As I write these reflections in early May of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in many places in the world. Here in Australia, the “curve” of new infections is beginning to flatten, while most restrictions on physical contact and public gatherings have (intelligently) not been significantly eased yet in most states, although a process for the gradual easing of restrictions has been announced.
One area of life affected by these restrictions is the worship life of churches and other faith communities. I doubt if many of us would have predicted at the beginning of this year that almost all worship services in Australia would have moved online for a significant part of this year. In any event, it’s good to see the extent to which the move of worship online was well accepted by worshippers, compared to the reactions among some (admittedly extreme) groups in the United States.
In this regard, I’d like to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on worship and, in particular, to suggest some ways in which the experiences of the pandemic may affect our worship in the time after restrictions start to be eased. My reflection is based on my own experience as a Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia, now retired, who has served both as a minister to congregations and as an ecumenical staffer.
Speaking personally, I feel I may have had a bit more preparation for the experience of worshipping online than many other UCA members have had. For a number of years, I’ve been a member of a Rotary club which has its regular meetings, not over a meal at a local restaurant, pub, or golf club, but online using the “Zoom” platform. (In Rotary, such clubs are known as “e-clubs”.) As a result of my Rotary e-club experience, I feel I’ve been prepared for the experience of attending online worship and have found it much less jarring than I may have found otherwise.
In the time since worship moved online in late March, my online worship participation has involved three congregations of three denominations:
- the outer-suburban UCA congregation of which we’re members,
- an inner-suburban Anglican parish (with an Anglo-Catholic spirituality), where I’ve been a semi-regular worshipper for some years (and where I regard this involvement as an important dimension of my “self-care” in ministry), and
- a Roman Catholic cathedral parish in a regional city interstate where we worshipped while on holidays a few years ago.
Looking more broadly, and in the multifaith context of
contemporary Australia, I’d like to suggest that the varied religious traditions of humanity can be grouped together into two large clusters:
- On the one hand, for many of the faiths that arose in Eastern and Southern Asia, the heart of their spirituality is seen in the devotional practice of individuals. A Hindu or a Buddhist may go to their temple to pray or to meditate, but it will most often be a private visit or a visit by a family group rather than attendance a larger gathering. Group worship or group meditation does take place within these traditions, but (other than at major festivals) individual practice is far more crucial.
- On the other hand, for a large cluster of faiths which includes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (among others), the heart of spiritual practice is found in gathering together with other people of shared faith to join in shared worship. Worship as part of a congregation is the “bread-and-butter” of spirituality, while private devotions are the “icing on the cake”. If occasionally missing a worship service sometimes feels to some members to be more like wagging school than missing a meal, that feeling may often be a sign of being part of a dysfunctional congregation.
I believe that one result of the COVID-19 coronavirus on faith communities, both here in Australia and elsewhere, will be to reemphasise the value for people of faith of gathering together with others for worship. Perhaps, it may even be the end of glib comments on the part of some people in the community about “I worship God best when bushwalking or playing golf.”
But the question then could be “What differences may we find when we begin to gather together again?” (And here I’d like to focus on the effect of our re-gathering upon worship in the Uniting Church, although my comments may be relevant to other denominations as well.) I’d like to make four suggestions about how the aftermath of the coronavirus may positively affect the shape of our worship.
1. The first suggestion is that our congregations may find ourselves having more frequent celebrations of Holy Communion.
In churches such as the UCA, worshippers attend public worship for a variety of reasons:
- Some attend worship with the primary reason of learning some new insights about our faith. For them, worship is primarily a teaching-learning experience.
- Others attend worship with the primary reason of experiencing fellowship with our fellow-worshippers. For them, worship is primarily a community-building experience.
- Yet others (including myself) attend worship with the primary reason of becoming more aware of the closer presence of God. Worship for us is primarily an experience of communion with the Sacred.
Nevertheless, those of us for whom the motivation of communion with the Sacred is an important dimension of our worship have been finding the current situation particularly difficult. In response to this, it may be a wise pastoral strategy for congregations to celebrate Holy Communion during the weeks, months, and even years following the resumption of public worship far more frequently than we’ve been in the habit of doing.
2. The second suggestion is that some congregations may find themselves offering more services of worship at different times, but with fewer people at each. particularly given:
- a gradual easing of the numbers permitted for public gatherings (as seen in the timetables offered by federal and state governments), and
- a continued need for physical distancing even while restrictions for public gatherings are eased,
For some congregations – either for very small congregations, or for congregations of any size gathering for worship in spacious worship centres – this will not be an issue.
For other congregations (i.e., any large congregation, or any congregation whose pre-coronavirus attendance at worship more closely matches the capacity of their worship centre), the easing of restrictions will necessarily mean fewer people attending any one service of worship, but with more services being held.
With this situation, I believe three things can follow:
- The first is that these services of worship can, perhaps, be more specifically focused. Rather than a congregation having a single service of worship in a “blended” (or, as I sometimes call it, “blanded”) style, the various services could reflect different styles and emphases.
- The second is that the long-dormant Sunday evening worship service may be revived in some congregations, but with one major difference. Rather than being offered as a “second helping” of worship for those who are already strongly-committed to the congregation’s life (as was the case for most of these services before they were dropped by most congregations), this service can be an alternative to Sunday morning worship for those within the congregation’s networks for whom Sunday morning is not the best time to gather for worship.
- The third is that ministers serving congregations with multiple worship services may find themselves spending far more time and energy being the worship leaders they were called, educated, trained, and ordained/commissioned to be, rather than merely being the congregation’s “CEO” or the denomination’s local “branch manager”.
3. The third suggestion is that, with the ongoing need for continued physical distancing, members of our congregations will get into the habit of showing more respect for each other’s personal space.
In many congregations, some individuals have been in the habit of greeting their fellow-worshippers during the Sharing of the Peace with an enthusiastic embrace that frequently appears to be uncomfortably similar to a sexual grope. When calls for restraint in these embraces are made (either on behalf of the congregation or by the gropees themselves) in the name of making the worship service a safe space, these requests (and, sometimes, demands) are frequently met with a disingenuously stunned and offended reaction by the offenders.
As well, other worshippers have been in the habit of greeting their fellow-worshippers during the Peace (as well as before and after the service) with an aggressive “Bonecrusher” handshake that can be highly painful to people living with arthritis or with other orthopaedic conditions.
The ongoing need to maintain physical distancing as services of worship begin to recommence may put an end to the “Grope of Peace” and the “Liturgical Bonecrusher” in favour of (for example) an Asian–style “Namaste” greeting. This would be a possible reform in our worship that many of us would welcome with enthusiasm. (A more humourous alternative could be to bow or curtsey during the Peace like characters in a Jane Austen novel.)
4. The fourth suggestion is that some congregations may continue to offer online worship, alongside face-to-face worship, even after the restrictions are fully lifted. I don’t believe that every congregation currently worshipping online during this pandemic needs to do this, but it may be pastorally helpful to UCA members around Australia if some do.
The congregations I believe should particularly consider continuing to offer worship online are those congregations reflecting a focused ethos or a specialised emphasis that may frequently not be found among the UCA congregations in many communities.
In particular, I believe that UCA congregations with a consciously “liturgical” ethos, an ethos frequently not found among UCA congregations in many communities, should continue to offer some online opportunities for worship as a ministry to UCA members living outside their immediate geographical area. This particularly applies to congregations with a “liturgical” ethos which are also socially and pastorally inclusive.
Thinking ecumenically, I believe that similar opportunities regarding online worship are also particularly present for:
- Anglican parishes with a consciously Anglo-Catholic ethos, particularly those which serve as spiritual “oases” within the aridity of conservative evangelical dioceses,
- Roman Catholic parishes which seek to offer a combination of quality liturgy and a commitment to the ethos of the Second Vatican Council (as opposed to those ultra-conservative parishes which combine good liturgy with bad theology) , and
- congregations of evangelical denominations which also affirm a strong commitment to social justice and pastoral inclusion, in contrast to the ultra-conservative social ethos found among many evangelicals.