Part III of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
Worship during Pandemic
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18.20
This, not surprisingly, has been the toughest topic to pray, and work, through. Worship is essential to our lives in Christ, and we have been forced to be separate at this time.
First, we need to remember that the Church gets its name from the Greek term “ekklesia”, and originally was a term to denote a group of citizens who were called from their private lives to a public gathering. The “ekklesia” is literally those who are “called out”. We as Christians are those who have answered the calling out of Christ and are expected to gather as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
While the term “church” has come to stand for the place of gathering, it nevertheless remains the name for the people who are gathered, and we must not forget that the gathering of the people is essential to an identity of Christians. Additionally, as the Son and Word of God saw fit to take on human flesh (Incarnation), so we find that we are not simply soul and spirit, but body, and that our bodies are important. This is taught to us through the worship of the catholic Church throughout its history by the emphasis on the Sacraments, which are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. The very stuff of creation is taken by God, blessed, and given back to us in a physical and spiritual reality. We baptize in water and the one receiving is regenerated, born again through that water, as a new creation. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We do not simply get together for lectures and mentally stimulating readings, we eat, we drink, we stand, we sit, and sometimes we even smell.
And this Incarnational meaning is further shown in the teaching that what is gathered as “church” is the Body of Christ. As St. Paul reminds us, we need each other, and we need to assemble as that Body for our own spiritual good, and the spiritual benefit of our brothers and sisters. The other image that is often used is that we are “a family”, and a family that does not gather together for celebratory meals is not a healthy family. There is no doubt, in terms of our faith and Christian journey, all of us as a local church become poorer when we cannot gather.
While we are reminded of the necessity, we are also aware that we cannot gather at this time as we once were able. I hope that the future will allow us to meet as “one body” again, but we need to take advantage of other opportunities to “gather”, even if they lack the fullness that we desire, or that is necessary.
Throughout its history there have been those who entered into an eremitic life. These hermits were separated from the local fellowship to focus on their lives in prayer. Yet, they were never truly separated from the sacramental life as they returned to worship, or had small gatherings to celebrate the Sacrament. They also had spiritual counsel with an “Abba” or “Amma”. This has been a bit of the model that I have used in the last several months, and encourage all of us to take the time in which we are separated to become like monks in our lives of prayer.
Nowhere in the New Testament is there a numerical qualifier to the gathering. That is except for Christ’s own words in Matthew 18.20 quoted above. Thus, while it is desirable that the entire body gather, in these days, it is perfectly acceptable for the body to gather in smaller groups as we work our way through the time of the Virus. At this time, our Bishop following State guidelines, has limited the gathering to those necessary to stream the service. When we reach Phase III, we will be allowed to have services of 10 people, including the clergy presiding. Again, while it is not perfect, it is a chance to gather in the fullness of Christ’s presence and share the common life. Of course, this means that there will need to be multiple services scheduled for those who wish to avail themselves of the opportunity, even if we cannot all meet on the Lord’s Day. (Actually, the Church moving to more services throughout the week is a good that results from this time, and I pray it continues.)
It must also be noted, that the Church has long carved out exceptions to the expectation of gathering for those who are infirm, and I believe that it must be extended to those who would find themselves in the category of “high risk” at this time. This is where the exercise of prudence is important.
Although I am thankful for the technology that allows us to maintain a connection at this time, “online” worship is not a permanent substitute for the actual gathering of the Body of Christ due to its disembodied nature. I know that the Evangelical world has been experimenting with this for years, and even encourage people to “sleep in for Jesus” and worship in their pajamas, but this is not theologically, or ecclesiologically, correct. It is close to becoming a gnostic experience, since it denies the essential nature of the Church as the gathered people in incarnational relationship with each other and the Triune God. As the Trinity is a community of love with each hypostasis in real presence with, and to, each other in unity of Essence, so we are called to be the same as a Church. “Online” worship may be a second or third “best” option, and one with which we should avail ourselves at a time of emergency, but it will always be but a shadow of the reality.
Despite the limitations, I do encourage all of us to take advantage of the myriad of offerings “online”, while remembering that it is incumbent upon us to “be present” to our own local churches. We still need each other, and it is an encouragement to your brothers and sisters to “log in” when services are held, particularly on the Lord’s Day.
Finally, I need to clearly state that there has never been a recorded case of an individual becoming ill from receiving Holy Communion from the Common Cup. As a priest who consumes what is left following communion, I have no qualms about quaffing the cup, including your backwash, at any given liturgy. I would think that if this were a great vector of disease we would see more ill clergy on a regular basis.