Reimagining Church in the COVID-19 Epidemic

By the Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr., Rector

Epidemics, Frank Snowden writes, profoundly shape the society in which they occur (Epidemics and Society, 2019). Their impact is as great as wars, revolutions, and economic crises. They also have a profound effect on what people believe and how they worship.

We will be no different. Bishop Perry has issued a wise pastoral directive to the Episcopal churches in our Diocese: We must “forgo all public, in-person worship services. . . cease all other Sunday, Saturday and weekday in-person gatherings, including weddings, funerals, memorial services, bible studies, prayer meetings, and non-emergency baptisms, and place all of the groups that gather . . . on hiatus for the CDC’s recommended eight weeks, or until May 10th, including both Holy Week and Easter”.

As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to walk where we have never walked before. Like Peter, when he walks on water to meet Jesus, only to sink when he takes his eyes away from his Lord, we are walking on waves and not dry land (Matthew 14:22-33).

Nonetheless, walk we must. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, this pandemic presents us with an opportunity to reimagine what it means to be the church for the foreseeable future.

Reimagining How We Gather

We need to reimagine how we gather for worship. Again, following the Bishop’s pastoral direction, we must limit the number of participants involved in producing our online worship to no more than four.

We have been working to craft and enhance our virtual worship services on Saturday and Sunday that will be fully online through our Church at Home webpageour Facebook page, and our Church at Home Facebook group.  We will offer these services at 5pm on Saturday and 10am on Sunday.

We will also work to post live-stream and online worship services that will be interspersed throughout the week so that you can join us in finding ways to worship throughout your week. Perhaps one of the blessings hidden in the trauma of this pandemic is that social distance will provide us with the opportunity to worship throughout the week instead of just the weekend.

These changes in delivery will mean that, for the foreseeable future, our services will be Services of the Word. We see this epidemic as an opportunity to focus on God’s Word and on preaching the Gospel as our primary mission.

Among other innovations, each Friday we will be sending out a special e-edition of The Communicant that will focus largely on ways to participate in this gathering so that we can make the most of our coming Sunday services. We will offer a meditation, prayer, or poem as well as a preview of the Scriptures to be read. We will attach links to the Bulletins, and reminders on how to engage online. We will develop offerings from a “virtual choir” – a way of synthesizing individual voices so that we all know that none of us truly sings alone.

Reimagining How We Embrace

We also need to reimagine how we embrace one another. We will need to find ways to create virtual communities that are as transformative as our in-person communities have been. Let us know if you can help with these efforts through our “How we can serve you?” and “How can we help you serve others?” response forms, which you can find on our Church at Home webpage.

On Mondays, we will be publishing another e-edition of The Communicant that will provide information on virtual classes and seminars available through Zoom meetings and Youtube so that we can continue to support one another and grow in our faith. These will span from children to adults, and include special Bible studies, blog posts, movie nights, classes, and links to some of our more outstanding archived classes. We will offer instruction on how to use the Zoom technology that we will post online on our webpage.

Already, our Youth Minister, Kellie Herdade has been organizing and leading our youth in special Zoom meetings. A complete novice to Zoom last Sunday, Kellie immediately jumped online and began to experiment with the platform, reaching out to the youth she mentors. She wrote me earlier this week: “On Monday, we did a quick Zoom meeting to see how everyone was faring. We talked about fears, concerns of friends being sent home from boarding schools. We lifted one another up and even met someone’s dog!”

Reimagining How We Serve

Finally, we must reimagine how we serve. Because we must practice social distance, many organizations dedicated to food security that we have been served for years are in desperate need of our support and resources as they must shift their practices to “curb side” delivery. To give just a few pressing needs:

  • The Community breakfast program at All Saints Church in Pontiac needs volunteers and product donations of breakfast-bars, eggs, yogurt, and coffee.
  • Lighthouse of Michigan needs five volunteers for two shifts to make bags of food for carry-out.
  • Crossroads of Michigan has significant needs for volunteers, shelf-stable food, diapers, formula, and toiletries.

To follow up on all of these requests, please email Blythe Murphy, our chair of Mission and Outreach.

We also need to maintain the web of connection that makes parish life possible. We will canvas the congregation and develop ways to support and encourage one another during this difficult time.

Therefore, on Wednesdays, we will be sending out another special e-edition of The Communicant that will focus on ways we can serve each other.

Reimagining How We Celebrate and Mourn

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Bishop’s wise pastoral direction is that we cannot hold weddings, funerals, and non-emergency baptisms until at least May 10. We will therefore need to find new ways for us to celebrate and mourn so that we can find ways to walk together through these moments of deep change and transformation.

Because all of these sacramental passages are rituals, precisely stating how we will proceed is incredibly difficult. We will explore ways we can improvise gracefully as we seek to be pastorally and sacramentally present even as we honor both the spirit and the letter of the Bishop’s pastoral direction.

More importantly, I want to take a moment to confess to you something many of you already know, which is that I find this restriction heartbreaking. It has been a profound honor for me to walk with the members of Christ Church Cranbrook and the wider community during these moments, and, as painful as this seems, I promise to learn as best as I can how to do this in new ways.

Supporting Our Work

Please remember to support the church financially through your pledge or contribution, which you can send it by mail or donate online. Although we will not be able to lead public, in-person services, your clergy, staff, and lay leadership continue to work to serve you.

Please keep us all in your prayers and pray for those who are affected by this pandemic in more direct ways than we have been. May God bless, heal, and preserve us all.

Even in the midst of this incredibly busy and trying time, I have found it really helpful to begin my days with sustained meditation, reflection and prayer. Instead of fighting this social distance, I have been trying to make my peace with it and everything else happening to our world as a result of this pandemic. Yesterday, I wrote a meditation that I share with you at the end of this message as a witness and encouragement.

As with everything else I have faced, my prayer-life has played a pivotal role in helping me remain internally safe and sound. May it remain so for me and be so for you.

With faith, hope, and love,

The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.

Broken Bodies Rise

God is with us.
Our Lord has not forsaken or forgotten us.
Yes, we are living in an unprecedented time.
Yes, the next few months will be extraordinarily challenging.
Yes, we will learn to find God in moments of profound silence and solitude.
Yes, we will learn to feel God through different forms of connection and community.
Yes, we will have to learn new ways to be the church.
Through it all, we will find a way to trust in a Risen Jesus and depend upon his Word.
In it all, we will have to listen for the Holy Spirit’s presence in us and between us.
We will adapt to these new realities because God is the ground of all reality.
We will live through this time because God is the creator and redeemer of time.
We will live through whatever happens, because Christ has defeated sin, death, and the grave.
Our Lent is ending soon.
Easter is coming, whether we hear brass and timpani or not.
We will discover new gifts and hear new music.
That is how Resurrection works.
Awkwardly, our bodies will adjust to new rhythms.
That is what Resurrection looks like.
God will surprise us with grace we did not know we had.
That is what Resurrection feels like.
God will comfort us as we let go of things we have come to love.
Because we now live as if death were not.
God will reveal to us, as if for the first time,
What it means to worship a living God.
Because Christ lives in us.

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