As our diocese and many, many other dioceses around the country have made the difficult decision to suspend public worship services for the time being, we might well wonder what the Church is without gathering for worship? After all, our worship life is the heart of what it means to be an Episcopalian. Want to learn who we are? Worship with us. Want to know what we believe? Look in the prayer book. We center so much on our worship life that our Average Sunday Attendance has become the most used metric for describing who we are as a Church.
But true worship is much more than that.
Gathering together is as natural to us as breathing. It is a fundamental and powerful part of our Christian practice, normally. Clearly, these are not normal times. Nonetheless, we do continue to worship, to be formed together even while distant and separate from one another. Our first and primary community of worship is our own household, whether that is shared with others or not. We can open our hearts and our homes to become sacred spaces. We may be in a fast of public worship, but we can create a rich and powerful experience of worship in each of our spaces.
We also have new opportunities to connect with one another in worship, at a distance. We can be shaped and informed and inspired by our online connections with our own congregations or others and with the wider Church as well. Even in the midst of that new way of being community, we are reminded that we are connected with one another deeply as the Body of Christ in Baptism, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and only incidentally by our social media and technology.
As we step more fully into this Lenten wilderness, we also recall that we are formed as the People of God – and as the People of God, our work is largely outside the walls of our congregational buildings. Especially with this significant health concern surrounding us, we have work to do that is more than public worship. How do we care for those Jesus loves, especially those who are poor or ill or lonely or anxious? How do we represent reconciliation in an increasingly divided and hostile world? How do we help people see, if even for a moment, through the wondrous eyes of God who looks at each of us and loves us? At the least, checking in with one another and those in our communities is incredibly important. This sort of work is the heart of our mission, learned in worship together and strengthened by it, but the Church is more than gathering in worship.
We do need those times of gathering – and household or online worship is not quite the same thing – but we will gather again. Our appetite for our holy fellowship and full participation in the Body and Blood of Christ will be sharpened through this time of fasting.
This Lenten journey is more complex than most years. But we are not in this alone. Though we are not able to share freely in Holy Communion with one another, Jesus is with us still. We still encounter the Risen Christ in our own lives, as we always have, even if the particular focus of sacramental worship is not widely available. Jesus is still with us, as he has promised. With us in the wilderness, with us in pandemic, with us in hardship. Until the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20).
See also the resource Home worship on Sundays, a simple set of prayers that can be prayed around a meal in your own household, allowing for a form of worship and table fellowship in addition to online worship offered by many congregations.