Being Church In A Pandemic
Acknowledging the Body’s Weariness
We’ve all done pretty well, really. In March we scrambled to move our worship online, to sort out what was possible and what wasn’t, what was safe and what would put folks in danger, what was theologically sound and what pushed the boundaries of our customs and traditions too far. We made it through Holy Week and Easter, sad for what we were missing, but grateful for what we could have. Prayers of thanksgiving for technology ascended into the atmosphere.
In the eight months since, our repertoires have expanded. We have gotten creative with videos and live-streams, with fellowship opportunities and support for our neighbors in need. Virtual choirs and other musical recordings comfort and cheer. We have discovered new ways to engage our congregations and even to connect with those who would not be able to attend worship and activities on the church grounds under “normal” circumstances. Though what defines normal is shifting beneath our feet. We have learned the pros and cons of one technology or another. With every passing month we are learning how to do more with what each technology can provide. We are finding silver linings to this COVID season, and we extoll their virtues every chance we get.
We’re weary, too
But the silver linings aren’t the whole story. Sure, we want to keep our spirits up, we want to be alert to the opportunities that the pandemic and stay-at-home safety provide, but eight months in, we are also weary. Clergy, lay leadership, the congregation near and far, those we know and those we don’t yet know – we are all weary. This doesn’t mean we are any less faithful or hopeful. Indeed, Scripture reveals time and again, God’s people get weary. Moses grew weary, David grew weary, Isaiah grew weary. The Psalmist was weary quite a bit. Jesus grew weary, too.
We who are the Body of Christ are weary in these days. And if that Body is to be tended and strengthened, we need to find ways to acknowledge, address and express that weariness.
People are missing the Eucharist, yes, and they are also missing communion. Not Communion in the sense of blessed bread and wine, but in the sense of being together, being mindful of one another, caring for one another, sharing intimacies, prayers, ideas. At the Advocate we have created an Instagram account for the church cat and a weekly video series by the vicar on the women of the church’s Great Cloud of Witnesses. Such contacts, even though one-way, are a way for the congregation to connect.
Connection and care in online prayer
We are discovering that people are willing, even eager, to engage in online communion in ways that they never would in normal times. Before COVID, we tried several times to hold Evening Prayer in our Chapel and even online. Only a few were interested, and their interested waned. But a few months into COVID-time we started Compline on Zoom every night at 8:30 PM. People from across the region participate, as they transition from daytime activity to nighttime rest. It provides a space for brief check-in, for shared prayers and for those who live alone to be connected with others in the evening hours. Such tending to one another is essential to care of the Body. Lay people take the lead, the clergy join as they wish.
Other churches are offering the Daily Office. Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City is providing Morning Prayer followed by a Bible study led by the rector. The faithful from across the country can join in. And they do. These offices were previously limited to those who could get to the church for a short period of time on a weekday. Now many can come and go.
Online groups and safe in-person gatherings by neighborhood to tend the Body
Several months of living with the limitations of COVID have opened the way for topical online small groups and book studies. At the Advocate, a survey of the congregation initiated by lay leadership produced Advo-Groups, with subjects ranging from 17th and 20th century Anglican Poets to Cooking to Transforming Our Narratives About Race. Inspired by videos on small groups from the Episcopal Church’s website, the Advo-Groups will include significant time for sharing life’s joys and challenges and for prayer. All part of tending to the Body.
Still, there are some whose daily school or work lives often keep them in front of a computer for hours on end. When it comes to the weekend, they want no more online anything. Some in-person tending to the Body is needed.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has started “Community without the Commute,” borrowing the title from St. John’s Cathedral in Denver. Parishioners meet outdoors in their own regions of the city, in safe numbers, safely distanced. The clergy travel from one neighborhood gathering to another, week by week, offering the Eucharist. People are discovering who else from their church lives nearby, and they are finding ways to connect in relative proximity, to know and be known. At the Advocate we’ve added more picnic tables on our site, so more people can gather six feet apart for a shared meal or conversation. And we regularly encourage folks to walk our grounds or step into the chapel to pray.
Hopeful and alert to God’s ways
In these days of pandemic, we can celebrate the ways God is at work to hold us together as the Body of Christ within the technologies and limitations of our times. And we need to be alert to the ways God is calling us to engage with the community and world around us, albeit with safe distancing. We also need to be alert to the ways God is moving in our individual lives, this year especially by encouraging us to slow down, simplify and notice the clouds in the sky. This month is certainly more hopeful than last – a vaccine and its distribution are on the horizon.
Still, we have months to go. We are a faithful people who yearn for physical presence with one another, who yearn for the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism and all that they entail, all that they represent, all that they are. We know we have a ways to go in this time of COVID. We are weary, even as we live in hope. We look ahead, even as we live in this moment. We long for what will be, even as we stay alert for what is happening now. We do not have to put a positive spin on these days. God’s promise to the longing people of God is that God is Emmanuel, God with us. Let all God’s people say “Amen.”
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeckis the launching vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission with a 19th century chapel, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the author of the upcoming book, Behold What You Are: Becoming the Body of Christ, to be published April 2021 by Church Publishing.
- Self Care by Ken Mosesian, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 16, 2020
- Healing Hands by Richelle Thompson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, October 10, 2012
- Self-Care for the Sake of Others (in the Age of COVID-19), an ECF webinar presented by Chanta Bhan, April 6, 2020
- Self-care in a Pandemic by Sandra Montes, Vestry Papers, November 2020