In the Christian tradition it is widely accepted that Jesus told his disciples that where two or three were gathered he was there in their midst. At this time of physical distancing worship has become an interesting challenge, and was particularly difficult as the restrictions began right as many Christians were preparing for Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday) and Easter. I will share how my church and diocese has been worshiping through the pandemic. I worship in the Episcopal tradition, attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Indianapolis and Southern Indiana.
The first Sunday (March 15) we still held worship in the church, but we also broadcast it on Facebook Live. I was there in person, serving at the altar in my traditional roles as crucifer (cross bearer) and verger (master of ceremonies). At that time we still offered the Eucharist but only in the form of the Body of Christ (consecrated unleavened bread hosts), no chalice of the Body of Christ (wine) as we share a common cup.
The next Sunday the service was only online for everyone except staff singers and priests (and the communications staff). They broadcast from the church. Later that week we received direction from the Bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis and Southern Indiana that the church buildings were being closed and that clergy should offer worship services online from their homes. At St. Paul’s we tried using Zoom and having it live and streamed to Facebook Live, Vimeo, and YouTube. There were some technology hurdles. In the end our rector (head pastor) decided worship would be pre-recorded. And we have continued doing that. It is still offered on the three platforms. An email with the links, the link to the service bulletin, and other information is sent on Sunday morning in addition to the regular Thursday afternoon communications. The organist is providing music from home, as are some of the staff singers and soloists. The lectors and intercessors are also recording readings and prayers ahead of time for the video. We are using some choir recordings from the past. There are times when parishioner videos of the Lord’s Prayer or greetings are edited into the service. The celebrant (priest leading the service) isn’t the same as the one who is reading the Gospel and delivering the sermon. In this way we get to see and hear multiple people from our regular parish life even though it is not live and we are not together. During the live broadcast time (when the video is first pushed at 10 AM on Sunday) many of us will comment on Facebook Live to greet one another. We are using what is called Morning Prayer (a modified version) since we aren’t using the Holy Eucharist service as we don’t practice individual/private communion. So it isn’t exactly the same, but it is something familiar.
Additionally, I started a Facebook group for the altar team that I co-lead. Most Sundays about 15 minutes before the online service starts I go Live to offer chapel, as we would do at church if we were serving, but without the review of roles and responsibilities. It brings comfort to a few of the people on the team and still provides an opportunity for me to serve.
Worship doesn’t just happen on Sunday. A few priests in the Diocese came together to create a Virtual Abbey on Facebook and each day we offer Morning Prayer (daily office) and Compline (night prayer) in both English and Spanish (30 min later). These are brief services that are ways to mark the beginning and end of the day in prayer. Initially it was clergy and seminarians who were the ones officiating the services, but recently several lay (non-ordained) leaders have been officiating after we were trained. I am one of them and have been offering Compline twice a week. There is a group of about 25 people from across the Diocese who join each evening (I haven’t seen the numbers for the other services or Spanish services). It is a time for greetings via comments, prayer, meditation, and intercession (prayers for others) in virtual community. Some people attend all services in their preferred language, some attend irregularly but are very welcome.
Our rector has maintained his regular Thursday reflection email. All clergy are responding to email and social media messages (and phone calls for people who do that). They are officiating private funerals graveside. They are being real people learning to live and love and be people of God in pandemic. Alongside the rest of us.