What happens when church isn’t church anymore? Or perhaps more precisely, when the form of church we’ve known all our lives simply isn’t there for us anymore?
That’s the situation Anglicans have found ourselves in during the past few months, as the pandemic has forced parishes to close their buildings, with regular in-person worship services cancelled until they can be held safely.
COVID-19 has ushered us into a new world – for the Church, for our society and for the world. It’s one that challenges us to think about new ways of being church. Have we become too attached to our buildings, and to doing church in the same ways we always have? I’ll admit that the changes thrust upon us by the pandemic have not been easy to accept. I’m a creature of habit and miss seeing familiar faces at church on Sunday morning. I also miss a direct worship experience with God through the Eucharist. However, without regular services we can think in a different way about what it means to be Christian.
Along with many other parishes, my parish of St. John’s in Peterborough has been holding services online through Zoom. At first, I was reluctant to take part, as someone who tries to limit time spent staring at a computer screen. As well, not being able to experience the Eucharist limited my attraction to online services.
But the Spirit works in many ways. Slowly I’ve been able to rethink my initial hostility to online services. The Internet, social media and computer programs like Zoom have enabled people confined to their homes due to COVID-19 to stay connected with their loved ones and with the world. Are these new technologies not a gift from God?
So I have taken part in our Zoom services offered by my parish, usually involving about 20 other parishioners. I’ve become more comfortable with being part of an online faith community and feel others have, too. An optional “coffee hour” following our service has deepened the connections amongst us. Our reflections on the Gospel have often included discussing ways in which we, as people of faith, can respond to needs in our community.
As a board member of PWRDF, my worship has also included taking part in Zoom prayer services involving PWRDF supporters from coast to coast, and even partners in development around the world. During one service, it was incredibly powerful to hear directly from one such partner, Dr. Joel Mubiligi in Rwanda, who spoke about the Partners in Health agency with which he works, and which is supporting thousands of women and children through its maternal care and other health services. A short video of Partners in Health in action brought home what an incredible difference this work has made.
In recent months, I’ve also made time for other kinds of worship. I’ve begun wrapping prayer around my daily life, using a Celtic prayer book by William John Fitzgerald, something I’ve wanted to do since visiting the Iona Christian community in Scotland years ago. This prayer book offers creative prayers for each day of the week, in the morning, noon and at night. Although I often miss the noonday prayers, this custom of daily prayer has enriched my faith life, reminding me that Jesus walks with us throughout our days, whether we are doing mundane chores or following creative pursuits. It has helped ground me in these uncertain times.
The pandemic and the disruption of regular worship life challenge us to think anew about what God is calling us to do and be as people of faith. It brings fresh meaning to the famous biblical quote, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)
My friend Jean Koning, a member of St John’s, believes that the pandemic can be seen as a divine message. “God, this power beyond ourselves, has been looking at what’s happening in the world, and felt it was time to shake us up. I see situations where people, through pandemic regulations, are thinking not just of themselves but also of others. That’s the spirit of love, of God, at work in the world.”
Few believe that the post-pandemic world will involve “business as usual,” and increasingly, it looks like that will be the case for Anglican faith communities as well. God, working through us, can indeed make all things new.