Worship and Sacramental Faithfulness in the Age of Covid-19
By Daniel Benedict, OSL
Pastor Joan sat down and called the lay leader, “The bishop gathered her pastors together on a ZOOM call this morning. The bottom line is no gathered worship for the next two months.” Her voice was a mix of shock and bewilderment. Jorge, the lay leader, paused before saying the first thing that came to his mind: “Aychimanini! How the heck are we going to do that?” Cancellations of worship, planning and study groups, and special events already on the calendar streamed through both their minds. What about Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter? We have baptisms scheduled.
A sense of collective disappointment formed like a vapor between the cell towers.
United Methodists and others in the Christian tradition are reeling with how to go about being the church in liturgy and life as the world changes hour by hour in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, we are scrambling to do what most of us have never done before: go cold turkey on face to face worship and do liturgy on Facebook or ZOOM. Smart phones and social media for fun are now the means of communal survival.
Websites, Facebook groups and annual conference communications are alive with questions, resources and directives. Of course, some church leaders are more adept and comfortable with online technologies. Others are on a steep learning curve to connect with church members and maintain the rhythms of worship during Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.
How do pastors, musicians, lay speakers, and worship planning teams keep faith with the good news that we seek to “embody” in a time when we can’t to assemble and the lights are off in our church buildings?
1 1. Pay attention to the stories and real questions people are raising
One of the immediate concerns I have been hearing is how we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper online. That is a general question that tempts us to project our own concerns onto the congregation. Not so fast! Do we know what people anticipate missing? Take time to engage with members. What are they thinking? What are they wondering about when they learn that there won’t be services for at least the next two months? After the first week or so of online worship, listen to the experiences and questions individuals have. Are there common themes and experiences that the Spirit can use to guide you in responding to felt needs? Ground your planning, preparations and preaching in the living concerns and questions of your people. Gather human data as basis for shaping worship.
2. Shape worship with our Basic Pattern
Counter the perception that we are missing out on Holy Communion by intentionally using the four movements of the Basic Pattern inclusive of “Thanksgiving and Communion” (The United Methodist Hymnal (hereafter UMH, p.2 and The United Methodist Book of Worship (hereafter UMBOW, 13-15). This can create resonances with the experience of both Word AND Table. The prescription for times when Holy Communion is not celebrated reads: “In services without Communion, thanks are given for God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ.” UMBOW, p. 27, offers a model prayer of thanksgiving that parallels the Great Thanksgiving we use when celebrating the Lord’s Supper. As we do when we celebrate Holy Communion, this prayer of thanksgiving should be led at the table, not the pulpit or lectern. In this way, we maintain the shape of Word and Table each Lord’s Day. Modify this prayer to suit the season or occasion as needed.
3. Keep our ecumenical partners in view when considering sacramental practices
Technological capability can easily become the driver for adapting worship and liturgy to the demands of the moment. The temptation is to do disconnected distribution of the elements for communion or to apply the waters of baptism remotely. We are on new terrain here and during this era of Covid-19 and though it is pushing us, we will not resolve questions of sacramentality via virtual reality any time soon. A lot of digital ink is being spilt on issues around online baptism and Holy Communion. Some are convinced that doing so is contrary to tradition and ecumenical agreements. (See “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” the landmark 1987 World Council of Churches Faith and Order paper.) Others are sure that there should be freedom to do as seems best under these extenuating circumstances. Thankfully, we have the balance beam of our ecumenical partners with whom we are “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” We seek to do no harm to the wider bonds of our common life in Christ. With the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, and others, including the World Council of Churches faithfulness calls for restraint and sacramental discipline.
4. In the absence of sacraments go deeper: be a mystagogue for your congregation
Questions aside, there is an ancient and prudent third rail called “mystagogy”— unpacking the sacraments to connect their meaning to our lives. Cyril of Jerusalem and Ambrose of Milan were skilled in connecting experience with instruction to the candidates before and after initiation into the mysteries through baptism, anointing and first communion. Like them we are stewards of the mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1). During the weeks when we cannot baptize or share bread and cup, we can exploit the lectionary readings for any allusions to bread, water, wine, oil—and “food stories” as Fred Craddock termed them. So, be a mystagog with your people: tease out and connect their memories of baptism and communion experience with the rich meanings of the sacraments. Even though they can’t experience the water in the font or the bread and cup on the table, they can reenter and relive memories with gratitude for imagining it with new light. Then, when we can worship face to face again, they will return with a cache of memories invigorated with deep connections to story, poetry, hymnody and rekindled liturgical spirituality. Refresh your own awareness through reading on the sacraments and preaching. Richard L. Eslinger’s masterful Preaching the Holy Mystery: The Eucharist as Context and Resource for Proclamation invites discovery of the intimate relationship between Word and Table. Or, consider Craig Satterlee and Lester Ruth’s Creative Preaching on the Sacraments to discover ways to expand the range of meanings and associations people bring to the sacraments. Now would be a good time to become familiar with Living into the Mystery: A United Methodist Guide to Celebrating Holy Communion.
5 5. Make the most of the Christian year
In a way, the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t have come at a more ill-timed period of the liturgical year for churches! Yet Lent and Holy Week followed by the Great Fifty Days remind us that we aren’t in control, that we must face death, and that the gospel calls us to entrust ourselves to the first born from the dead (Colossians 1:18). In a way, the present moment in the headlines is, in fact, “seasonable”. Death encountering Life is more than a theological proposition; globally it is now what we are living through on multiple levels. We are in the catacombs with our sisters and brothers. We unable to freely associate for fear of a being arrested by a virus. How will reading the scriptures, preaching, praying, singing be reclaimed in the context of the days of Lent, the Great Three Days (Holy Thursday through Easter Day)?
6 6. Consider alternatives
Our pallet has more colors than we might first imagine. If we can’t do the sacraments on specific days of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, what else might we do that makes suitable connections?
(Note: If baptisms or confirmations were planned before the constraints of Covid-19, recognize with candidates that you will reschedule them when the crisis has passed. In the meantime, offer continuing support and formation.)
Consider these liturgies and services:
• Palm Sunday (on our calendar “Passion/Palm Sunday”): Passion/Palm Sunday in the best of circumstances requires careful choreography! Look at “A Service of Worship for Passion/Palm Sunday” (UMBOW, 338). The introductory material says that the service embodies “the sharp contrasts of Holy Week”. Indeed, this service is rich in dramatic potential, if leaders are brave enough to take it full bore. In “digital space” it may require even more imaginative ways to move from the crowd’s “Hosannas” to shouts of “crucify him”. Literal processions may not be possible. Well-chosen on-screen visuals/art and carefully curated hymns with which the online congregation can sing along will allow for restrained but rich observance of the day. (At the end of this article I have provided important notes on the use of hymns and songs in online worship.)
• Holy Thursday: Karen Westerfield Tucker (Boston University School of Theology) suggests doing the Love Feast (UMBOW, 581). She wrote to a former student, “the love feast would work on Maundy Thursday because it approximates the meal in the upper room — the meal before the institution narrative, per se. The meal prayer could recall the meals that Jesus had—meals of hospitality and fellowship — that were so threatening that they ultimately led to his death. The love feast is also, for Methodists historically, the intimate meal of connection, hospitality and fellowship — where Jesus is still present, but not in the Eucharistic sense.” It was a “closed” meeting in order not to expose those who shared their sin and need. In that light, you might consider using “A Midweek Service of Prayer and Testimony” (UMBOW, 579) as an alternative to the Love Feast. Another option to consider: “A Service of Tenebrae” (UMBOW 354) might well be done online. The gradual extinguishing of candles could be done dramatically on screen and various participants of differing ages and gender could take turns with the readings.
• Good Friday: “A Service for Good Friday” (UMBOW 362) with stark focus on the cross is traditionally celebrated without Holy Communion. The suggestion of a shorter reading of John’s passion narrative done as a dramatic reading with several readers might work well online. Do consider the UMBOW suggestion that the reading is the proclamation and sermon redundant!
• Easter Vigil: Though many congregations are not accustomed to the “Easter Vigil” (UMBOW368 -376), parts of the service could well be done with some careful planning and dramatization. “The Service of Light”, “The Service of the Word”, and “The Service of the Baptismal Covenant” (see UMH, “The Baptismal Covenant IV – Congregational Reaffirmation, 50-53) could be done, either in the evening before Easter Day or as an early morning “sunrise” liturgy.
• Easter Day: Think through the on-screen visuals. Otherwise, keep to the “Basic Pattern” using the Thanksgiving without Holy Communion option. Come to terms with how loud do we shout “Alleluia!” in this time of pandemic? In a time when people we know have died? Yes, we declare our hope in the face of death, and we have to be honest with our sense of loss and grief. Recognize that this will be an Easter unlike any we have ever known.
In all of these, online rehearsals will be essential.
7 7. Refocus worship space when going digital — think screen and what people will see
Ben Gosden in “COVID-19: Learning to Be a Virtual Church” offers a number of considerations including shrinking your worship set for the camera lens and locking your focus on the camera. Worship on ZOOM is going from “live theater” to a computer or TV screen. The lens of the camera changes what people can see, and they don’t want to see you looking around the room; they want to see you looking at them! It is about intimacy.
8 8. Reclaim total proclamation, inclusive of scripture readings, as a sacramental event
Students in an online class I teach almost universally express deep joy when they discover that reading scripture in worship is a sacramental act and that hearing the Word is to be welcomed as an encounter with God, who continues to speak to the church through the Scriptures. From the Prayer for Illumination to the reading(s) through the sermon, “God speaks”. The Prayer for Illumination (UMH, p. 6) invokes the power of the Spirit to “open our hearts and minds…[that] we may hear with joy what you say to us today.” The Armenian Rite is instructive in its simplicity and directness: the reader says to the people, “Let us be attentive.” And the people respond, “God speaks.” (Preaching the Holy Mystery, p. 189) Reclaim reading the Scriptures as an occasion of God’s self-giving, rather than a prelude to the sermon. On the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year A) consider having several readers (six feet apart of course!) proclaim the lengthy story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). To heighten participation, include a congregational sung refrain at key moments in the reading such as “Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again” (Stz. 4, line 2, hymn no. 311 in UMH) or lines 1-2 or 3-4 of stanza 3 in “Cristo Vive” (UMH, no.313). Similarly, on Good Friday, use multiple readers for to proclaim John 18:1-19:42. In a digital setting, a solo voice could lead viewers in singing a refrain such as “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” interspersed through the reading.
9 9. Take care to go to the wellsprings of your inner life
Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman, who died at Auschwitz, wrote in her journal, “I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life.” [An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 157]. You are one – among and with millions of others. Selfcare and attending to the truer self beneath our surface preoccupations is essential, both for our own spiritual and mental health and for those to whom we seek to connect during this time of social distancing and online worship. Turning off the computer and the smart phone in order to walk along the beach or in the woods can open soul-space. Reading scripture or poetry without mining it for the next sermon might bring us back to the Spirit’s inner equilibrium and rest. All who are lost in the pandemic fog yearn for you to help them find themselves in solidarity with all human suffering and the God who suffers with us and in us. You have to find that space within first.
10. Express lament in this time of pain, disorientation, and loss
Lazarus dead four days in the tomb, the passion of Jesus and his cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22), and the silence of a crucified messiah on Holy Saturday call us to take up the lamentation texts that are inherent in the liturgies before us. The current devastation in terms of our disorientation make the biblical laments (Psalms 31:9-16-Passion/Palm Sunday, Psalm 22-Good Friday) expressions of our grief and they model for us the essential practice of crying out in pain. A web search for Walter Brueggemann on lament will bring up videos and articles. Brueggemann’s video clips might be part of one or more of your online worship services. Also see "A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis” by John Witvliet.
11. Connect liturgy to life
“The Sending Forth” – the fourth movement of the Basic Pattern takes on new dimensions when we worship online. In this time of “sheltering in place” and social distancing, how do we dismiss the people, charging them to “Go forth in peace”. Somehow the sending forth — not just a benediction, but a commissioning to love and serve God and neighbor — needs to connect everything experienced in the liturgy of Word and Table so far and invest it in the charge to this unique and local apostolic community. They are the missionaries being sent to embody the good news in deed and word. If you are doing the service in ZOOM or some other online setting, invite a lay person to be prepared to charge the people to embrace their witness: “Go now! Go in love! Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” Or, consider a commissioning litany using the so-called “Franciscan Blessing”.
12. Learn from others
This is a time for sharing and learning from and with each other. Everyone is scrambling to care for the people of God. There is no room for pride and lack of a teachable spirit. Facebook sharing and groups, websites, denominational and ecumenical websites are go-to places for asking questions and peaking over the wall to see what other congregations are doing. Return to basic resources with new eyes. Look at our hymnals, book of worship, the Revised Common Lectionary, and other authoritative sources with new eyes. Like scriptures that repeatedly evoke something new in our changing contexts, the broad reality we call “the liturgy” brings us home again in fresh ways and unleashes us to embrace the present context in the depth dynamic of the liturgical tradition. On Christ, the solid rock we stand.
Postscript: While this post focuses on sacramental faithfulness in online worship, there are important pastoral care issues that I have not addressed. Individuals, families, and congregations are under stress. The potential for mental illness, abuse, and isolation are real and concerning. Attention to mental health needs and strengthening the social network must also be considered in how we worship online during the pandemic.
My friend and colleague Taylor Burton Edwards suggests offering something online daily, both in writing and as video. A pastoral word to the congregation (or from other pastoral leaders in the church, lay or clergy) and perhaps at least one of the daily offices (see UMH 876-879 and UMBOW 568-579) provides a daily connection to members. For daily readings go here. You might also include something from our Book of Discipline’s section on doctrine and doctrinal standards, or one of the teaching papers such as “Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church”. Other traditions: The ELCA, TEC, PCUSA, UCC would give links to their daily offices and offer meditation on their respective teaching documents and catechisms.
Daniel Benedict, OSL, is a retired elder in the California-Pacific Annual Conference and a brother in the Order of Saint Luke (OSL). He served as Director of Worship Resources for The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church from 1993 to 2005. He lives in Virginia and teaches online through BeADisciple.