Discipleship in Difficult Days 12: A worshipping community?

Two of the talented ordinands in our diocese, Jeremy Heuslein in Belgium and Julia Bell in the Netherlands are responsible for the bulk of the content in this edition of the blog. In their different ways they both address the relationship between worship and community in these difficult days. We begin with a delicious prayer by Martin Wroe – which many of us need to pray only TOO often at the moment. There is also another prayer written for interreligious contexts, a few ‘seditious’ thoughts from me, and the link to a delightful and life-enhancing short video. Clare Amos

flower in shroton garden

 

A Blessing for a Meeting on Zoom

In the place where eye contact is impossible
The silent lexicon of non-verbal cues extinct
May this not be the crowd without the wisdom
Despite our isolation, our social distance.

May we give thanks for this awkward digital blessing
May we be admitted, may we not be muted
May our distorted sound and scrambled words
Finally align, may they catch up with our pixelated vision.

May travelling this unfamiliar landscape
Neither lose us, nor completely exhaust us
And may our bandwidth always find room
For patience, gentleness and the peace
that bypasses misunderstanding.

May every meeting open and close with a poem,
A joke or a steadying moment of silence
Some brief transfiguration in time, to remind us
Of who we were, before all this
And who we may be again

May our agenda always be kindness,
The waving hand, our ecstatic benediction
And may there never be any other business,
For ever and ever. Amen
(Revd Martin Wroe, reproduced with permission)

*****

Worship in the Time of COVID19

A reflection by Dr Jeremy Heuslein, Brussels, exploring some of the implications of our current digital worship:

The world has changed. From one single place, from a single person, something spread, and in its wake governments have brought forth new and unparalleled measures, economies have been turned upside down, and people live radically differently.

COVID19 or Christianity, the Easter faith?

There is probably room for an undergraduate thesis tracing the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire and modelling it alongside the spread of a pandemic. In Acts 17, the Thessalonians proclaim, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!’ in an attempt to get the church leaders arrested. From that time to today, Christians have met and worshipped together all across the world. There isn’t a country or continent where the Body of Christ doesn’t have a presence, even if hidden. In the nearly 2000 years after the uproar in Thessalonica, there have also been times that the Church has had to worship during pandemics and plague. In some ways for the Church, this is nothing new.

But what is new to many gatherings and communities of the universal church is the opportunity to take their common worship online. Being forced into a digital ministry and gathering has been an illuminating experience. There is a narrowing and a focusing that necessarily occurs. In what follows, I would like to highlight two of the essential structures of a church service that have raised in importance in my own mind and experience, both in leading gatherings as well as participating in them, in this time.

  • Liturgy is performative. Liturgy is not some fancy, high-languaged text written in books that carry the smell of mildew and the hundreds of human hands that have touched them. Liturgy is the work of the people; it is the recognisable pattern of gathering and worship that communities form. In this way, one could claim that every church, every congregation is liturgical, whether formally or informally. And this liturgy is performative. Having shifted to an online and digital gathering, one in which participants watch a screen — the same screen that they use to watch Netflix or work or attend virtual school — the performative aspect of the liturgy goes to the front. Does it engage people? This is not about and should not be about entertainment. That is performance. Being performative means that people become engaged and integrate the service into their own lives and narratives. Indeed, the best television programmes are performative as well. What does the liturgy perform? Our gathering as Christians is to tell the stories about God, to highlight the narrative of God that weaves through the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus, in the lives of the saints, in the work of the Church, and in the coming of the Kingdom. If these stories are performatively given in the liturgy, they enter into the lives of those gathered. They form habits of grace, thoughts of joy, and works of hope. The church service, digital or otherwise, is to invite the people of God into the stories of God in ways that transform them and send them out to transform the world.
  • The Church is fundamentally, foundationally, and eternally a community. The gatherings of churches in services are meant to build up that community, to allow the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to be present among those gathered. The radical nature of this community is that none are excluded. In antiquity, there were no divisions too great for someone to be excluded from the community: Gentile or Jewish, slave or free, men or women. And as Paul reminds and urges the Ephesians, so are we who meet in Christ’s name reminded urged to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The hard work of being community, though, happens when people ‘rub shoulders,’ that is, interact. Usually, this is before or after a service, and sometimes during. As we meet digitally, there are ways to offer this and encourage this among the people of God. Without this element of Christians living together and living out their faith, we risk losing our understanding of being a part of the Body of Christ. This risk is especially evident in those communities who have regularly shared in Communion and cannot any longer, but because this risk is evident there is increased motivation to mitigate it as we wait in hope and see toward the day when we all can meet again and break bread together.

The Body of Christ will continue to worship and praise God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Healer, and our coming King. Whether physically apart or huddled together, our prayers and praises will join together. As we tell and retell and convey the stories of God, weaving them into ours and seeing our story as a part of the story of God, and as we weave our stories together with each other, we will continue to be the Body of Christ, sent by Jesus into the world to show love, to give hope, and to express joy. This was true in Thessalonica and Ephesus and Jerusalem, and it remains true in every city, in every place today.

*****

Jeremy’s comments encourage me to give a mention to a short reflection by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, which was offered on 31 March, shortly after the ‘virus’ had begun to affect so drastically the worshipping life of our churches. https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-michael-currys-word-church-our-theology-worship

It is a sensitive meditation on the meaning of sacraments, especially in the Anglican tradition. It is well worth reading in full. But I was particularly struck by his final two paragraphs, which I quote:

‘Richard Hooker described the corporate prayer of Christians as having a spiritual significance far greater than the sum of the individual prayers of the individual members of the body. Through corporate prayer, he said, Christians participate in communion with Christ himself, “joined … to that visible, mystical body which is his Church.” Hooker did not have in mind just the Eucharist, which might have taken place only quarterly or, at best, monthly in his day. He had very much in mind the assembly of faithful Christians gathered for the Daily Office.

While not exclusively the case, online worship may be better suited to ways of praying represented by the forms of the Daily Office than by the physical and material dimensions required by the Eucharist. And under our present circumstances, in making greater use of the Office there may be an opportunity to recover aspects of our tradition that point to the sacramentality of the scriptures, the efficacy of prayer itself, the holiness of the household as the “domestic church,” and the reassurance that the baptized are already and forever marked as Christ’s own. We are living limbs and members of the Body of Christ, wherever and however we gather. The questions being posed to Bishops around these matters are invitations to a deeper engagement with what we mean by the word “sacrament” and how much we are prepared for the Church itself — with or without our accustomed celebrations of the Eucharist — to signify about the presence of God with us.’

Here’s my ‘seditious’ bit (with the usual caveat that it is my personal view, which cannot be ascribed in any way to the Diocese in Europe!). I think that Bishop Curry hints here at something important about ‘our tradition’ (the Anglican tradition). Take a close look at those marks that he suggests are characteristic of it. Yet over the course of my own adult life public worship in the Church of England has increasingly shifted from focusing on the ‘Office’ (Matins and Evensong) to focusing on Holy Communion/Eucharist. There are now churches, including some I know well, in which there may be several celebrations of the Eucharist on a Sunday, but there is no regular public act of worship based on either Matins or Evensong. And there are many Anglican lay people for whom the only act of prayer they participate in, whether publicly or privately, is a Communion service. And I think that in such circumstances, whether as individuals or church communities we have lost something that is an important charism of the Anglican tradition. It is not that I don’t think that Communion/Eucharist is the rightful ‘centre’ of Christian worship. I most certainly do. Rather if anything (though I am sure that it is not what is intended) I feel that the importance of Communion can be devalued when it becomes the only regular expression of corporate Anglican worship. It is the goal and culmination of our worship, but it cannot be that if it is our only expression of it. For me, part of the grace of Anglicanism is its paradoxical, elusive quality – that celebrates both the presence and the absence of God (most characteristically in our traditional Anglican use of the psalms) – and an almost total replacement of the Offices by Communion/Eucharist as the only regular expression of public worship feels as though it somehow ‘domesticates’ God in a way that can feel rather cosy. Certainly the challenges of the present time offer an opportune moment to reflect on such issues, so I am grateful to Bishop Curry for raising the question. I would welcome any responses from readers – it would be good to get a gracious conversation going on this topic. Clare Amos

*****

angela fall leading service

Digital Sunday worship led by Reader Angela Fall in Lausanne 10 May

 

A poignant and powerful reflection and prayer/poem

Julia Bell

Sometimes I can almost forget the times we are in. I often worked from home before lockdown and so I had a computer and desk set up already. Although I travel as part of my role, we always had the option of switching to online meetings if that travel wasn’t justified. So sometimes you can forget that the online meeting is now enforced. In my other life as an ordinand, my study is mostly online and part-time alongside my ‘day job’. So, there too I can log in as normal and continue the same routine. However, this last weekend was different. We were supposed to be on a residential training weekend with fellow ordinands and readers in training. We still had our classes. We still did the preparation. We still had the discussions and catch up times. We had our online worship on Saturday evening and we even had a bar session planned.

But then came the moment when we all felt the times we are in. At the end of worship, we were invited to listen to the final piece of music and then leave. We didn’t. All the little boxes on Zoom stayed. We remained sitting in our bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms but we didn’t leave. We sat and stared at all the faces looking back at us on our screens in quiet. And we cried.

Those pictures on a screen are more than pixels. They represent people that we love and cherish, that are part of the body of Christ and made in the image of God.

And it was the beautiful and uplifting worship offered to God that also brought us all closer to each other even as we worshipped physically further apart than ever before.

Faces in Worship

 Small boxes on a screen
Dozens of squares
In neat ordered rows
Eyes closed in prayer
Mouths open in muted song
Not real faces
Real people

God is here
We are his body
We are one body
Far away
Pictures on a screen
Image of God
Each face bearing the mark of its maker

We come together
In virtual space
Community separated
But together
Connected by www
Connected by the Spirit
Connected in love

*****

Encouraged by his previous interreligious work, especially in the Middle East, Pope Francis invited people to keep 14 May as a day for people of all faiths to pray together in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The Vatican produced a great short video to encourage this process viewable at https://youtu.be/Z8JhiYqzjgU, and I was grateful to friends in Geneva who suggested that I wrote a prayer to be used on that or other subsequent interreligious times of prayer:

God of life, Creator of all
Your reach stretches beyond the farthest stars that we can see,
Yet you are nearer to us than our own soul.
In this time of crisis may your love draw human beings together,
Bridging the distance of place, of nationality, of ideology and religion.
Unite us as one in prayer to face together this enemy, the virus.
Free us from fear,
Grant us courage and compassion,
Make us generous in acts of charity,
And bring to effect our longing for the healing of this world. Amen.

*****

There have now been some wonderful performances of great music by virtual choirs. This video isn’t a great performance – the Hallelujah Chorus was clearly prerecorded! But it shows families in lock-down having fun and enjoying themselves. Hallelujah!   That is the message it clearly conveys https://vimeo.com/411011801?ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR05kOXU1_SPqAvfLvr71bh1E_8LmbuZtGSI7MeQ696QGnHYrqwd-19A–w

 

 

 

 

 

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