By Charles Bennison
At St. Luke’s, Atlanta, three decades ago, the 11 a.m. Sunday Eucharist had a largely-suburban television audience of 25,000, with 700 actually gathered at the church. Many of these in-person worshipers had seen the congregation on television before, and were, as they put it, “coming downtown to give it a try.” As rector I saw the power of virtual worship to spread the gospel and grow the church.
But, of course, first there has to be a congregation physically present and actively participating in worship — something wanting this autumn in many Episcopal churches.
In March our churches met the crisis of the pandemic by acting responsibly, closing their buildings, adapting their ministries, and offering on-line, virtual worship only.
By June most knew how to implement the protocols needed to manage the virus during in-person worship. Why did they not return to it then? Why have many not done so yet?
One answer is that virtual worship, initially adopted as a temporary fix to protect against the virus, has been so effective both in reaching those unable to attend and in attracting newcomers that many churches plan to keep it even if or when they return to in-person worship. Some, indeed, are prioritizing virtual over in-person worship, and delaying the resumption of the latter until they can offer an optimal experience for viewers of the former. Some see the utility of the internet for enhancing parish communications and are projecting that onto its efficacy in providing worship. Some see virtual worship as contemporaneous with the widespread embrace of social media — as the wave of a future which will replace the need for in-person worship — and view those resisting it as troglodytes.
This transition to virtual worship is historic and has major consequences. Just as on-line retailers swallow up smaller ones, clergy more effective on screen will draw audiences away from those less so. Even if the total number of persons watching our worship globally comes to exceed that of those previously worshiping in-person, the Episcopal Church will need fewer congregations, buildings, and clergy. The economically efficient use of technology may obviate the need for in-person church meetings of all kinds, but the spirit of fellowship at such meetings will be lost.
Yet this move risks the loss of properly Christian worship, which, following the logic of the incarnation, is the gathering of the communio sanctorum as “this congregation here present” to “present and offer … our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” Christian worship presumes a context of when “two or three gather together in [Christ’s] name” in what Augustine called the coram Deo, “the presence of God.” Christian worship presumes that we are in the physical presence of each other to do the “liturgy,” which is the duty and privilege of the whole people of God, offered not by a priest for the people, but by priest and people together, for the world.
This coming All Saints’ Day fortuitously falls on a Sunday, making it all the more appropriate a time for our churches to return to in-person worship.
It will not be easy — as any church which has ever tried to change a worship schedule knows. The sudden outbreak of the pandemic forced, without question, a change of schedule. That change is now established, and a return to even a former schedule can raise questions and cause conflict. But this pandemic crisis, like every crisis, will mean either contraction or expansion, and the resumption of in-person worship presents a not-to-be-missed chance to make long-needed schedule changes, increase worship opportunities in our churches, and grow. Here’s what I have in mind:
I spent this past summer in rural Leelanau County, Michigan, where there are two Episcopal churches — both of which were closed for in-person worship. So, beginning in June, my only option for in-person worship was at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. To satisfy his bishop’s and the Michigan governor’s strict requirements for face coverings and social distancing, the priest limits the worshiping congregation to 62 (plus walk-ins) at a time in the nave. To accommodate the 300–400 he normally saw in pre-pandemic days, the priest has doubled the number of weekly Eucharists from four to eight, preaching and presiding at all of them.
At St. Mary’s, all worshipers wear face coverings. Ushers meet them outside the main doors of the church, offer a face covering if needed, have them sanitize their hands, and lead them inside — first to a station in the narthex where they place their offering in a plate, and then down aisles covered with six-foot social distancing signs to pews marked off for safe social distancing. There are no bulletins, books, or printed services which can be touched. People know the familiar liturgy.
The priest begins the liturgy by explaining the protocols with a sense of humor and camaraderie, and an attitude that the pandemic presents an opportunity for ministry. Instead of any singing, a pianist and a soloist offer beautiful music from the balcony. Laity read the lessons and lead the intercessions. The homily focuses on the pain people are suffering in the pandemic and the importance of praying and adhering to coronavirus protocols as a way of loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us. The priest wears a mask and administers Communion in one kind at a station, and then communicants walk singly to a second station at some distance, where they remove their face coverings for a second to consume it. The entire service lasts 45 minutes. People depart out separate doors so as not to congregate. Ushers then sanitize the entire building in preparation for the next service.
Participating in the Eucharist at St. Mary’s during this pandemic is safer than shopping at any grocery store. Both activities, of course, are about getting fed, and, of the two, the former is far more efficacious than the latter for what we believe is an abundant life.
I was not the only Episcopalian at St. Mary’s this summer. People from other traditions whose churches are closed to in-person worship were also present. St. Mary’s grew this summer, as did its finances — to the point where it was able to make the adjustments necessary to re-open its parochial school building to in-person learning this fall.
I do not understand why more Episcopal churches have not returned to in-person worship. Or, where they have, why they have not returned to at least their same number of services they had before, or to a new, expanded schedule. Few of our churches were so full before the pandemic that they cannot accommodate at just one service all their members socially-distanced from each other, or so poor they cannot afford to buy hand sanitizer and face coverings for those needing one, or so under-staffed they cannot organize and train ushers and others to implement safe coronavirus protocols.
The Episcopal Church is now, in a nation of 331,000,000, half the size it was when I was ordained in 1968, when our population was just 206,000,000. In the last decade we have lost 23% of our membership. On this trajectory we will only be around until 2046. But our lockdown this fall is seriously shortening even this brief life-expectancy. Tragically, what are really being lost are the enormous spiritual riches with which our church has long benefitted our nation and the world, and the salvation it promises all who are drawn to it.
Our initial response to the pandemic was completely responsible — the only thing to do. Our present response strikes me as a failure of imagination, or leadership, or nerve — or all three. There must be much that I am missing. Can you help me? I’d be grateful.
The Rt. Rev. Charles Bennison is the retired bishop of Pennsylvania.