June 13, 2020

Virtual Morning Prayer Builds EDS at Union’s Community

With the COVID-19 pandemic came the precipitous end to in-person classes at Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in early March. Students who had the option to do so were strongly encouraged to leave seminary housing and get out of the virus epicenter in New York City, so we became physically scattered and separated from our worship space in the small chapel at Union.

Within days of the cessation of classes, the EDS worship team met over Zoom and came up with a plan. Our Monday through Thursday Morning Prayer schedule would resume by Zoom. We shortened the form of worship slightly, omitting the canticles but keeping the time for song that we had cherished when we had been physically together to pray the office. Because we shortened the service, we had the space to add a time of reflection after the Gospel reading. This gave us more interaction during the service in the virtual space. We kept the EDS at Union custom of reciting the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.

A worship team member created a shared Google Slides document with the essential structure of the service. Using slides projected during the Zoom service meant that participants did not need to flip around in their Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and that the leader did not need to call out instructions or wait for participants to find a page. This is overall more hospitable and seamless for virtual worship, and also allows newcomers to come in with no knowledge of navigating the prayerbook and no personal BCP. Since EDS at Union’s Morning Prayer is open to all Union students and not just Episcopalians, this last part was an important factor in our planning. As we practiced this way, we also realized it means we are all looking up at each other and not down at a book.

We were able to try out and refine our virtual Morning Prayer over the seminary’s spring break. It was a period of much stress and upheaval, with new reports of illness and death coming over the news on a daily basis, and students needing to make geographic moves and get themselves settled and ready to work remotely from new locations. Although getting a new version of our prayer service going was a novel task and took some work, we found that it added a degree of stability, comfort, and support that was much needed during the break time. This also meant that when classes resumed, newly online, at least the worship piece of our education was in place with the glitches ironed out.

And in the first several days, there were definitely glitches! As anyone who has tried this on Zoom can attest, singing together, or even reading text together, was impossible. Because of delays and feedback noise, any more than two voices speaking meant that no one could hear anything, and any more than one person singing was also unintelligible. We learned how to share videos so they could be heard. We settled on a method to make it feel like we weren’t just listening to one person speaking -- the leader asked a second person to be the reader and responder, reading the lectionary selection, alternating the psalm verses with the leader, doubling everything to be said all together, and doing all the people’s responses. Everyone else spoke and sang aloud while on mute. Even though it was virtual, after some time went by it stopped feeling so odd, stopped feeling like a work meeting, and started feeling like actual worship. We were even able to take what we learned in Zoom Morning Prayer and use a similar format for noon chapel offered to the whole Union community, this time using liturgy of the Service of Public Healing from the Book of Occasional Services.

Beyond choosing the opening canticle and whether to do confession, different student leaders can make small modifications to the liturgy. Some students sing a simple a capella tune during the hymn part, which had been an important part of in-person worship, while some have enjoyed playing a video from YouTube. We have listened to music on the theme of the day’s Gospel ranging from traditional hymns to gospel to Patti Smith! We have tried different things for the reflection time, from guided questions for meditation and sharing, to silence, to more open-ended reflection on the readings. This time of sharing has gone very deep at times, and has been a critical piece in our coming closer than ever as a community during this time of physical separation.

One of the simplest modifications we made for remote worship has been one of the most profound. We each light a candle at the beginning of worship from our various locations. This symbolizes the light of Christ, and also our togetherness across distance. It has underlined for us how nothing can separate us from Christ, how nothing can separate us from each other and our community. It has also reminded us that even without our beloved seminary and our beloved little chapel space, we have holy spaces. We have holiness right at home, at our desks and couches, in front of our laptops.

The restrictions of this time of pandemic have brought us surprising moments of joy and glimpses of freedom. At a time where some are suffering unbelievably, and some are putting their lives on the line every day, our little prayer time seems like an insignificant thing. Yet it is changing us in small but deep ways, growing us to be more like the real body of Christ. The hope is that this will affect our ministry going forward, so that we can be more present to the brokenness and suffering we will greet in the world.

Resources for Virtual Morning Prayer:

Take-home tips

Work as a team. Drawing on the experience of the group led to creative, democratic liturgy-making.

Give yourselves room to experiment. In a stressful time, taking a flexible, hospitable approach helped us learn what worked best in this new context.

Decide on essentials. Identifying the components of Morning Prayer we wanted to include every time freed up space for extended reflection and intercessions.

Practice the tech ahead of time. You will learn quickly how to leverage what’s great about Zoom and avoid what isn’t.

Remember what’s important. Above all, virtual morning prayer is a time for holding sacred, supportive space for communal prayer and worship, not putting together a “perfect” service.