By Casey Cep
March 29, 2020
Baptist church sign says Be the church wherever you are.
Many years ago, there was a debate at my rural church about whether the pastor needed a cellular telephone for his ministry. They were expensive, so, of course, the argument was partly about whether paying for one was a responsible use of parish funds. I can’t remember all the details, but the “car phone” was finally purchased, and for many years longer than was technologically reasonable, our pastor had it plugged into his vehicle so that he could be reached whenever he was on the road. The slippery slope, much invoked by opponents of this purchase, turned out to be basically flat: it was another decade before the church got a Web site. But after that came an e-mail list for prayer needs, which lets us know when someone is in the hospital or someone else has lost a family member, and, more recently, the monthly newsletter started circulating online to save on postage costs.
This is the little Lutheran church where I was baptized and confirmed, where I preached my first sermon, and where, someday, I will be buried in the cemetery. My mother taught Sunday school here, and my father ran the church council (and led the opposition to the cell phone); my two sisters and I all read bits of the Nativity story during Christmas Eve pageants and parts of the lectionary during Sunday services, carried the cross into worship as crucifers and lit candles as acolytes, helped make lunches for the elderly and the indigent in the kitchen, and attended 4-H Club meetings in the fellowship hall. We celebrated graduations and homecomings in the sanctuary, attended weddings and funerals there as well, and prayed for those serving abroad or suffering at home. This is all to say that our country church was never just a building but a space where we shared joys and sorrows, where our family grew to many more than five, and where, every week, we felt our congregation joined with others across time and around the world.
Worship has always been a time when I felt myself turned outward to others. There are many definitions of sin and as many preachers willing to expound on them, but I’ve always liked the one that Martin Luther borrowed from St. Augustine: incurvatus in se. If to sin is to be turned in on one’s self—a thoroughly modern and anthropologically astute idea—then worship is one obvious antidote. I’ve certainly experienced it that way. Church is where I go to be reminded that the world is full of other people, and that their needs and desires are every bit as urgent and real as mine, and not just of those gathered in the sanctuary but of those around the world.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many Christian denominations over all the centuries have emphasized what happens when followers of Christ gather together in person, and why they worry when we don’t. Worship is more than a mere social gathering, when we move beyond the individual, atomistic experience of the holy that we might have alone in our morning meditation or evening prayers. It is the ritual enactment of what Christ taught us in the Gospel of Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” And so, as often as I can, at home or while travelling, I try to find my way into Compline or Evensong, Sabbath services or morning prayers. I have felt over and over again how restorative those gatherings can be, drawing me out of my solipsism, turning my heart toward those in need, not just in tithes of money but of presence and witness, too.
But there will be no gathering like that for some time, which is as it should be. The Pope has even cancelled Easter—not the resurrection, of course, only the public Mass commemorating it. It was, as far as I know, the largest of all the church services called off so far because of the coronavirus epidemic, since tens of thousands of people typically fill St. Peter’s Square for papal audiences like the one that would have taken place on Easter Sunday. Instead, both the square and the church will be all but empty, thanks to social distancing, which is keeping us all six feet apart and at home as much as we can. Such is the gospel in the age of covid-19.
My own local church has cancelled its services, too. Word of the cancellation came via e-mail from the council president (no longer my father, but now my godmother and onetime babysitter) with the lessons and prayers for the next two weeks attached, along with the pastor’s sermons. A few days later, the pastor himself wrote to say that he would be conducting Bible studies and worship services on Zoom; it’s no descending dove or tongue of fire, but the Holy Spirit can still surprise us. Like college lectures and book launches, apparently religious worship across many faiths has largely migrated to this online platform, although the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C., seems to prefer Facebook Live, and Riverside Church, in New York, opted for YouTube. As with any change in praxis, this one has occasioned some weeping and gnashing of teeth, with religious leaders and the laity all wondering anew about what it means for an incarnate faith to go digital.
Of course, many churches were online before the coronavirus outbreak, with so-called Internet campuses and live streams and prayer Web forums, and there were already apps for everything from confession to meditation. Even before those clickable rituals, televangelists like T. D. Jakes, Billy Graham, and Bishop Fulton Sheen were offering salvation on television, and long before that Aimee Semple McPherson was broadcasting her sermons from Angelus Temple to millions of people over the radio. In the beginning might have been the Word, but ever since then the message of Jesus Christ has been adapted to whatever medium was available, from the scroll to the codex and eventually the podcast.
I admire those pastors, and religious leaders of all denominations, who, for the sake of their congregants, have been cautious, and clear about why we must find new ways to worship. I worry some about how much more easily ignored the Zoom alarm is or how effortlessly I can be distracted from one YouTube video by another, the sound of an incoming e-mail, or even just how strangely wired my brain has become to the sight of the laptop and its associations with writing and work, but I have been reassured by the example of how Christians across the centuries and across the globe who could not worship together, either because of illness or distress or suppression by the state, have found ways to be the Church without being physically together.
When I was younger, my grandmother, one of those gloriously churchless Christians, or what the novelist and poet Reynolds Price used to call an “outlaw Christian,” would get cassette tapes in the mail of an evangelical preacher whose ministry she found moving and whose messages appealed to her. She was often a few months behind their services, but she’d play them in the car, and to my mainline ears it was like the Great Awakening had plugged in the guitar. She was a fine example of someone who rarely set foot in a worship service but whose faith was stronger than mine ever would be, and who lived the Gospel of Christ more fully than I ever will, with constant love for others and patience with herself and generosity that exceeded the widow’s mite. She has often been on my mind when I think about how it will be fine to worship from home for a while. Already before the church cancellations, many Christians were fasting for Lent and taking on new devotions in preparation for Easter, so what is this if not another opportunity to remember the time when Christ was facing temptation and Satan himself, in the desert, away from his own spiritual home?
But apparently not everyone feels this way. Some pastors have continued to hold worship services, and other Christians have been arguing somewhat diabolically that public safety is a kind of false idol, and the President himself has insisted that the churches be open in time for Easter. Though I understand that in times of trial and fear Christians want to be together, and I cannot imagine the heartbreak of families who cannot gather to mourn those they have already lost to the virus or any other cause, I do not understand how easily some leaders of the faith disregard what Jesus said about his desire for us to “have life and have it in abundance,” or how they misrepresent our faith’s history during plague times. It is certainly true that from the Plague of Cyprian, during the third century, to the bubonic plague, during the decades it ravaged Europe, Christianity grew as a religion in part because so many saw followers of Jesus ministering to the sick, and endangering their own lives to be with the dying. The difference, of course, is that those Christians were providing medical care and companionship, not insisting on their right to carry on with life as usual.
Those in favour of continuing to hold public worship sometimes reference a pastoral essay that Luther wrote, most often titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” But, in it, the Reformer was careful to observe the various vocations to which God has called us, indicating that, while some are called to their life-saving work, others are called to act for the common good and protect others by protecting themselves. Luther’s essay is, like his definition of sin, surprisingly modern: he derides those who reject science, instructing his followers to “use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.” More strongly, having survived the same plague that had destroyed roughly half of Europe’s population only two centuries before, Luther insisted that people should take care not to “infect or pollute others.”
Luther opened his home as a ward for the sick, and refused to leave even when the rest of Wittenberg was evacuated, so he would certainly be encouraging Christians today to do what they can to aid those whose vocations are life-saving, whether sewing masks or donating money or sharing whatever goods or groceries they might have. But he would not be encouraging them to insist on gathering in groups larger than what medical experts advise, or suggesting they test God by exposing themselves to danger. I suspect that, instead, he would be reminding us of what gifts God continually gives us, like phones that let us talk across long distances and videoconferencing programs that bring community to us safely rather than requiring us to endanger others to pursue it.
It’s easy to feel like all that modern gadgetry is the very opposite of spiritual, but the ability of the faithful to be together when they are not is one of Christianity’s oldest technologies. I was reminded of this when I got another church e-mail about this week’s Zoom Bible study, which focussed on the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, from Ezekiel (not selected to terrorize us into social distancing but because it is the Hebrew Bible reading for this coming Sunday). As a child, I loved to sing the song “Dem Bones,” and thinking of it made me remember being in the church when my father was an usher and I was barely big enough to help him pass the heavy brass offering plate. He also handed out bulletins in the narthex and delivered the faithful to the altar for Communion, but my favorite of all the tasks he performed was ringing the bell, at the start of worship and at the end, but also near the middle of the service. Later in life, when I took a more meaningful interest in the liturgy and all its components—learning such wonderful things as why we share the peace before the Sacrament of Communion (so that we make peace with one another before God makes peace with us), and why the elements include water for weakening the wine (so that even the poor can bring an offering unto God)—it finally occurred to me to ask my pastor why we rang the bell when we did, during the Lord’s Prayer. In response, he asked if I could name any of the farmers who were not there for worship because of the harvest or recall any of the homebound who could no longer make it to services. We ring the bell for them, he told me, so that they know when we have gathered and when we are sent back into the world, and so that, no matter how far they are from the sanctuary, they can join us in reciting the words that Jesus taught us to pray. For almost as long as the Church has existed, bells have called Christians together when they have to be apart.
I’ve thought often this week of something else I learned from another pastor, one whom I met much later in life when I was away from home, living in a city, where it was far more common to hear the sound of an ambulance siren. Think of it as a kyrie, he said: a plea for Christ to have mercy. Many of us will be hearing more of those sirens than church bells in the weeks to come, but perhaps those, too, can call us to prayer, and to one another.
Original Headline: The Gospel in a Time of Social Distancing
Source: The New Yorker