to return to normal as quickly as we can even though the advice is essentially to “hold your horses”! Another voice on the CEEP video came from the Right Reverend Robert Wright, the Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. As we lament this struggle feeling that we lack practice at this, the Rev Wright reminds us that “parts of the church have a lot of practice with a prolonged catastrophe!” The black church has “a long and deep experience in enduring a struggle, trusting God and trusting close relationships.” He suggested we study and invite a deeper, broader group of voices as we look to come out of this asking ‘where is God?’ in this? Look to Bible stories (40 years in the desert), stories of the black experience (King, Thurman but also lesser known writers), etc. I love how he referenced people “unencumbered by a formal education” who outdo him with wisdom about the day-to-day struggle to trust in God. Many oppressed peoples are not bothered by “middle-class trappings”. That spoke directly to me critiquing my life.

Well, that’s it … what my heart feels like it needs to say. Opportunities are still presenting themselves for us to pause and reflect, and mourn, the changing church. What else will we have the opportunity to sacrifice and will we find ourselves willing? The panel on the CEEP video suggested these questions:

What does it mean to have faith? To Trust? To know God is with us?

Who are we as a people? What will we learn?

What is God teaching and showing us?

Ask more questions than look for answers.

What is cracking open? What is being born?

Jesus’s question –“What do you want me to do for you?”

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