Envisioning Liturgy for a Post-Pandemic Church

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Pandemic-driven innovations have blanketed the Episcopal worship landscape with changes that go well beyond live-streaming of Sunday services. Striving to balance distancing with a sense of community, congregations have tried everything this year from praising God in spaced-out lawn chairs to drive-thru Communion and sending consecrated elements to parishioners via U.S. mail.

Now six months into the pandemic, efforts are underway to start envisioning a post-pandemic liturgical life for the church. That means weighing which adaptations to retain, which ones to discard, and which sidelined practices from pre-pandemic times to restore when public health conditions permit.

“We are at a time in the life of the church when we’re going to have to experiment with some liturgical innovation and see what makes sense going forward,” said the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson, Bishop  of Missouri and a member of the two-year-old Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision.

Though many congregations are still worshiping online, outdoors, or at less-than-full capacity indoors, the groundwork for post-pandemic liturgical practice is already being laid. Worship leaders are encouraged to supply the task force with examples of liturgies being used in online services, according to the Rev. Dr. Nina Pooley, the task force’s vice-chair, who also serves as rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Yarmouth, Maine. The Diocese of Missouri is exploring how lay ministries might be used more expansively to support long-term, at-home worshipers. And Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission (APLM), an Episcopal network focused on liturgical innovation, is developing principles to help guide priests through the uncharted terrain.

“We’re all making it up as we go,” said the APLM president, the Rev. Jason Haddox, who also serves as rector of St. Michael’s Church in Norman, Oklahoma. “We’re all improvising as seems best in the time where we find ourselves. Nobody was trained for this.”

So far, worship leaders have been scrambling to keep up with all the changes. Time hasn’t allowed for much reflection on, say, how to prepare congregants to properly receive spiritual communion, which involves receiving the benefits of the Sacrament even when one can’t be physically present to partake of actual bread and wine.

“Many of us have been running at full speed just to cover each Sunday and meet the needs of our folks,” said the Very Rev. James Turrell, dean of the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee), where he teaches liturgy. “Thinking about what’s the appropriate formation — both spiritual and educational — for a congregation that might have livestreaming in its long-haul diet is a question that frankly we haven’t been able to put much time into.”

Now looking ahead, leaders see a future in which online worship happens concurrently with in-person services and distancing gets incorporated into liturgical practice. The challenge involves finding ways to do what’s going to be practical and well-received without violating the integrity of worship.

Consider online streaming, which congregations are being encouraged to keep offering even after resuming in-person worship. Those that have turned their churches into de facto studio spaces, complete with up-close lighting and cameras on tripods, will need to make adjustments when congregants return. What then takes priority? The online experience or what happens for those attending in person when everything is taking place at once?

At a minimum, congregations with long-term online ambitions need to make sure they have a strong high-speed internet connection. If the church Wi-Fi signal is weak, Turrell said a Wi-Fi booster or mesh router may help. Otherwise an upgrade to a faster provider might be due.

Other enhancements can make a difference over the long term, too. Among the considerations: how many cameras to install. Turrell notes that having multiple cameras allows for switching between long shots and close ups, which makes the online viewing experience more visually interesting.

For congregations that only want to enable access for their shut-ins, Turrell said, “one camera is enough because they’re not seeing the livestream as one of their primary vehicles for reaching people; it’s a supplement to the in-person experience. But if one were to say, ‘this is something we want to make a priority,’ then to me that would mean you need to invest in some of the infrastructure.”

In such cases, other physical features might also need upgrading. Poor lighting, for instance, can hamper efforts to reach people with a positive online experience.

“The days of the big room with dim lights and no microphone have really long passed,” said Ethan Anthony, principal architect at Cram & Ferguson, a Concord, Massachusetts firm that specializes in renovating church spaces. His firm is working with two Episcopal congregations in North Carolina, he said, to improve chancel lighting, which will help illuminate priests’ faces, and improve audio quality as part of broader renovations. At St. Timothy’s Church in Winston-Salem, new décor will include hand-carved chancel furnishings to create what Anthony calls a “traditional English feel.” At Church of the Incarnation in Highlands, N.C., the renovation includes decorating walls and refinishing surfaces, which are expected to enhance online as well as in-person atmospherics

Illuminating the celebrant’s face may be difficult in an older church building “primarily because of the need to upgrade the wiring,” Anthony said. But, he added, “with the introduction of new LED spotlight fixtures, you don’t actually have to independently circuit them anymore because they are now addressable. That is a huge advance within the last two or three years. You just need to get power to them.”

Beyond spatial design considerations, congregations now need to consider how liturgical practices will play out when some worshipers are at home, others are in the church, and all are wary of getting seriously ill. How does the body of Christ come together and share a Sacrament?

Lay eucharistic ministers could be key to the equation, Bishop Johnson said. “We envision pastoral visitors or eucharistic visitors going to homes of people who are primarily sick and shut-ins,” Johnson said. “Well, now all of us are shut-ins. So, in a sense, they’re continuing the work that they’ve been doing. They’re just interpreting that slightly differently.”

Johnson adds that it’s time to explore more of what’s possible with licensed lay Eucharistic ministers, licensed lay preachers, and lay readers. The pandemic is prompting expansive reinterpretations of roles, he said, in ways that could help the scores of congregations that don’t have a priest with them every week.

“What happens if we expand the license of the lay reader, or if we combine the lay reader and the eucharistic visitor into one?” Johnson asked. “With a lay preaching license from the bishop, you are authorized to lead the service, to preach and to distribute Communion from the Reserved Sacrament to your community of faith. What does that look like? We’re not there yet, but we’re at least asking the question.”

Meanwhile, congregations offering in-person worship will need to decide how to share the Sacrament in a time when public health concerns are apt to persist beyond the pandemic. The Rev. Dr. Haddox said congregations that are currently serving only consecrated bread (no wine) are doing what’s appropriate for now but shouldn’t normalize the practice as sufficient.

“It’s very easy to slip into liturgical minimalism,” Haddox said. “How little water can you get away with using for the baptism to count? How little of the Eucharistic species can you use and still have it considered valid? The question of validity interferes with the sacramental abundance.”

How to share the cup will require a reckoning with theology and health concerns alike. Though a shared cup is an important sign of unity in Christ, some might hesitate to put their lips on the same chalice as others even after a vaccine is available.

“I think people are going to be cautious,” Pooley said. “I do wonder how quickly we will share a common cup and how quickly we will pass the peace and how quickly people will run up and hug each other.”

But liturgists are confident that as congregants learn more about the science and the protocol, drinking from a common cup will be a trusted practice once again — at least someday. After the pandemic, Episcopalians can rest assured that pure grain alcohol can be used to sterilize the cup’s exterior and servers are taught to turn it after each sip so that no one drinks from the same spot as the last person, said the Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings, associate professor of liturgics at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin.

“The liturgical action of drinking from a common cup is a part of the performance of the unity that we’re achieving in Christ,” Jennings said. “If we were ever to get completely used to having a bunch of separate little cups, then my fear would be that we would depart from an essential ritual shape of the Eucharist.”

Just as AIDS led to only a temporary scare regarding Communion several decades ago, Episcopalians are likely to get more comfortable with sharing the cup as they learn more about how coronavirus does and doesn’t spread, said the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, professor of liturgy and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.

“There was a period there when [abstention due to AIDS concerns] was a fairly serious crisis with people refraining from the cup,” Farwell said. “But over the course of time, with greater knowledge and dissemination of information, that passed.”

What’s apt to change — for the better, in Farwell’s view — is how often the faithful receive the Sacrament from a layperson at home.

“We already have ritual resources that were crafted years ago to develop a good, strong lay eucharistic ministry program for people to go out from the congregation that could gather to those who couldn’t gather and bring the Eucharist,” Farwell said. “I would hope that this provides an opportunity for us to think again about what baptismal ministry people can deepen and move into.”


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