As we pass the six-month mark since the pandemic struck, we who are Christians, churchgoers, or seekers are discovering different ways of gathering and worshipping. During this time, we have been battered and shaped by sudden confinement, fear of infection, illness or death, and a radical departure from our known ways of worship.
I am aware, writing from Montreal, that our collective experience of COVID-19 is rather different than in Manitoba. While Winnipeg has had some of the lowest rates of infection and death of any province, Montreal has been the epicentre of the virus in Canada and among the most affected cities in the world. Our two dioceses are now in quite different stages of re-opening, with Montreal churches still meeting exclusively online as this goes to press, and Rupert’s Land allowing in-person worship, albeit with no singing and communion allowed only in one kind, with sugar tongs, on paper napkins, and six feet apart.
When visiting the websites of churches I knew while in Winnipeg, I noticed a range of patterns of worship and community throughout the months of confinement. Some churches like St. Luke’s or saint benedict’s table videotaped and posted their services, conducted in the sanctuary with a handful of clergy, readers, and musicians all appropriately spaced apart. I notice that St. Margaret’s live-streamed their services, but did not post recordings of them. And All Saints’ adopted the practice of distributing the reserved sacrament so parishioners could consume the consecrated host during the online liturgy.
My home parish of St. George’s, Canada Place, in Montreal began holding virtual services through Zoom, using a form of Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion. We have been following the services on a PowerPoint that provides the text along with images of the interior of St. George’s, and video recordings of various choirs in the Anglican Communion, including our own, singing canticles and familiar hymns. As long as we are muted, we too can sing along “lustily and with good cheer.”
These services have involved laypeople more fully than previously – not only as readers, but also as greeters (using the chat room), as antiphonal reciters of the Psalm, as leaders of the Prayers of the People, and as “the voice of the people,” saying the response while those who are online are muted and able to chime in from their living room. At the end of the service, we are put into breakout rooms for a virtual coffee hour, where I have met and heard stories from people I never spoke to on regular Sundays.
During Holy Week and Easter, I followed the services of the monastic community of Society of St. John the Evangelist – from the chapel of their Boston monastery, and later from their country retreat at Emery House. Being in the “bubble” of their own community meant the brothers could worship side by side, without masks or physical distancing, and share their communal worship by means of Facebook Live with people like me. It was easy to imagine being there, and seeing the names and comments of others joining in from different cities, countries, and continents made me feel like I was a part of the communion of saints.
These virtual forms of worship remind me of the question the Hebrews asked in the wilderness when they found manna in the morning – something like bread but not quite. Manna, meaning, “What is this?” We are finding that our virtual services are something like what “normal” Sunday worship used to be, but not quite, and are asking ourselves, “What is this?” What are we are trying to preserve or replicate in our virtual worship?
Like the Hebrew people in the desert, we at St. George’s are being fed by virtual worship, and for now it seems enough. For my part, I have been able to deepen a sense of connection with my fellow parishioners. I have rediscovered the riches of dwelling on the Liturgy of the Word and grown in my appreciation of the monastic offices – not only Morning Prayer Sunday by Sunday, but also Evensong or Compline day by day.
I have been wondering what makes our online worship work so well. I believe it has to do with creating a quality of presence, which is, after all, what worship is about: being present to God and to one another. How do we convey that quality without the aid of our church sanctuaries or choirs, without the taste of real bread and sweet wine, the touch of a handshake, the eye to eye contact?
What matters for me are the facial expressions of those who officiate, read, or preach, their tone of voice, the pauses between phrases and prayers, the silence after the readings and sermon. There is a difference between reading aloud a text and creating an atmosphere of prayer, listening, and worship. It’s not unlike what I’ve learned about online teaching: you can’t just post a digital recording of a classroom lecture and expect students to stay focused. It takes intentional preparation of both content and delivery. Well, I think leading worship is similar. It is worth taking the time to design, review, and tweak the service, and to rehearse it in advance with worship leaders both behind and in front of the camera and microphone.
It matters to me too that I am participating and not just watching. I’m not sure how that is done when services are videotaped. I think viewing the service in real time helps, and I think being able to join in with whatever is done on screen is important. Watching others receive communion when I’m not able to makes it difficult to feel involved, though words that acknowledge the presence of others and invites them to make spiritual communion certainly help.
Whatever the experience and preference of others over these past six months, I am surprised to realize that for me, abstinence from the Eucharist hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. I consider it abstinence rather than fasting – refraining until we find a way to celebrate that is safe, inclusive, truly sacramental, and not so antiseptic that what we touch and consume no longer resembles real bread or real communion.
Rebecca Widdicombe, in one of her blogs on the St. Margaret’s website, borrows from the language of writer Arundhati Roy, and likens our experience of the pandemic to a being on a pilgrimage – not an accomplishment, not a set of goals, but a walk in faith, a journey on which we discover gifts and surprises as we go. Like the Israelites in the desert, even if we are hungry for former times, for place and presence and real bread, we are finding ways to be fed by manna, ways to pray and worship, knowing that God sees and knows our hunger and longs to satisfy the desire of every living thing.
Maylanne Maybee is an Anglican deacon, now living in Montreal, where she is the Interim Principal of the United Theological College and an honorary assistant at St. George’s, Canada Place. She is an educator, social justice activist, ecumenist, and writer on the diaconate and ecclesiology. She lived in Winnipeg from 2011 to 2018. While there, she served as principal of the Centre for Christian Studies and an honorary assistant at St. Luke’s.