Usually when I write these columns, I write as a non-anxious consultant able to offer objective advice in difficult situations. But today I write as a minister fully caught between the two dominant moods of the current debate on re-entry into corporate worship—anxiety and anger.
I hear anxiety in the voices of members and professional religious colleagues who think it is too soon to restart worship. We know that no matter how careful we are, worship cannot be truly safe, especially for our most vulnerable members—who are also the ones most likely to want to attend. We are anxious for ourselves as well and for all our staff who, once we restart, can no longer choose to be safely absent without at the same time choosing to quit their jobs. Underneath this anxiety is anger at those who don’t appreciate the science or respect the concerns.
I hear anger in the voices of members and professional religious colleagues who think that worship is going to be dangerous for a while yet and the only thing to do is accept the danger while doing the best we can to manage the risks. Those who feel unsafe, they say, can make their own choice not to attend. Ultimately, we must all trust in God for the outcomes. Underneath this anger is anxiety about appearing weak or vulnerable in the face of a threat.
As I said, I am fully caught between anxiety and anger.
Rituals of faith
When I manage to step back, however, what surprises me is that we are all acting as though corporate worship—in a sanctuary, scripted by a few for the benefit of the rest—were the singular ritual denoting a life of true faith.
We know this to be untrue. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, Yahweh says through the prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-23) Christians also remember that Paul said to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” (Acts 17:24)
We forget that the sanctuary is not where the community has always worshipped or even the way that everyone worships now. The early church worshipped in people’s homes. Most of us have had at least one experience of outdoor worship around a campfire or near a stream, and some of us have even had the experience of worshipping in secret because it is not safe to be public.
And we forget that there are other spiritual disciplines in addition to corporate worship—individual prayer, careful study of God’s word alone and in groups, holy work, holy leisure, hospitality, humility, mindfulness—that do not need to be scripted by a leader or performed by professionals.
We forget these things because it is so easy to buy into the kind of binary thinking taught by our culture—male/female, rational/emotional, conservative/progressive, good/bad, and now real vs. virtual worship. And in our panic to preserve corporate worship when so much else was being shut down, those of us who serve congregations probably contributed to this binary understanding of worship by trying to recreate the in-person experience on-line, as if true worship always depended on the spoken word and hymns and the leader’s careful planning.
One of the touchstones of my own faithfulness, a book I turn to whenever I am tempted to despair, is Joan Chittester’s Wisdom Distilled From the Daily. When Chittester was a Benedictine novice, the chaplain had a custom of going from door to door every New Year carrying incense and holy water and saying prayers at the door of each room, while the rest of the community went on with their work. By the time Chittester wrote this book, however, she was no longer a novice and the custom had changed. The new practice was for the entire community, led by the prioress, to gather every New Year and process from the infirmary to the bedroom area to the community room to the dining room to the chapel, praying that “This year our aging process, our private selves, our community gatherings, and our guests will all be filled with peace in this place.”
Her point was that, while customs are what make the community, customs are constantly evolving. She says, “It is not so much what is done that matters as that something is done to raise the ordinary parts of life to signs of life’s extraordinary blessings and graces.”
It is not so much what is done that matters as that something is done.
Signs of blessing
This seems to me to be one way out of the polarity of anxiety and anger around getting back to worship in the sanctuary. We need to remember that our scripted corporate worship is not the only way to “raise ordinary parts of life”—like eating and singing and sitting together—“to signs of blessing.” Staying with a friend night after night as she struggles through dementia is a sign of blessing. Giving thanks for our food together before we eat with our grandchildren is a sign of blessing. Setting out the creche each year during Advent is a sign of blessing. Starting the New Year with a prayer for each room in our home that it might be filled with peace is a sign of blessing.
Yes, we all want to be back together in the sanctuary. But we should be clear that this is only one way of worshipping God in a world and a lifetime filled with opportunities for blessing.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.