By Rev. Canon Preston Parsons
Since our first lockdown nearly two years ago, we’ve done a lot of experimenting with worship.
This has been necessary, and in many ways has been a good thing. As many of us haven’t been able to be present for worship at St. John’s, but we’ve been able to adapt through technological means.
This adaptation has changed our practice, simply because so many of us (and at times all of us!) have worshipped with the help of technology. But to talk about practice is not necessarily to speak of a norm. We have made adaptations to our norm, but we haven’t spent much time reflecting on the connections between our practice and our norm.
We have a norm for worship? What the heck do you mean?
We do! And the norm for worship is to hear the word preached, and to receive the sacrament, alongside other worshippers from our parish neighbourhood, city, or region.
Expressed theologically, I would say the following.
The sermon is an event of the proclamation of the word, the same Word that was made flesh and present to others and to the world. So the word preached is necessarily a communal event, in which the Word is made present through our presence to a preacher and to one another.
The sacrament is similar, but in an even more tangible way. The Lord’s body and blood are given to us in the form of bread and wine, and we are to eat and drink that bread and wine that is his body and blood. This is something that necessarily happens when we are present bodily to the sacrament in order to receive it, and alongside others who are also receiving it.
And so we worship alongside others who are bodily present to us, as the Word of God is made present to us in the sermon and Jesus is made bodily present to us in the sacrament.
So the norm for worship is what we’ve come to term “in-person worship.” But because of COVID, these three components to our norm that have been aﬀected by adjustments to pandemic: 1. our ability to be present as the word is preached is compromised; 2. our ability to regularly receive the sacrament regularly has been compromised; 3. our ability to worship alongside others in the congregation has been compromised.
We’ve adapted to this through “on-line worship.”
So Covid has foisted some necessary adaptations to worship. But there remains some need for reflection on what it means for us, and how we may have grown accustomed to things that are necessary adaptations to circumstance, but perhaps not good, in the long-run, for our well- being as Christians.
Why do we have a camera to broadcast worship then?
One of the main reasons we decided to invest in a sophisticated broadcasting apparatus through the McKay evangelism fund, has little to do with COVID. The McKay funds were released to us because broadcasting would be an aid to evangelism. The basic premise is as follows: while many of us, as long-term parishioners, are comfortable with coming to church, most people around us aren’t comfortable doing so. What happens inside the building is a mystery to more and more people, and it takes a lot of courage to step through the door of the church. People wonder, what am I getting myself into if I were to show up on Sunday? What happens in there? What kind of weird stuﬀ might I be expected to do? What kind of weird stuﬀ might I hear people say?
Part of the long-term reason for sharing recordings is to share what we do in order to demystify what we do. In this sense, a major reason for broadcasting worship has nothing to do with what we are calling “on-line worship.” It’s about sharing what we do in order that people might get a sense of what worship is at St. John’s and as a result would feel more comfortable coming to church.
What are you saying? Are you saying that when I worship from home by watching the broadcast, I’m doing the wrong thing?
Not at all. We installed the camera because we also knew that during the pandemic people would be worshipping from home. In that sense, “on-line worship” with the help of technology is an adaptation to the norm of worship, just like churches have been doing for ages. Some of us remember tape ministries where services would be recorded onto audio cassette and brought to people in their homes. Sometimes worship bulletins were kept and shared. More recently, sermons are posted on a website. We’ve been adapting to an inability to attend worship for a long time. The main diﬀerence now is the scale of our adaptation.
With regard to this sort of adaptation, I think of how much it meant to Jeannie McClean, someone who felt a deep connection to St. John’s, but was in long-term care and only able to go out with great diﬃculty. The fact that we broadcast worship meant that she was able to feel connected to St. John’s by worshipping in her room while watching her phone. (The fact that it meant so much to Jeannie made it all feel worthwhile!)
During the COVID epidemic, though, more and more of us have found ourselves in a similar situation to Jeannie’s. Either we’ve been in full lockdown and we couldn’t have more than a handful of people in the building on Sunday morning, or perhaps we’ve stayed home because don’t feel confident being in a crowd. These are good reasons to tune in online, and to find a way to adapt to circumstance.
So “on-line worship” is an option, just like “in-person worship”?
This is the most challenging thing to negotiate and on which to get a clear perspective. But I would say no, they are not equivalent options, and this brings us back to where we began.
The norm for Anglican worship is to hear the sermon, and receive the sacrament, alongside others to whom you are physically present. “On-line worship” is a necessary adaptation to that, but as an adaptation it is divergent from the norm. That is, if you can get to the church in order to hear the sermon, and receive the sacrament, alongside other Christians from the parish, city, or region in which you live—you go to the church and do so, because technology cannot replicate the norm for worship. That is, it is good for you to be present. This is not a judgment against adaptation—I’d hardly be one to say that adapting, through technology or other adaptive equipment, is somehow bad! I would, though, underline the wisdom of our established norm for Anglican worship and to uphold that norm as a good, even as we make room for necessary adaptations to that norm.
This is all reflective of my hope for you, and for us, as a congregation of worshippers. My hope is that you would hear the word preached from someone who can see you and communicate with you during that event, and react accordingly; that you receive the sacrament; and that you do so alongside others worshipping with you, people who could embrace you, speak a word to you, and see your face. That is, that you can worship the Lord in such a way that you would love God and others, and be loved by God and others, in the manner of our Lord’s love: through his bodily presence to the world and the people whom he loves. I’m very glad that if there’s any reason that you can’t be present in this way, that you can participate through technological means, as needed! I would, though, recognize that sort of technologically mediated participation as an adaptation to a norm that we would be wise to uphold.
(Reprinted from the Vestry Booklet 2022)
Rev. Preston Parsons is the rector of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener.