This post has been germinating almost as long as we–human beings, Americans, North Carolinians, Christians, Episcopalians–have been altering the patterns of our lives and our relationships with one another and with God in response to the novel coronavirus. Other preoccupations, however, pushed it aside. Preparing online instruction for six classes and then conducting office hours and presenting lectures in cyberspace took up most of my time. When I came up (down?) for air long enough to make a post on my blog about the effects of COVID-19, the concern for lost freedom momentarily overtook the more pressing concern for lost faith, and I wrote instead about arbitrary lockdowns, malleable truths, and an eroding Constitution.
I was gladdened on March 10 when I read the first of many coronavirus-related messages from the Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones, rector at St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, reporting that he had been at a conference with a fellow priest who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Stressing that he had not been in close contact with the infected clergyman, nor was he experiencing any symptoms, Greg suggested vigilance and concluded:
On a general note, at worship, please remember that shaking hands is not required at the peace! An elbow bump or peace sign will do! Just be sure to say, “Peace be with you.” As well, receiving wine is not theologically necessary to partake in communion. If you wish to only receive the host, then you are on solid Christian footing to do so. Many churches have begun to ban intinction (dipping) because that has been shown to be more problematic than drinking from the common cup. However, at present, we are not changing our practices.
I had seen on various news reports that some churches had already decided not to hold formal worship services, and I was encouraged that my own denomination was staying the course–even continuing use of the common cup during the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. By the next day, however, the parish decision was reversed at the diocesan level, and among other changes and cancellations, our priest reported:
In accordance with a directive from our bishops, the congregation will receive Holy Eucharist under one kind only until further notice. This means the bread only, not the wine. This practice, historically called “communion under one kind,” is most ancient and acceptable theologically.
I remembered at that time a long-ago conversation with another priest, who told me scientific studies had shown that people did not get sick from drinking after one another at the communion rail. I don’t know about the science, but the very fact that this confirmed germaphobe (“No double dipping!” we heard every Tuesday when a group of us ate together at El Dorado) was willing to drink from the chalice after every single parishioner had taken a sip was proof enough for me. Still, the death toll from Wuhan, China, was alarming, face masks were cropping up everywhere, and the new limitations made sense in light of the rapidly changing conditions worldwide.
Just one day later, we received the sobering news that “beginning this Sunday, and for at least the next two weeks–March 15-29–all parish activities are suspended by order of the Bishop.” The email concluded with these sad words:
It has come upon us that we are living through an extremely challenging season, but we must remember that God is with us through this. Indeed, perhaps nothing could be more Lenten and penitential than that we are quite literally abstaining even from our beloved community of the church for a couple weeks, or possibly more.
The African American couple next door to us are both pastors at a local church, and we noted that they got dressed and went to services as usual that Sunday morning. One of my colleagues in the English department serves as organist and choir director at a Baptist church in north Raleigh, and he reported that his church had held services that Sunday as well, though attendance was poor. I began wondering, not for the first time, if perhaps the more fundamentalist Christians might, after all, also be the more faithful.
Within a week, though, the governor had ordered suspended all gatherings of more than 10 people, so the question of relative faithfulness became immaterial. The doors of churches high and low were locked. My heart ached as April 12 approached–the late date for Easter 2020. Could it be possible that those doors would still be closed on the holiest day of the Christian calendar? Would not even outdoor sunrise services be allowed?
During those anxious few weeks, my mind returned often to the numerous and profound lessons I had learned as a member of the Kairos Prison Ministry. One that was particularly relevant occurred at the monthly reunion of volunteers and residents who had shared the four-day Kairos weekend. We were gathered in small, random groups comprising at least one outside volunteer and 4-5 residents, and we were assigned to discuss the ways that God had been working in our lives during the previous week. In my experience of this same question asked outside prison walls, God’s actions were usually described at a distance and metaphorically. Not so with those residents of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. One woman told a story that will always remain for me a lesson in pure and childlike faith–the kind Jesus commands: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15 NIV). This woman, serving a life sentence for murdering her husband, told about standing in line at the prison commissary just before closing time. The line was long, and the minutes ticked slowly toward 4:00, when the window would close no matter how many people remained in the queue. As the hour approached, another woman cut in front of her. This Kairos sister said that her first instinct was to start a fight–yes, a physical punching match; these were violent criminals, after all. She even approached the offender with hate in her eyes–but then she stopped, hearing the voice of Jesus tell her, “Love one another.”
I have thought of this woman often in the last few weeks. Despite gubernatorial orders in various states classifying liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential services allowed to remain open, those same governors have prohibited church services in the stay-at-home orders. Thus, pastors have been arrested in Florida and Louisiana for holding church services in violation of the orders. A church in Mississippi was shut down by police for holding a drive-in service on Easter Sunday, and a county in North Carolina barred a church from holding Easter services despite written permission the pastor obtained from the governor. I am willing to wonder if that way of simple faith of those recalcitrant pastors, like that of my Kairos sisters, isn’t really the path to which Christians are called.
Banning worship services, in my view a clear violation of the First Amendment, can thus be seen just as clearly as a test of faith. It has become one of the issues du jour during the coronavirus pandemic. Some states have now allowed services held either outdoors or indoors with capacity limits and social-distancing requirements. But as recently as two days ago, the Supreme Court rejected church challenges of ongoing limitations stricter on churches than on secular institutions in California and Illinois.
This post, of necessity, now represents blogging in real time. In my last sentence, I referred to “two days ago,” but the Supreme Court decision to which that sentence referred took was issued on May 30. Today is June 15. In the interval, the streets of the no-longer-United States and much of the rest of the world have erupted in wanton violence and destruction in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. I will not be writing about these events because I want to keep my job. I will simply note that while the doors of most churches across the country remain closed, the members of those incendiary mobs neither wear masks nor maintain a social distance of six feet. Mobs are notorious for their failure to observe the niceties of societal norms, even the new norms of COVID-19. I will continue with my subject matter even though it is no longer–and will probably never again be–the issue du jour.
On May 24, my long morning walk traversed both sides of the tracks that divide our little railroad town of Selma, North Carolina. Selma is Bible-Belt country, and I passed twelve churches on that Sunday morning’s perambulation. But their doors were locked, and their parking lots were empty. Except for one. I was almost home, pondering among other topics the regrettable fact that all these congregations–large and small, white and black, Baptist and Pentecostal, Methodist and Presbyterian–were still choosing to worship online or as individuals and families or not at all.
And then I heard the faint strains of a praise-and-worship song I had often played on the keyboard at St. Christopher’s (not your father’s Episcopal Church): “This is the day, this is the day, that the Lord has made, that the Lord has made; let us rejoice, let us rejoice, and be glad in it, and be glad in it.” Immediately I realized that my heart was indeed gladly rejoicing as I quickened my pace in the direction of the music.
The railroad tracks in Selma run parallel to Railroad Street on the north and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Way on the south. Parked cars lined both sides of the tracks. People stood by their cars or sat in widely-spaced chairs in the parking lot of the Powerhouse of Prayer Apostolic Church, raising hands and voices in praise. I sang along, but by the time I reached the source of the singing, it was 12:00, and the service was ending.
The next Sunday was the Day of Pentecost–the seventh Sunday after Easter commemorating the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. In the Episcopal Church, we celebrate this feast as the birthday of the church; we wear red and have baptisms and sing “Come Down, O Love Divine.” Well, we usually do. This year, we could watch the birthday party on YouTube. But on my Pentecost-morning walk, I found another celebration across the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the songs so couldn’t sing along:
This circuitous path back and forth across railroad tracks and news cycles is finally leading me back where my title intended. This morning, in fact, the New Yorker published a reminder: “Will the Coronavirus Be the End of the Communion Cup?”
My intended subject was the sacramental cup in particular and the rôle of faith in general in the age of COVID-19. North Carolina officially entered Phase 2 of coronavirus restrictions on Friday, May 22, at 5:00 PM, allowing limited reopening of swimming pools, hair salons, and restaurants but dictating the continued closure of gyms and bars, to name just a few of the organizations deemed nonessential. By his silence, the governor exempted religious gatherings (and presumably, in light of recent events, the violent perpetrators of civil unrest) from further restrictions. However, most churches remain closed. Some have reopened with limited seating or only outdoor services, and masks are required. I have certainly witnessed maskless outdoor singing, but so far as I know, most churches that have opened include very restricted or no singing and no celebration of communion.
According to diocesan instructions, all Episcopal parishes and missions in North Carolina will remain closed until at least July 1. Even recorded or live-streamed services are severely restricted in terms of numbers of participants and activities allowed. Last week, St. Michael’s in Raleigh sent out a questionnaire asking parishioners what levels of participation they would be comfortable with as we move forward (online only or in person with 25 people inside or 35 people outside; no communion or in one kind only or with both bread and wine; yes or no to handshakes and hugs at the passing of the peace). Even if we all favored relative freedom, however, I am not certain the diocese or even the church as a whole will allow resumption of the status quo any time soon. I am, in truth, afraid that we will never again offer the kiss of peace to our neighbors in the pews nor, more significantly, kneel shoulder to shoulder at the altar, receive the host in the open palm of our right hand, and then drink wine from a common cup.
And because of that fear, I am extremely discouraged and disheartened. It seems to me that the leaders of the Episcopal Church are treading too cautiously the storied via media and, in so doing, abdicating faith and zeal in favor of science and circumspection. And this seeming lack of trust in divine providence on the part of faith leaders so-called has become for me one more straw threatening to break the camel’s back and lead me in the only direction possible, towards Rome.
As an Anglican proud of my church’s reliance on the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason, I am also an academic trained in both the sciences and the humanities. However, religious faith stands both outside and beyond these neat formulas. The Episcopal liturgy–as codified in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer in The Book of Common Prayer–is focused on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That ritual is one the of seven sacraments–and one of the two great sacraments–defined in that same book as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain
means by which we receive that grace” (BCP 857).
I confess that even before the novel coronavirus prevented me from joining my faith community in corporate worship, I had fallen away from weekly observance of the liturgy. My reasons were part laziness, part frustration that only one person at St. Michael’s knows me by name after eight years of regular attendance, and part discomfort with the unmistakable political trajectory of Episcopal church leaders at all levels. I was aware of the season, though, practicing my solitary Lenten discipline and preparing to celebrate the resurrection–on the Easter that hardly happened.
And I still took and take very seriously the sacramental focus of Anglican worship. It is those outward and visible signs–and their promise of sure and certain grace–that have bound me to the Episcopal liturgy since I first discovered it as my spiritual home in November of 1996. I understand that the Holy Eucharist is just as sacramental when administered “in one kind only.” But I also understand that the meal we commemorate comprised both bread and wine to represent both the body and the blood of Jesus sacrificed on the cross. I am willing to take the chance that one aspect of that promise of sure and certain grace includes protection from disease. And I am also willing to risk following the psalmist when he tells us, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).