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On Live-Streaming, Maternity, and Infantilization: Responses to Ephraim Radner

Editor’s Note: Covenant aspires to be a forum for substantive theological reflection within and for the Church. The following essays, which respond in various ways to Ephraim Radner’s article, “Should We Live-Stream Worship? Maybe Not,” are offered in that spirit and to that end. 

Tomorrow: Radner responds to the responders.

Live-Streamed Worship and Pastoral Responsibility

Last month amidst the flurry of announcements about church closings for the COVID-19 pandemic, I was dismayed to open my email and find the latest from Ephraim Radner, “Should We Live-Stream Worship? Maybe Not.” The piece struck me as ill-timed, coming on the heels of clergy scrambling to adapt to the directives of their bishops. Its less-than-irenic tone came across as a lecture lobbed from the proverbial ivory tower of the academy rather than as a commiserating missive from a fellow-solider slogging through the grind of parish ministry.

Of course, I realize that Radner has fairly extensive experience in parish ministry, and in general, I find much to admire and espouse in Radner’s theological expositions and affable personal demeanor. In this case, I felt there was a disconnect between the on-the-ground decisions that needed to made and the theoretical objections Radner was outlining. The decisions made by parish clergy like myself weren’t theoretical, but directly affected people whom we have come to know and cherish. On the day of my ordination I was told to do everything in my power “to feed and provide for the Lord’s family.” That was the context in which I decided to offer some form of online worship.

The reality of congregational life today in the Episcopal Church is that the vast majority of congregations are fairly small with an average Sunday attendance of less than one hundred. They are in the so-called “pastoral” and “family size” categories. This means that, among other things, people come to our churches not because we have the best programs or the most dynamic youth and children’s ministries. They come because it is either a long-time church home or because of a relationship with the priest. When the injunction came down that clergy could no longer conduct public services in the church, most priests that I know felt some responsibility to connect the “parish family” — just as many families have bonded over Zoom social hours during this crisis, and phone calls have reportedly doubled, even in comparison with peak days like New Year’s and Mother’s Day.

To suggest that these efforts are some kind of infantilization of the laity really felt like a kick when we were down — not to mention the assertion that the clergy were in danger of becoming too maternal — as if such care and concern, or even the metaphor itself, were foreign to the scope of healthy pastoral ministry.

Despite this visceral reaction, I agree with some of the points Radner makes: in principle we don’t want to encourage people to run away from their problems, and in this crisis to pretend like everything is “normal” might well be an avoidance strategy. For this reason, unlike a number of my colleagues, I didn’t feel compelled to try to assemble elaborate virtual Holy Week services. Liturgy is not a spectator sport, and the Sacrament is meant to be received — take and eat — not passively gazed upon. Having said that, I honor the industry of clergy who, for love of the liturgy and out of a sense of pastoral care for their congregations, created a myriad of ways for people to connect with this our most holy time of the Church year. Undoubtedly most, like me, have stumbled through this season, but we are also sensing how God might use this catastrophic event to deepen the faith of many in our little outposts of the body of Christ.

Towards the end of the essay, Radner warns of unintended consequences of streaming services: “Should we live-stream worship at this time? Maybe not. At least we should think about why, to what end, and with what consequences.” Trying to divine what the consequences of this pandemic will be on church life is like tracking a bird in flight. Will it cripple them economically? Will it habituate people to attend church less even than they already do? Or perhaps, is there the hope that being put in mind of the “shortness of uncertainty of life” many will be led by the Lord to “seek that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life”? God alone, of course, knows. We, in this vale of tears, must do our best to carry on the work of the ministry to which we have been called. Our hands have been bound and we are led where we do not want to go. Jesus is saying to us once again, follow me and feed my lambs.


Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.





We Should Probably Live-Stream Worship

By Stewart Clem

Ephraim Radner’s provocative essay articulates three broad concerns with online worship: the maternalization, infantilization, and siliconization of the church. I’ll focus my response on Radner’s third concern: siliconization. Under normal circumstances, I would be deeply sympathetic with his critique. I cringe when I hear clergy proclaim the mantra “Be creative! Innovate! Try new things!” — not because I’m opposed to trying new things, but because I know that in the Episcopal Church these are often code words for watered down, bourgeois Christianity in slightly outdated packaging.

But these are not normal circumstances. Almost overnight, the church has been forced to answer the question, “How should we continue corporate worship when our church buildings are closed?” The massive shift that resulted in everyone worshiping at home for weeks on end happened in the blink of an eye. While I share Radner’s desire to see an increase in the use of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer at home, “using an actual book, turning pages, touching paper,” this isn’t the time to insist on biblical and devotional proficiency among the laity. If anything, this crisis simply reveals the impoverished personal piety of our mainline churches. Many people are simply clueless when it comes to praying or worshiping at home. But it strikes me as somewhat tone deaf to insist, now of all times, that people “grow up” and learn to worship without the direct guidance of the Church.

Unlike Radner, I don’t think that the transition to online worship during this pandemic gives the impression (even implicitly) that life “goes on as normal.” Nearly every churchgoing person I know has expressed a desire to return to his or her own church for public worship, even while feeling grateful for the inferior substitute of following a service on a screen.

These extraordinary circumstances present an opportunity for clergy to preach and teach about the difference between corporate and private worship and to explain why some things — chiefly the administration and reception of the Holy Eucharist — can’t be done at home. Like Radner, I want us all to “learn to hunger and thirst even for the Bread of Life, for the Body of Christ,” but sometimes we need our desires to be formed before they become realized. And this simply will not happen if we expect people to “grow up” by not providing resources for them.

Finally, a note about loneliness. Radner wants us to “learn to become lonely,” but I fear that too many people have already learned this lesson. I know that he is aware of people who live alone, but his concluding remarks suggest a strong bias toward those who live in community. He wants us to learn to worship with our “families,” to sing hymns “together,” and to read the Scriptures “with others in our homes,” but some people have none of these options. Some people are single. Some have families who do not share their faith. Our current shelter-in-place orders prevent even small gatherings for worship. Online worship provides a way, albeit an imperfect one, to connect with one’s church family during this pandemic.

I agree that we need further theological reflection on the subject of online worship. I have no doubt that this pandemic will initiate decades of such reflection. But in the meantime, any concerns about maternalization and infantilization should not lead us to think that neglect is an acceptable option.

Should we live-stream worship? Probably.


The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri.







The Church Is Our Mother

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

The chief merit of Ephraim Radner’s essay on live-streaming worship is what I interpret as a call not to “come to this Table for solace only, and not for strength.” To that reminder, I could say a hearty “Amen.”

What surprised and saddened me, however, was that in his — perhaps hasty — effort to say something timely to the Church he loves, the tool that came to hand was a negative stereotype of motherhood. This tool was then turned on fellow clergy whose instinct in crisis is to comfort their people, likening them to “Mom.” (The comparison was not meant to be flattering.)

Several problems arise from this.

First, the idea that “infantilization” is the clear counterpart to “maternalization” is by no means obvious to me. It seems odd to have to say it, but mothers are surely not only for infants or overgrown children. We are also involved in the lives of older children, adolescents, and adults. This is normal. To see such an ongoing relationship as a vestige of infancy would be arbitrary, not to mention discouraging to any woman who wishes to be well-received as a leader or contributor among adults.

Secondly, normal, healthy mothering (fathering, too) is precisely for the purpose of moving children to strength and maturity. It is certainly not to keep them in perpetual dependence or to form them into cowards. We can see this from two angles. First, a regular part of motherhood is to encourage children of all ages to take the appropriate risks that make growth possible. Second, even the “softer” aspects of motherhood — nurture and affection — are routinely shown by psychologists to produce children and adults who are more, not less, resilient in the face of life’s challenges.

There is such a thing as disordered motherhood, which can include possessiveness, over-control, and greater interest in a son or daughter’s safety than his or her maturity. We see these pitfalls portrayed in The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis — who seemed to have a similar tendency to equate motherhood with its disorders. But then Lewis, as Alister McGrath and others have observed, had a troubled history with mother figures. And while such a blind spot may be understandable, it still does damage when allowed to spread.

For these reasons, I hope it is clear that the image of “maternalization” is a poor fit for discipleship gone weak. Disordered motherhood is very much like disordered discipleship; but that is probably because motherhood is very much like discipleship.

And this must be why the Church has been called Christians’ mother for the better part of two millennia — including Cyprian’s famous statement in the mid-third century that “He cannot have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”

It is also why I hope clergy will un-hear Radner’s scolding comparison of them to “Mom.” I hope those who saw themselves implicated in the comparison were able to turn the accusation from shame into praise. I hope those who smiled at it, feeling vindicated because they would never sink to the absurdity of resembling “Mom,” repent. I hope that congregations that are spiritually immature enough to need “milk, instead of solid food” (1 Cor. 3:2) get it. I hope that those Christians who are mature, but are facing pain or grief or must rally their courage, receive the motherly and fatherly care from their clergy that will make it possible. And I hope that the clergy who are called “Mom,” whether biological, adoptive, or spiritual, take courage. They are not a negative example for the Church. As long as they mother their children toward maturity, they are role models to all who make disciples.


Abigail Woolley Cutter lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is pursuing a PhD in Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University. She attends St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church.






Should We Live-Stream Worship? Maybe.

By Will Brown

A month or so ago, Ephraim Radner stirred up controversy with his suggestion that perhaps churches should not live-stream worship services during the pandemic. I read his piece with sympathy, and agree that perhaps churches should not live-stream worship. I would only add the slight caveat that perhaps they should.

For our part, my church is live-streaming services via Facebook Live, and the live streams have been well received. I hope they have also been helpful. They are, in any event, mostly beside the point. I have watched many live-streamed services from colleagues near and far. But I have watched as a member of an audience, not a congregation. I do not feel inclined to cross myself at the elevations.

Dr. Radner is right for two reasons.

First, Christian faith is palpable and tangible. Eastertide reminds us of this central truth of the gospel, and the Lord even uses these words (or their Latin roots) in the Vulgate’s account of the resurrection. “Noli me tangere,” he says to Mary Magdalene in the garden, and “Palpate me,” to the disciples in the upper room. The resurrection was not virtual. Neither is Christian faith something that takes place exclusively in our hearts and our heads, pace the Gnostics. But it is about flesh and blood, bread and wine, water and oil, polished silver, candles, needlework, organs and vocal cords. It’s about flesh and bones, the disposition of bodies. It’s about a corpse laid in a tomb on a Friday, and the emptiness of that tomb on the following Sunday. Christian faith is, in a word, corporeal. And a virtual congregation is not a congregation.

Secondly, this pandemic and its ripple effects are, like everything else in the order of world events, governed by God’s provident will. And for those of us who believe, this cannot help but redound to our salvation. Many Christians down through the centuries have been unable to assemble for corporate worship for various reasons: persecutions, imprisonments, exile, pandemics (indeed!), or just because they were traveling. When the privation is received in faith, as something that is in accord with God’s will, it becomes salvific, in the same way that martyrs receive their crowns and palms because of what they suffer, not despite it. The Church even speaks of martyr-catechumens receiving baptism in their own blood. Like martyrdom, pandemics and their social and economic fallout are not things Christians may seek, but now that they have come, they are to be received in resolute faith.

Live-streaming worship might be an aid to the devotion of the faithful. I suspect that in many cases it is. But the worship is what counts, not the live stream. Dr. Radner writes:

We would “suffer” the fact that we cannot gather for worship; we would experience straightforwardly the burdens of the moment, some of them quite harsh, unveiling our long-standing misplaced commitments; we would tutor hope in a time of stark changes and impositions.

When it comes to worship, we might learn to pray alone. We might learn to use the prayer book with our families, aloud, regularly — using an actual book, turning pages, touching paper. We might learn to sing hymns together, rather than listening to them broadcast through the computer. We might learn to become lonely (or finally to admit that we already are) and to cry out. We might learn to hunger and thirst even for the Bread of Life, for the Body of Christ, as many have done over the centuries in this or that place of desolation or confinement. We might learn to read the Scriptures audibly, for ourselves and with others in our homes.

As I have spoken with the lay faithful during this time, it pleases me to hear that they have been able to “tune in” to our live-streamed services. But it pleases me even more to hear that families have been cultivating salvific habits of the “domus ecclesiae”: that they have been praying together, reading scripture together, singing hymns, sharing common meals, reaching out to other members of the body in friendship and solicitude, discovering (or rediscovering) fundamental practices of Christian piety that fan the flames of faith, hope, and charity.

Such things are the bread and butter of the practice of the faith during this season. Live-streaming worship may be helpful. I suspect, on balance, that it is. But it is not the main thing.

Fr. Will Brown currently serves as associate rector of All Saints’, and priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, both in Thomasville, Georgia.






Tomorrow we will publish Ephraim Radner’s response.


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