Worldwide circumstances have forced an end to public gatherings, and although I’ve been wanting to not read or hear about the havoc this has wrecked across the world anymore than I already have, it has created a fascinating situation for churches. Of course, congregations are finding that they can’t meet in the normal way and even the ones which are attempting to do some semblance of a normal gathering have found that even a physically distant compromise isn’t enough. What becomes of a church when they can’t have church?
The church I work at is already equipped with comprehensive video technology, which they use to stream Sunday services worldwide every week. Broadcast has been a big part of their ministry for decades and they were an early adopter of live streaming. I don’t know the total viewership, but they claim to reach thousands across the world and in every US state.
Another major NYC episcopal church where I have connections started live streaming Sunday service two weeks ago for the first time. They brought in cameras, a crew, lighting, and installed a control booth, all somewhat makeshift but stable enough to make permanent. This seemed like a great option at the time, but even meeting with a skeleton crew has become untenable as the situation develops.
Two Sundays ago we had church in the church without the church; the clergy, staff, liturgists, and musicians showed up, along with the broadcasting staff, and no one else. It was a pretty normal service, actually. Instead of a resounding “amen” after a prayer it was a hushed chorus of a dozen voices, and instead of a ringing congregation belting out hymns it was just the choir, but otherwise it looked and felt like a regular Sunday. From the perspective of the livestream viewer, assuming they didn’t show the empty pews very often, I assume it felt almost normal.
Last Sunday they made the decision to suspend all gatherings, as even this barebones crew numbers close to 40. There was still a live streamed broadcast, made of prayers and sermons from clergy in their homes and hymns and anthems excerpted from previously recorded services. Watching it online felt like a clip show of sorts, and while the novelty of it was engaging it isn’t something I’d religiously tune in every week.
When you’ve discounted the theology of a religion, the ceremonial and communal elements of the tradition become even more important. If a believer feels like they have to hold on to the faith to spread some idea of truth in the world, it doesn’t matter the specifics of the rituals. But when we realize that no faith tradition has a monopoly on truth and that the supernatural elements of any faith are simply made up, the meeting have to be about something more than the myths upon which it was founded.
Where two or more are gathered, there is the Holy Spirit. But what happens when two can’t gather? Is a virtual gathering enough? Jesus didn’t specify, but the tenor of his allegory is clear; there is strength in numbers. There is grace in a group. We find hope in the best examples of our peers. And those things remain true, even when we’re physically distant.
The Body of Christ isn’t dependent on any physical rules. It isn’t a physical thing! It’s a concept, a metaphor, an allegory. Just like the communion of saints; there isn’t a place where dead spirits commune. We don’t think that disembodied ghosts come together in the sky. We simply recognize that people who have passed enter a pantheon of memories which we hold sacred. We know that even though we are physically distant from the saints, there’s a metaphorical communion in which we join them daily.
The communal aspects of church are paramount, even when we can’t engage them physically. We have to reach out to our church, either the literal people who go to our churches or maybe the friends and family who represent our personal living communion. Church happens anywhere- sometimes in a grand building, but sometimes in video chat or at the kitchen table.