Churches all over the world are not holding public gatherings, and are moving their ministries to online or one-on-one ministry. They do this as an act of love, not out of fear. But we are not closed; we are more active than ever.
Fear is understandable, and we should take this virus seriously. But we are not suspending public worship gatherings because of fear. In this world, there are many dangers on any given Sunday. But new, incurable viruses spread person to person, and so the more contact an individual has with others, the greater the likelihood of spread to an exponential number of persons.
In other words, if we were to gather 250 people for worship, and just a few additional people were infected because of it, that could eventually affect thousands of people in our community. It is not just about protecting ourselves. It is about loving our communities. So we have suspended public group gatherings.
But, contrary to some of the rhetoric, we aren’t closed.
I have been on conference calls with over 50 rectors this week. Their local churches are far from closed. They described phone trees in which members, especially the elderly or medically vulnerable, are contacted regularly. They described food drives, neighborhood outreach through social media, prayer services online, pastoral conversations happening via FaceTime, and (pre-arranged/approved) hospital visits to pray for staff (from a safe distance). Churches large and small are very, very busy right now. People are caring for each other and caring for their neighbors. We aren’t closed.
The Church is not the building.
The Church is not the building. I never thought I would write those words because, in our society, the culture had swung so far away from the physical in religion that I have always emphasized the beauty and witness of a sacred worship space. Yet we aren’t the building.
The sacraments are nourishing us at this time.
The Church is fed by the sacraments, but we are also a sacrament. Our baptism continues to anchor us in Christ’s resurrection. All of the Eucharists that we have received together in the past have fed us with spiritual food. We are nourished by them now as we serve. Many of us are on the front lines of the medical response. Many of us are serving in essential services. Many of us are ministering online. The same Christ who was really present to us in the sacrament six weeks ago is present to us now. He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and he meant it. And nourished by his presence, we are dispersed to the world he loves as a sacrament of his grace.
Yet we mourn.
Yet we mourn the loss of gathering and receiving together. This is not normal. This is irregular. This is not us. But as an act of love and service, we are forgoing our weekly eucharistic gathering. We also mourn the loss of the ability to hold planned wedding services or to offer burial rites. People are dying, both from the virus and from other causes, and our grief is growing. People are losing jobs or income. People are afraid. And we cannot gather them for comfort as a community of the Faithful together. There is undoubtedly a loss, and we have to mourn as best we can now. There will be continuing effects of this time.
But the Church is the People. The People are the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is being dispersed right now, into the world. Things are different and painful, but our mission and our Lord remain.
Changed, but not closed
This week I will visit a parishioner who lives alone. I will maintain 8 feet of space and will remain outside of the house. I will not make any contact, will not offer a handshake, will not anoint, will not hug. But I will be present and will enjoy the presence of another believer. This is very different from a normal pastoral visit. But it is still two Christians gathering in Jesus’ name. And Christ will be in the midst of us, uniting us in mystical communion.
The Church is not closed.