Sometime in the middle of March, pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and other worship leaders of every sort were driven to think about how their communities might or might not worship during the growing pandemic and the termination of real-time communal worship as we knew it.
For Christian worship leaders, the impending celebration of Easter, together with the special liturgies and devotions of the Great Three Days and Holy week —all for which a whole lot of preparation had already taken place— added a significant layer of anxiety. The main event of the Christian liturgical year —or so many would hold— was going up in flames. Within a very few days, worship, in many quarters, went online in all sorts of imaginative and innovative ways. Choirs gathered in disparate corners of cyberspace, pastors proclaimed to open mics and empty rooms, and worship leaders led from electronically connected homes and stations afar. If a distance-worship innovation were technically feasible, it probably happened somewhere or in several or many somewheres in recent weeks.
One of the innovations —at least for Lutherans— was the practice of a sort of distance Holy Communion wherein a presider in one place led a liturgy for worshippers, cup and loaf to hand, in other places linked by Zoom or Facebook or similar technology.
Once upon a time, I served the church as ELCIC worship officer (staff-person for worship) and latterly as our ecumenical officer and so, even in retirement, I got drawn into conversations about whether the practice were licit or valid or choose your word. It was thought that I might have an opinion. “What did I think?” My response evolved as the Sundays of Easter unfolded. What I have come to, so far, however, is this. Two things:
Thing One. I am not comfortable worshipping online. I tried various offerings but found myself fidgety. Interestingly, I do online devotions all the time. Worship, however, is something else. And it’s not a theological issue per se, although that is likely a part of it. It is about such things as human touch, aesthetics, ritual clarity, distractions, rhythm, ritual contract, sensory awareness and a whole number of other considerations. But they are, to be clear, idiosyncratic. They may be shared by others, in whole or in part, or not.
Of course, Christians have been adapting or not adapting to new technologies for a long time. The relatively recent introduction of the printing press, and therefore of printed books, comes to mind. The much later introductions of pew editions and songbooks and worship bulletins of all sorts are examples of fairly-recent tech. And not everyone is on page about the liturgical use of these technologies some few years or decades or centuries in!
In all of this, the LBW push, in the late 1970’s, to have our churches offer Holy Communion on every Lord’s Day (as our Lutheran Confessions make clear to all and any who think otherwise) had the unintended consequence of creating people who, four decades and more on, actually want a weekly rhythm of word and sacrament. So we miss it. Go figure.
Anyway, Thing One is something about my comfort. I am not comfortable worshipping online. This is not a theological position but it is who I am. A corollary is that I recognize that some people are comfortable worshipping online whether as a matter of course or of special circumstances (like COVID-19).
Thing Two is about the main event, the full experience of word and sacrament in the assembly of believers. I am coming to think that our present expression of doing what Jesus commanded is terribly inadequate. Atrophied. Reductionist and reduced. Minimalist. A wafer and a sip, whether in person or online, is an inadequate response to Jesus’ commandment. Similarly, baptism with water from a tea-cup on a pedestal (as Paul Bosch has said quoting someone else) is an inadequate expression of the images and language associated with baptism. This new-to-me esthetic, this apprehension of reality, has been coming alive for me for many years but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it home with a clarity I had not known before or anticipated.
Aside: Our present Sunday liturgy is an experience for the converted. It is largely word-centric, inscrutable and sometimes meaningless to the seeker and the uninitiate. We speak in code words like feast, satisfy, etc. which mean exactly the opposite of what one would expect in any other realm. Moreover, our liturgy only make some sense if you know the vocabulary and codes and have a stomach for a lot of odd turns-of-phrase, metaphor irony and hyperbole. (I do.) My point: if a real meal were served, strangers and seekers could be brought aboard simply by virtue of a human instinct for hospitality and inclusion. I believe I’d like that. I would be happy to cook.
I think that we ought to be gathering, in good times, at tables where a full meal is served, the word is enfleshed, proclaimed and enacted, and with real bread and decent wine.
So that’s my Thing Two. I’m finding myself increasingly a stranger in a strange land where minimalism abounds —See communion wafer.— and the incarnational reality of God come among us in the real-worldly person of Jesus is proclaimed in rarified and spiritualised ways wherein bread isn’t really bread, communion wine is something else, and we find ourselves ever more distantly connected to our incarnate God. (I suspect a lot of people won’t go back to worship after COVID-19, a sign of the increasingly tenuous and easily disrupted relationship of God to God’s followers.)
So, for me, the big event isn’t Easter (and resurrection), so much as Christmas (and incarnation), and the best example of a Sunday meal I can think of has some combination of the attributes of a Thanksgiving Dinner (real food with family and friends, ritual and context, etc.), a Jewish seder (real food with family and friends, ritual and context, teaching, rehearsal of salvation history, etc.), and which we come by reasonably honestly, and the Sikh langar (real food for hungry neighbours, ritual and context, welcoming of the stranger, etc.) which we mostly don’t.
So that’s where I am. I desperately miss my community. I miss the Holy Communion as a gathered people and the Holy Communion as our community meal. And I would have us settle for more, when we can gather, rather than less: a big table, a grand celebration, some conversation with our pastor or leader, bread from Grain Harvest or the people next door and decent wine, perhaps from the Similkameen, Colchagua or Napa Valleys. And our worship space would look more like a banquet hall or dining room and less like a courtroom or theatre.
Holy Communion? Would this be an every-Sunday thing? Probably not. I’m not at all sure that it should be. I’m not at all sure that we should be doing a real eucharist, especially as envisioned here, every Sunday. Seasonally? At certain festivals? In churches? In neighbourhoods? We’d need to think about these things and perhaps grow into new rhythms based on trial efforts. I could live with varieties of expression of the word at the Sunday liturgy, offerings from the imaginations of the assembly of believers.
So for now. Peace and blessings.
André Lavergne — writing from a settler-descendant’s home on the traditional lands of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples on the Haldimand Tract (1784).