By Philip Turner

This is the third and final essay in a series on the challenges facing the churches in the midst of the pandemic and the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election. In the first I suggested that the cause of the discontents revealed by the pandemic and the election is a loss of civility caused not by the internet but by the failure of the churches to be communities in which the virtues that make civility possible are cultivated. In the second, I asked what we ought to talk about if it once again becomes possible to have a civil conversation. I suggested that the churches ought to insist that the subject of primary importance is not the particular policy measures necessary for the promotion of the common good but the moral nature of the common good itself. In this third article I ask, in view of the serious circumstances in which we find ourselves, “What Then Shall We Do?”

The onslaught of COVID-19 has shaken to their very foundations the peoples of the earth and their institutions. Everyone with an ounce of common sense is asking an age-old question. In this the time of the virus, “What then shall we do?” The initial answer of the churches has been to offer their members services with limited attendance along with various forms of digital communication, comfort, practical advice, and the sharing of information and experience. These restricted and/or fully electronic forms of worship and communication include phone-trees, live-streamed forms of worship (often without the presence of congregations), podcasts of “spiritual messages,” drive-through blessings and, in some cases, even drive through pickup of consecrated hosts. These responses are of differing value and appropriateness; but whatever their value or appropriateness, they are well meant.

Well-meant or not, the question they seek to answer is not the first to be asked. In the time of the virus the first question to which God directs our attention is not “what shall we do” but what is God doing in the midst of this deadly pandemic. I do not mean to suggest that God has sent COVID-19 to punish us. I suggest only that God speaks to us in the midst of life’s fragility to remind us that none of our efforts to avoid the abyss from which we come and to which we return will finally succeed. In the end, nations rise and fall and death will claim us all. In light of these realities, God asks what is the basis of our hope? What hope provides the foundation of our lives in the midst of a finite and fallen world? In the words of the Psalmist, God asks where will we go for help? What will support us over the abyss that lies beneath our feet? Upon what hope does our life rest? To whom shall we turn for help?

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Through the words of the Psalmist God answers, “Help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth…The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” (Ps. 121) It is God, your creator and redeemer, who “will keep your life.” In this time of the virus, the frail foundations we have constructed to protect our lives shatter and crumble. Yet God continues, through it all, to hold our lives in his hands; and the God who holds our lives “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” In this time of the virus, God addresses us in the depths of our being and asks, “On what foundation does your life rest?” In asking that question he bids us place our hope in an unshakable foundation rather than in our self-made and inadequate contrivances.

During the time of the virus, God probes the foundations upon which we have rested our lives; and he calls us to turn away from them to a foundation that cannot be shaken. In traditional language, in the time of the virus, God questions our lives and calls us to repent. That is, he calls us to turn away from foundations that can be shaken to one that cannot be moved. Another way of putting it is to say that in the time of the virus God calls us to worship him and renounce the worship of our false Gods — the ones that slumber and sleep and cannot help in time of need.

In the time of the virus God asks us to turn away from the worship of false gods to the worship of the one true God. He asks us also to review our forms of life (with their false priorities and crumbling foundations) and so learn anew one that is worthy of God. God asks nothing less of us, but in our present circumstance we can only answer with a question posed long ago by the Psalmist, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4) We take it as given that God’s call to worship him in Spirit and Truth has been made particularly difficult by the virus that now ravishes the nations of the earth. This virus has rendered public worship an international threat to public health. We cannot gather to share bread and wine and in so doing “show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.”

What is more, the virus that has visited us has brought to the full light of day the fact the society that forms both our children and us is no longer shaped as once it was by Christian belief and practice. It is now clear that, in a real sense, we live in a foreign land. Further, the virus has brought about a world in which it is exceedingly difficult for us to gather as a people. The Psalmist’s question is very real. How indeed can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? I am convinced that God himself has prompted this question. I am also convinced that a search for an adequate answer defines the central challenge before the churches in our time. The challenge is how, in such a time, are we to help form a people who walk in a manner that is “worthy of the calling to which they have been called?” (Eph. 4:1) Or, to put it another way, how in the midst of these trials are we to become a community in which Christ is taking form?

How indeed? This question presses particularly hard upon the clergy who have a prime responsibility for the formation of faithful communities, most of all in the midst of a foreign land. In this effort they face severe difficulties. The moral and religious foundations of our society now run contrary to both Christian belief and practice.

Further, our ability to gather for worship has been severely limited, and digital communication will not fill this void. The Book of Common Prayer, our primary means of Christian formation, however, suggests an unexpected response to this challenge. Not all of its pages contain forms for public worship. Many provide forms of devotion well suited for use in the home. The Book of Common Prayer is as much about what I will call Domestic Liturgy as it is about public worship. That is, it suggests a form of life shaped in the domestic space by daily reading of scripture, prayers at morning, noon and night, observance of the seasons of the Christian year, self-examination along with prayer for others and ourselves. Indeed, I contend that The Book of Common Prayer assumes that the formative power of public worship is inextricably linked to the sanctification of life as lived daily within domestic space.

The Book of Common Prayer marks out a form of life that sanctifies the space and time of those who live within their circumference. In doing so, The Book of Common Prayer calls us to remember our Jewish heritage. As is the case with our churches, the Jews found themselves without access to the temple, their focal place of worship. Further many Jews lived in a Diaspora amid people with a very different form of life. And so the Psalmist asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” Their answer was the Synagogue and Domestic Liturgy. They continued, as they were able, to gather in the Synagogue on the Sabbath to worship. In the home they kept the Sabbath just as we are asked to keep the Lord’s Day. As we are asked to do, they daily said the prayers and kept the feasts that mark God’s faithfulness and kindness. As we are asked to do, they followed a way of life faithful to the covenant. They did these things each day within the walls of their homes and in all the lands of their dispersal. By means of Domestic Liturgy they survived, kept hope alive and formed faithful forms of daily life.

In the midst of the disease that surrounds us, God asks us to remember these things and so place our lives on an unshakeable foundation and direct them on the way of life to which God in Christ calls us. This is one way that, though scattered, we do not lose sight of the fact that we are a people among whom Christ is taking form and so become a people worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

A shift of practice of this magnitude will of course take learned teaching and faithful modeling. Put another way, formation in a worthy form of life, one that will also produce the fruits of civility, will take the teaching of Rabbis and the example of Saints. As I have written elsewhere (see Slocum, A New Conversation, pp. 120-130) the priests of the church will have to learn also how to be Rabbis of the church — teachers and exemplars of a way of life that is to be lived in the time of the virus.

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is the retired dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including Sex, Money and Power and Christian Ethics and the Church. He has served the Episcopal Church as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.

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J L Kattelman

I’ll set aside some of the sacramental questions I have about New Ecclesiology™ (Whither the Eucharist? What about Baptism?) and offer a personal response. This essay makes me sad and angry. I’ve tried to be a good spiritual leader for family. I did my level best to get us to church on Sunday, and I felt like a failure when we didn’t make it. Yet, here we have a priest and a seminary professor insisting that because COVID-19 “has rendered public worship an international threat to public health,” the faithful thing for me to do is to stay home on… Read more »

Lorna M G Harris

It is difficult in this pandemic not to be discouraged. But the time of Covid won’t last forever and in the meantime, having the means to worship at home, something we ought to be doing in the best of times! – is a means of keeping connected to the larger church family, not to mention to God. We remember others before God in our prayers even though we cannot greet them in person. I imagine there have been many other times in history when church-going was often impossible… other plagues, wars, persecutions. Indeed the Acts of the Apostles tells us… Read more »

J L Kattelman

Lorna:

It is one thing to claim that the faithful can be barred from our churches for a season due to external circumstances beyond our control (war, plague, famine, and so forth), and that COVID is simply one such case.

Dr. Turner, it seems to me, is advancing a much more radical claim: that churches themselves are now inherently dangerous and must be abandoned.

C R SEITZ

Is part of the issue both-and and not either-or? People miss church. They should! “1000 days in my own room is not like unto 1 day in your courts, O Lord.” The Cranmer idea of “monastery goes to hearth” was supplemental to the centrality of Sunday gathering. If the focus gets shifted to alternatives to that, I fear the fallout long term will be significant. One hears that in the CofE context quite resoundingly due to covid. And TEC’s future is equally imperiled. 17,000 Baptisms in a single recent year, and that is it. Average age, 60s.

Philip Turner

Prof.Seitz is surely right. It is both-and. The present crisis presents real challenges to public worship. It also opens an opportunity to strengthen domestic piety which over the years in many ways has faded or just disappeared. The renewal of domestic piety will strengthen public worship rather than replace it.

C R SEITZ

Thanks, Philip. Your essay was surely not about this, but often one feels that public worship is being presented as just one kind of option, and its cruciality not underscored. That is wrong for its own sake, in my view, but it could also hasten the demise of denominations like TEC, already in terrible decline. People can get used to not worshipping publicly. This would be a fatal blow to an already precarious reality.

Philip Turner

Chris, once more you are surely right. The difficulties the virus has caused for public worship are severe. I wish to suggest only that the recovery of what I have called Domestic Liturgy will serve to enhance public worship now in the midst of the challenges presented by COVID and in the days to come when we are free of this threat.

Father Tom Reeves

Thoughtful and helpful article…as usual from Father Turner.