For a little context, I live in what is being called “ground zero” for COVID-19 here in the United States.
The last two weeks have been strange, and revealing.
It began in a nursing home, practically next door, then the fire station and EMTs were quarantined. Things happened quickly from there. In the midst of all this my bishop took quick and firm action to set guidelines that would help protect the most vulnerable. Faced with an impossible task in the midst of rising panic he asked churches to take meetings online, cancel large gatherings, and discontinued the use of the common cup on Sundays.
What he did not do, appropriately, was tell us how to make the call to cancel services or not cancel services. That call (at the time) was deeply embedded with ones context and community, not something that could be handed down. (That may have changed since the writing of this article.)
Over the course of the last two weeks I noticed a disturbing trend; that is what this article will cover.
In the (online) gatherings of (mostly Episcopal) clergy the repeated drumbeat refrain was one of two responses: “people need God more than ever right now, we won’t cancel services ever” or in response to a push to do Morning Prayer (daily office) instead of Eucharist more than one person felt that would be in some way denying our parishioners Jesus.
Around me everyone else was closing down. Companies sent their workers home with laptops, schools closed and moved classes online. The synagogues in my area were all closed. (They all posted various resources for saying Sabbath prayers at home.) Our local Muslim center made the same decision, and suspended all activities, including community prayers. They too reminded their members of the wealth of resources for meeting their religious obligations at home, with their family and friends.
The Idol On the Altar
And I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Episcopal church (though we are not alone), since the release of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has turned the Eucharist, and clericalism, into both an idol and an intermediary between the people and God.
I don’t say that lightly. I am shocked and saddened by it, and by how deeply it is ingrained even in my own self, because I too found myself deeply torn about canceling services even as my non-Christian siblings all urge their own members to stay home. (Note: I have cancelled in person services at my church and we will meet online. I have also shared with them a wealth of resources about practicing their faith at home.)
How did we get to this place, in a Protestant tradition that (at least partly) was founded on the principle of direct access to God? (The requirement that the prayers, readings, and preaching be in the “language of the people” was a first step toward this.)
As much as I love the liturgical renewal movement of the 1970s, and the prayer book it produced, I think we are finally reaping the failures of the last fifty years, and an almost universal focus on Eucharist as the only “valid” way to worship. (This is not what the Prayer Book says, but it is what we say with our actions when we only ever have Eucharist. Many churches even insist on communion from reserve sacrament on Good Friday.)
What Was Once
Let me tell you a story.
When I was a little girl I lived in a rural Midwestern town. It was as traditional and conservative as you might expect from such a place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s. I doubt there was a single ordained woman in the whole diocese, I didn’t even know it was possible (despite women’s ordination being approved in the year I was born.)
But my church moved very slowly into the new patterns of the ’79 prayer book. And so I grew up saying Morning Prayer every Sunday. A service led by lay people. My Mom was one of them. In an age when I didn’t know women could be ordained I knew in my bones that my Mom could lead the church. (Our rector preached, on Sundays that Eucharist concluded Morning Prayer he took over at the absolution and Peace.)
I was formed by the joyful, revolutionary words of Mary and the liturgical leadership of lay people, as well as the Eucharist.
When I moved away from home I took my prayer book with me, I said Compline sitting on the floor of my dorm room while my roommate studied. It never occurred to me I needed to have a priest present to worship.
Bringing God home to meet the family
Since 1979 however, the Episcopal church has required that primary worship for the week must be Eucharist. And I love Eucharist, even as a child I was the one who rebelled and refused to leave to nave for “children’s church” when it came time for Eucharist. Even if I couldn’t receive (we still required confirmation back then) I would sit and watch.
But something happened with that shift. Many good things came out of it. Eucharist is an important, vital even, part of our practice. But it also brought less than good changes to our habits and way of life, as we are seeing.
I don’t think the negatives were in any way intended. But what I have seen over the last forty odd years is a slow erosion of the laity, and a centralizing of Sunday as separate and special. Until, here we are in the 21st century and too many of our members have no idea how to worship at home, without a professional. (Blame also the rise of the printed bulletin that left many with no idea how to navigate the prayer book, but that’s another topic.)
Too many clergy cannot imagine a way for their people to encounter the Divine in a meaningful way, without their guidance and intervention. As we centralized Eucharist we also centered the clergy as the conduit through which our connection to the Divine flowed. If our churches never modeled a lay led form of prayer or worship we shouldn’t be surprised that a whole generation assumes canceling worship or not doing communion means not getting Jesus.
The Idol that Meant Well
When that happens we’ve once again set up a stumbling block between people and the One who loves them. We’ve taken away their power to meet the Divine on their own turf. We’ve set up an idol, in the center of our lives, and just maybe made the Eucharist itself (the ritual and liturgy) more important than Jesus. We didn’t do it on purpose, but what we do shapes who we are.
Jesus is available anywhere. The Divine is nested comfortably in the depths of our souls all the time, just waiting for us to come home and visit. As we centered Sunday (and Eucharist by necessity centered clergy) this got obscured by our practice.
The Practical Theologian
I have always called myself a “practical” theologian. I don’t care much for theology that doesn’t have direct bearing on the lives of the people I serve. And as a practical theologian I say: the prayer book is not infallible. It was written over forty years ago by people who could not have imagined the world in which we live today, nor predicted the options we have to gather.
You, dear reader, don’t need me (or any other priest or ordained person) to worship the Divine, to pray, to meet Her/Him/Them where you are. And as much as we all might love the Eucharist you do not need our liturgy to meet God and Jesus. Jesus I suspect would be far more at home on your couch with a cup of coffee than in a fancy church building and a formal liturgy anyway.
What We Forgot (Maybe)
Here’s why I am not worried about closing buildings and doing dispersed church: when you were ordained in the waters of baptism you became the body and blood of Christ. One little bit of it sure, but you were ontologically changed at your baptism, that doesn’t wear off.
When I put the bread into the hands of a beloved parishioner and say “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven” I am both naming what we share in that meal, and who stands before me. Both. That doesn’t wear off. That is the shocking, slightly terrifying, awe inspiring thing we do when we bring a new Christian (baby or adult) into the Body of Christ through their baptism.
Every time you share food and drink with your family and friend around your dinner table you celebrate a eucharist, a thanksgiving. You come together as one, you share your lives with one another and with God. And you don’t need me (or any other priest) there for that either. When you feed one another you continue the meal that Jesus started on a plain, beside a sea, in an upper room, and on a beach.
Resources for The Priesthood of All Believers
So, pray Morning Prayer (my community will be praying it on Facebook at 9:30am on Sunday you can join us here.) Or you can pray it yourself with your family (resources below). Slow down enough to sit down at the table with the people you love, break bread, tell stories, give thanks.
Jesus called us to protect and care for the vulnerable. Today, with this virus (and with those that will follow) it isn’t about me, in my 40s and healthy. It isn’t about whether we are individually worried; it is about protecting the vulnerable, about treating every human life as a treasure that God adores.
So if your church is closed this Sunday, do not despair. As one of my favorite poets would say: there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground (Rumi by the way). Below you will find jut a few suggestions (drawn from other churches, or my spirituality site: Crazy Whole Life.)
Ways you can exercise your ordained (baptismal) ministry and protect the beloved children of God who might be endangered by physically gathering:
- Join All Saints for Morning Prayer Sunday at 9:30am. (Link will remain until we return to gathering in person.)
- A list of “Ways to pray when you can’t get to church” you can download and print. (By the Rev. Jo Kershaw)
- Not sure how to pray daily at home? Get started with daily prayers, including the Daily Office. (Including online resources!)
- Read scripture, or that book on Jesus you bought years ago and keep meaning to get to (but haven’t).
- Turn off all the electronics, cook a meal, and sit and eat with the people you love. Enjoy yourselves, practice thanksgiving.
- Check on your neighbors and those you know who are most at risk: offer to do their grocery shopping or pick up prescriptions.
- Call someone who might (due to age or health conditions) be feeling isolated or anxious, just spend time sharing your life and listening to theirs.
- Some Christian spiritual practices derived from the Eucharist you can practice anytime and anywhere. (Though perhaps don’t practice the “gathering” practice just now.)
- Donate supplies to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and others who serve the poor and needy who are especially vulnerable. Many shelters are low on certain supplies because panic buying has made basics hard to find.
- Since it is Lent, some suggestions on how to bring your faith and practice home.
- While washing your hands (remember 20 full seconds with soap and water, making sure to get the backs, thumbs, and between your fingers) say a prayer for those in your community who are sick, give thanks for what you have, or pray the Magnificat!
- Pray as you Go – Quick daily prayers in podcast type format, all ready for you! (Mobile apps available)
- Daily Prayer services ready to print and go curtesy of the Irish Jesuits.
- Faith At Home – Lectionary based readings and meditations from Forward Movement.
- Daily Office (and more) resources from St Mary’s Hamilton Village.
- If you are healthy give blood (many drives have been cancelled in the midst of the spread of COVID-19 and many communities are now low on blood.
- If you are working from home for now set a timer and take regular breaks to meditate or pray for your coworkers/friends/family/
community throughout your day. A few seconds here and there sets an intention!
- Daily Office from the Mission St Clair. (These are lovely and can be downloaded in eReader format!)
- Practice thinking about how your actions might help or harm someone with less privilege, power, or resources than you; then make choices that match the baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being.