Dear friends in Christ,
I am guessing that many of you eagerly opened your copy of the Chatter hoping to see a definitive date for when we will resume in-person worship. Oh, if only I had something that concrete to share with you! But we are adjusting to a new normal where concrete details about the future are scarce. The mantra of “we’ll just have to wait and see” has become part of our “new normal” for now. It is a test of our flexibility and adaptability.
That’s what these times mean for all churches right now. Churches that can pivot and respond appropriately to what is happening (both for safety and for connection) will find a way to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead. The Council is meeting regularly by Zoom to work on a plan for St. Peter’s to open when the time is right, probably in phases, probably with the long game in mind. Please pray for us as we weigh lots of information and strive to make faithful and smart decisions for our church family. We will do our best to get the word out quickly when there is a word to share.
The biggest challenges I see have to do with our population (many of whom fall into the demographic groups that are most at risk) and the activities we share in church. We shake hands, we hug, we talk to each other, we sit together, we eat together, you get the idea. If you have seen the sad story of the choir in Mt. Vernon, Washington (the town where my parents live), you know that singing is one of the most dangerous ways this virus can spread. The choir in Mt. Vernon held a socially distanced rehearsal in early March and followed all the rules, yet over 75% of them were infected with the virus due to the movement of the droplets that come out of your mouth when singing. Two of them passed away. With this in mind, what type of a gathering will we be able to have when we actually do manage to meet together in person? Will it even be church?
It will look very different, that’s for sure, but as long as we gather around the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ for the whole world, it will still be church. It may not have group singing, it may not have coffee hour, it may not have Communion, and it may have a one-way flow of people where those leaving the building do not encounter those entering the building. It may be a hybrid of some kind, a mix of in-person and online worship. You may even need to sit in a different pew in order to maintain six feet distance from others! (I realize this could be the hardest part of the equation.) These are all things being proposed by other church bodies that will be discussed and weighed by Council.
We need to be preparing ourselves for the long haul. Psychologists who have studied the effects of trauma on a population have created a graph that shows the public’s response. It does not look like a quick bounce back. There are times of optimism and pulling together, but also times of disillusionment, frustration and slow rebuilding. But once that work of reconstruction is done, there is a future. It’s important to take a deep breath, step back, and look at the big picture.
As we walk that path together, we remain committed to several important things.
Through Christ, God’s love, grace and forgiveness is present with each and every believer in ordinary, everyday things (this is the foundation of our sacraments, baptism and Holy Communion, but it’s true for much more than that).
Because Jesus loved and died for every single person, no one should be forgotten or left behind. No child of God is expendable. People are more important than money or resources.
We have been called by the Holy Spirit to be the body of Christ in the world, and as such, we are united even when we are also broken and scattered for the sake of the world. We are the hands and feet of Christ no matter where we are.
I just read an email from Holden Village where they highlight this one thing they are certain about: You are a part of a strong and amazing group of people who will rise to the challenge. I think that applies to the people of St. Peter’s as well. Even on those days when we feel hopeless, God is the one who strengthens us and “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us” through the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure there are other values we could and should lift up, but those are the ones that come to mind for me right now. Whatever our gatherings look like in the future, I would propose that we keep these values front and center.
Another matter I would like to address: Digital Holy Communion. You may have seen or heard about other churches that are offering “virtual Communion” or as I prefer to call it, “digital Communion.” This involves providing your own bread and wine, having it with you as you attend church online, and after I say the words of institution, eating and drinking in your own homes.
I realize that in these times of distance, this might provide some comfort and reassurance that we continue to be the church even when we are apart. However, I have some concerns that this does not capture the essence of the meal we share when we are together. It’s not as much about the bread and wine for me—it’s more about the actual sharing of those elements, and about attending to each other’s most embodied needs, the need for daily nourishment that unites all human beings. This connection is not meant only for those who happen to live together (and what of those who live alone?), but for the entire family of God.
While I believe that online community is absolutely real and powerful, it is still not the same as being together physically. (For example, online dating is definitely a thing, but there comes a point where a couple must meet in person to move their relationship to the next level.) We are embodied, incarnated beings and Communion is a powerful connection to that reality, that we need physical nourishment as well as spiritual. One of the greatest philosophical dangers of the virus is that it threatens our relationship between our minds, our emotions, and our bodies.
Our bishop John Macholz has strongly recommended against practicing digital Communion, but he has also made it clear that he is not dispatching any “liturgical police” to come down on those who might choose to celebrate it. I bear no will toward those who do so, and some Christian traditions have slightly different approaches to Communion that would better allow for it. But I have some other concerns about the practice, including questions about accessibility (is it really a meal for everyone if those without a computer cannot participate?) and consumerism (why is it that we don’t handle it well when we can’t instantly have something?). I was captivated by the image of Maundy Thursday worship at Holy Wisdom Monastery, a special place for me, where they could’ve technically celebrated Communion, but chose to have an empty plate and cup instead as a sign of solidarity and empathy with those who are hurting and struggling right now. Likewise, my husband and I could technically celebrate Communion for ourselves here at home, but I don’t know if I could bring myself to do that when I am separated from all of you. That’s not what I was ordained to do. It would be a hollow echo of the song we sing together.
Going forward, I plan to continue including a prayer of spiritual communion in our remote worship services, asking for the same things that are granted through bread and wine to be given to us spiritually in these days. But this is still something I am thinking about and mulling over. If you have thoughts or feelings on this matter, I would be glad to hear them and talk with you more. Please reach out and let’s touch base. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
May the Holy Spirit fill your hearts with peace for today and hope for tomorrow as we move forward together.
Together in Christ,
P.S. I need to give a very big shout-out to Russ Brookins for his additional hours of volunteer time helping to make online worship a reality for St. Peter’s. There is a lot of work behind the scenes and Russ has been tirelessly investigating different technologies to help as many people participate as possible. Please reach out to Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him thanks for all his hard work!
P.P.S. Thanks is also due in a big way to Scott Stewart and Anthony Dangler for pivoting to new technologies in these times, even when it hasn’t always been easy! We’ve been able to enjoy additional harmonies and instrumentation with this format and they have done an outstanding job. Please thank them both if you get a chance.
P.P.P.S. Again, my sincere thanks to the many folks out there who have made it a priority to continue their financial support of St. Peter’s. I know there is still a great deal of economic uncertainty that makes it difficult to plan for the future or be generous today, despite our best intentions and efforts. Thank you to those who have been able to continue your generosity. We (Council) are doing our very best to steward those resources faithfully and wisely.