By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

During the pandemic, churches switched to online so those under COVID-19 restrictions would not miss worship, prayers, solace, and comfort. But now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted and Americans are seeking to return to “normal,” what will happen to online and hybrid services? Concurrently, what is the state of worship and spiritual life today, after a year of isolation?

Research has shown that the pandemic did not dim, and in some cases strengthened, religious practices. A “COVID, Safety, and Security Study” conducted by Church Mutual and released in May, showed a preference for in-person worship (60 percent) while there was an acceptance of online, with one in three attending virtually because of COVID. Of the 1,206 respondents, an overwhelming 92 percent maintained that worship was as important, or more important, during COVID.

Nonetheless, many questions are being pondered about post-pandemic worship. Should churches drop online worship and return solely to in-person? Or should in-person and online be offered simultaneously? Is hybrid a natural progression/evolution, or did it develop solely as an answer to an overriding emergency? Will hybrid — and equally important, should hybrid — fade away once pandemic restrictions are completely lifted?

The leading issue that rages on in the hybrid debate centers on the sacraments, especially virtual Eucharist, via zoom, YouTube, or other online platforms. This topic evokes strong feelings.

“Hybrid church can’t be the future for Anglicanism as we understand worship to be an incarnational event,” said the Rev. James R. Rickenbaker, assistant rector of Aquia Episcopal Church in Stafford, Virginia. “You have to be physically present at the Eucharist to receive the sacrament. There is something unique about gathering as the body of Christ in the same physical space. An overindulgence in virtual worship will almost certainly foster the weeds of Gnosticism.”

He added, “Hybrid church gives an opportunity for, and perhaps encourages, people to hear the Word, but not receive the sacrament, as virtual communion is a theological impossibility. The Word of God creates faith, but baptism confers the gift of salvation, and the Eucharist strengthens our union with Christ. The sacraments are essential to the Christian life.”

The House of Bishops has not shied away from the topic of hybrid. “The House of Bishops has engaged in conversations about the post-pandemic church,” said Mary Gray-Reeves, vice president.

Pierre Whalon, chair of the House of Bishops Ecclesiology Committee, presented “Questions for a Strange Time” for conversation. In it he asked, “So, is it possible to hold bread and wine in one’s hands or next to the screen and then reverently consume it as the Body and Blood of Christ? The simple answer is No.”

“If I am at home live-streaming my parish’s service over the internet, there is surely great spiritual comfort for me: we are not alone, huddled in our homes. Jesus Christ continues to bring you and me to God in the Holy Spirit! No plague can stop that. Furthermore, virtually participating is still participating. But not interactively. And therefore, there can be no virtual consecration either.”

Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas sets clear parameters. “No form of blessing bread at people’s home, no drive-through. I believe the Eucharist is something that takes place in time and in place with people present. God intends us to be together in real life. That’s an essential part to being a Christian.”

“I believe virtual Eucharist erodes the Eucharist as a living embodiment of reunion, mutual prayer and labor, and kinship,” said Doyle, author of Embodied Liturgy: Virtual Reality and Liturgical Theology in Conversation.

However, he supports the church engaging in the digital world. “With this engagement should come deeper ethical formation around Christian attitudes to the virtual realm. Jesus did not call his apostles to retreat from the world, but to engage it.” He referred to studies that “reveal the impact of social media upon youth and young adults. They are growing up in a world where they are ever more dependent upon the affirmation of others. They exhibit tremendous loneliness and acute disorientation when social media is removed from them. The younger generations devote more and more time to these platforms, spending up to twelve hours a day.”

Nonetheless, “To participate in a Eucharist, which is significant of Christ’s presence among us, through virtual Communion is to ultimately degrade the living significance of Eucharist, as the computer will only present a digitized simulation of the real event,” Doyle said.

Reluctantly for some, hybrid in one form or another isn’t departing from the liturgical landscape.

The Rev. Mario Meléndez, missioner for Latino/x and Hispanic community in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, believes hybrid is here to stay. “The question is how and in what form.”

Looking to explore what it means to be a Christian during COVID, Meléndez led discussion groups using N.T. Wright’s God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath along with writings by Pope Francis.

“COVID is still a reality to a lot of people,” Meléndez said. “People are still dying and still sick. Whether we like it or not, there are some people who will not come to church. That’s the situation.”

The Rev. Hannah Wilder, curate at St. Mark’s City Heights in San Diego, does not see a place for hybrid worship. “Zoom is a great solution during a pandemic, but it does not replace physically being in each other’s presence. I do not think our liturgy was made for Zoom. Nor was Zoom made for our liturgy. Mostly I feel like those attending on Zoom do not fully experience the service because they either cannot hear or cannot see what’s going on, or who is speaking. They miss the side comments, any actions that take place in a room that the camera may not be pointed toward. Unless everyone in-person is miced, there is no way to make sure the people online can hear the action well.”

Wilder doesn’t buy the idea that hybrid is a form of evangelism. “It’s a half-hearted one if it is one at all. I mean, yes, it provides an online worship service where there wasn’t one before, but if the presider is in-person, and the majority of the congregation is in-person, I do not see how the people online could feel as fully engaged and involved as those in-person.”

“Christian formation can happen anytime anywhere. I’ve not seen the Spirit stopped by technology. That has more to do with a person’s heart and mind being open and willing to receive. Certainly, that can happen via Zoom.”

Another important discussion is the expressed need to keep in touch with the online community that emerged and grew during COVID, and not just shut it down once pandemic restrictions have lifted.

Washington National Cathedral experienced an upsurge of online followers across the country, creating a robust community, said Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer. “We might have fewer people with us in real time, but online our numbers are steady. We tell them you should go back to your church, but we will still be here.”

Eckstrom’s key word of warning, however, is sustainability. “You need staff to do this. It’s hard to ask so much from volunteers.”

Canon Mike Orr of the Diocese of Colorado believes the role of lay people will need to increase. “There are formation opportunities, Morning and Evening Prayer, book study, Bible study.” But Orr said to be successful, “We need to raise up lay leaders. I think churches that are focused on Sunday morning only will have trouble post-pandemic. I think churches that offer online, those are the churches that are going to thrive.”

Another benefit of hybrid, Orr said, is the erasure of commute time to and from church. “We are aware of the carbon footprint.”

The Rev. Tim Schenck of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts, stressed hybrid is not just about technology. “It really is about reimagining and sharing the gospel in new ways,” he said, “ways that are deeply impacting people’s lives.

“The world has changed. With digitally integrated ministry, we are really trying to integrate the ministry between the brick and mortar, and online.

We’re never going to get into this place where we double click for salvation. But there are ways to connect and supplement. Virtual relationships are real relationships. You’re not going to touch the screen and be healed.”

As debates continue, hope is unmistakable.

“While I think that it is too soon to tell where we will end up after all this, I have been surprised by the number of smaller congregations that have experienced an uptick in attendance for their online offerings,” said Colorado Bishop Kym Lucas. “The congregations that have been willing to try new things and think creatively, regardless of size, have really thrived in this time. I am hopeful for our future because there are so many people in the world who are seeking meaning and need reminding that they are beloved. Episcopalians are good at that.”

Wilder added, “I hope that the technology skills and videography skills and all these skills we have learned in the pandemic will help the Episcopal Church be the communities that Jesus has called us to be. We’re more present on Twitter, social media, YouTube. But what are we doing? Are we helping the marginalized? Are we helping the lives of the people that Jesus would have dinner with?”

Schenck addressed lessons learned: “We can do anything for a season, even if that season is very, very long.”

“I do believe that the past year has helped us tap into what really matters in this life — relationships, love, faith, selflessness, art, music, meaning. Perhaps the church will be able to speak into these aspects for our humanity — and share them — in more profound ways than ever before.”