Ministry in Higher Education in Pandemic times

 Every year come Labor Day I hear the school bells ringing and like the fabled horse in the fire station, I get all excited. I suppose ten years in campus ministry and five as Coordinator of Ministry in Higher Education at the Church Center is there to haunt or taunt me forever. 


Those years were an exercise in being Church without church. In those years, about a third of my ministry, I had no established altar, no sanctuary, no parish family. More importantly my work was with people who were not a congregation.  Ministry in higher education requires attention to institutions and people who are organized around agendas that are decidedly not like those of the institution we call church. 


Ministry in higher education is distinctly missionary, in that it involves being stranger in a strange land. Even church related colleges and universities know this missionary tension, for the language of intellectual and faith discourse are as different as the languages of different nations.  I loved being present as a translator, a practitioner of the art of being present with and for people of another nation.  And I believe campus ministry is to the whole of the institution, not only to students. So over the years I practiced and encouraged engagement with all sorts of groups on campus as they tried to do justice and practice loving kindness and walking humbly in their faith. I loved it.


This year when I hear the school bells ring, I think of those doing ministry in higher education and wonder what that work will look like now.


All across the United States colleges and universities are beginning a new academic year. Of course this year, in the midst of an out of control pandemic, renewed confrontation with systemic racism, sexism, privilege, and with the crisis in government,  it’s hard to know what that will entail, except to say that most of the trappings of higher education that make up campus life will be missing. 


With many classes being held on-line, with social distancing, health monitoring, strange mixes of virtual and in-person classes, staggered realtime presence on campus, and no large gatherings, the campus experience will be radically reconfigured, as will any semblance to “brand loyalty” among students. With renewed critique of institutional blindness to racial prejudice, privileged access, patriarchy, and even internal economic and social justice, colleges and universities are under attack even as the need for intellectually competent people is greater than ever.


In past years campus ministers came to their work in very incarnational ways – by being present with the people affiliated with institutions of higher education.  As students were checking in to campus, the chaplain could be seen checking in with returning students, with teachers, administrators and staff, inviting them to join in the campus ministry activities – religious services, study groups, activities in service to others. Some also would be checking in with administrators about policy issues, or with employees about economic concerns. All of this grew easily from being a person-about-campus. In my years on campus the daily “walk about” was a central part of my work life.


But how will that be done when the campus is virtual as much as visceral?  


I don’t know the answer to that one, and given that I am no longer a practicing campus minister I suppose I have very little to say that is helpful concerning practice.


But I am very concerned for the future of ministry in higher education.  The same forces that make the pandemic and social dis-ease so deadly to common life make it easier to practice a kind of economic triage, dropping ministries that seem external to the primarily task of keeping parishes alive.  When dioceses have to cut budgets because parishes are not thriving it becomes easy to discontinue missionary activities like campus ministry.  And that is all the more the case when pandemic hits and criticism of privileged institutions rises.  


So now is the time to signal the importance of ministry in higher education, aka campus ministry. Here are some beginning thoughts:


(i)              Campus ministry concerns community, and universities and colleges in a time of pandemic are suffering a disconnect between campus community and classroom experience. Hopefully campus ministries can assist in reforming what it means to be community.

(ii)            Campus ministry can, and often does, encourage the search for meaning, justice, and loving kindness. When teachers, administrators and staff are faced with massive changes in how they make education work, chaplains can contribute prophetic and pastoral concern for the life of the institution and the lives of all within it.

(iii)           Campus ministry is already a practice of “virtual” church, in which networking replaces settled congregational life.  In a time when internet networking has replaced face-to-face connections some of the networking skills of the campus minister can be useful not only to new campus life, but also to new parish life. Having a vocation that is not bound to physical space can be helpful when physical space is not available or practical. 

(iv)           Campus ministry concerns finding values in a world where knowledge is power, and in which what the powerful know prevails.  Privilege, white male  power, racism, and social injustice are being confronted by people in higher education institutions all the time. Those in campus ministry know it is not enough to be intellectually brilliant, it is important to bend that intelligence towards the common good, towards justice, towards the celebration of beauty and a life of self-giving.  Campus ministry can be an ally to those addressing social injustice in all its forms.

(v)            Campus ministry in a time when there is no campus but rather a virtual campus is about finding a body where there is no body. It is very much a practice of resurrection, as if the old has died and the new has come. Campus ministry of all sorts, not just Christian, are filled with experiences of the rebirth of wonder. Most congregations lose and gain members over time and over an extended period the whole congregation will be new, but the congregation as institution continues.  There is wonder in that, that there is a continuing witness to faith, even as there is turnover of membership. In campus ministry we are fortunate if even half our network lasts more than a year. Campus ministry is practiced at the art of death and resurrection. Something of the arts and skills of continuing presence, even as the old dies away, may be of great value to the institutions of Church and Higher Education as they face into the end of campus and sanctuary and the emergence of more tenuous, but perhaps more supple network based communities.


Well, at least there are some thoughts.  But this I am quite sure of: We need to support campus ministry in this time because Universities and Colleges are undergoing a transformation to a more network based community, and campus ministers can be allies and contributors to a network that encourages value as well as knowledge, justice as well as power, love for others as well as love of self.  Not to be there is a huge missionary mistake, for the Gospel has its greatest presence where death gives way to new creation.



Make the Destination Clear: “The Episcopal Branch.of the Jesus Movement”, what does it mean?

   Make the Destination Clear: “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” – what does that mean?


The promo on the Episcopal Church web page for the Beloved Community” begins, “As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we dream and work to foster Beloved Communities..”  


I’ve written about the notion of the Jesus Movement here” http://anglicanfuture.blogspot.com/2017/06/why-jesus-movement-movement-does-not.html


My concerns about the phrase “Jesus Movement” was that it has been used in very sloppy ways by a variety of people and groups that would have found The Episcopal Church to have been decidedly NOT part of its work. Any movement must be defined not just by what it moves away from (say stagnation and cooption) but by what it moves towards. That something towards which it moves is not spelled out, except by reference to fostering Beloved Communities. 


Beloved Communities are communities loved by someone, in this case one assumes by God. And the assumption is that by being communities of love ourselves we are reflecting God’s love and are in turn loved by God.  Beloved is a community activity, engaging both God’s actions and ours. 


This stuff of doing what the Lord requires - It’s a fine notion, one that I readily affirm. Micah got it, Jesus got it, the Apostles and Prophets got it, and even I’ve got it.  If that is what the Jesus Movement is – a movement fostering beloved communities – great.


But about the Episcopal Church being a “branch” of the Jesus Movement, I am unclear and unmoved.


The phrase “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” is an amazing conflation of two very different images of life in Christ – one quite institutional and the other quite individual.


Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  It is a stretch to say “branches” had anything to do with churches.  And yet there are amazing numbers of charts that show the church branches that have grown out from the tree of life (i.e. Jesus).  


As a teenager in New Orleans, a strongly Catholic town at the time, my priest showed me this chart with Anglican churches clearly labeled as being in continuity with the main trunk of faithful people. With some pride he talked about how we Anglicans were the third largest branch of the Church. So in spite of what those Roman Catholics would say, we are a branch of the true church.  And, just as icing on the cake, he then would reference the “I am the vine, you are the branches” statement, as if that settled the matter.  But of course it didn’t. 

It was a useful image for me as a teenager, in love (as much as I could expresse it) at that time with Roman Catholic young woman. It gave me talking points in conversations about our religious beliefs.  IT kind of gave me a pedigree.


The reference, “The Episcopal branch” is a hint back to the assurance that what we are about is both part of the core activity of being followers of Jesus, and being part of the “true” church.  May it be so.


But the problem is that the Jesus Movement, which is not apparently an edifice or tree or vine or any other definable organized entity, is that it is not something that has branches.  It is not an organization (like say a bank) that has branch offices. It is not a tree or vine organized as a living organism that has tendrils or new growth extensions.


I believe the Jesus Movement is an aspirational and spiritual declaration, and as a result, it is part of the personal side of the baptismal covenant.  The individual (I) joins this movement towards belonging to and engaging with the beloved community. But the beloved community is itself “not of this world.”  It is not an organized entity of any sort. Rather beloved community is found as we gather in a whole variety of ways to live out what Moses, Micah, other prophets, and  Jesus (and a whole host of others) point us towards. 


The notion that The Episcopal Church is a “branch” of some ongoing historical organization called “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an institutional claim.  But what is it to say we are a branch of the Jesus Movement? I think it means almost nothing.


Fostering beloved communities is not the same as establishing new communities that will somehow BE beloved communities. We can foster beloved communities in every parish in the church, but the funds for such efforts tend to go to “new” work, not to support of already existing parishes so that they become agents of new community. The new work being funded looks increasingly parallel to, but not included in, the ongoing effort to foster beloved community IN parishes.  Giles Fraser in an article posted this week https://unherd.com/2020/08/the-neoliberal-revolution-within-the-church/

points to a similar dynamic in the Church of England.


Episcopalians can be, and I hope are, part of the Jesus Movement. I hope I am. I hope we take our baptismal vows seriously. And I believe I am not the vine, but a really small tendril from that vine, one of the followers of Jesus.


But the Episcopal Church is not such a branch. People are.


So when there is this rush to do “new work” we in the church may be told that this is all about being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, but don’t believe it.  It may indeed be about doing or supporting very important and good work “fostering beloved community.” Those ongoing communities of faithful people gathered in congregations across the land will be mostly left out of the conversation.


Existing parishes will mostly be left to their own devices, the bigger and better off will make it. The smaller and less financially capable will mostly die off.  And new work will be mostly unrelated to the institutional Church at all.  The branch of the tree may whither even as new shoots are planted. 


All of this may be part of moving on, and if so let it be. But don’t mutter about the Episcopal part of the Jesus Movement. I am not at all sure that there will be any need for bishops in the Jesus Movement at all, much less The Episcopal Church. 


Time to clean up the language, or else, to use Fr. Fraser’s insight)  face into the new-liberal deconstruction of the church as we now know it.


I believe we need to make the destination clear.  If the call to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement is a post-denominational claim or an extra-institutional claim, then be clear that what we are asked to join and support is not new work of The Episcopal Church but rather the work of Jesus people moving on towards the realization of the beloved community. This is the new wine, new wine skin crowd. . If we are The Episcopal Church AS an organization fostering Beloved Community in our own corporate life, perhaps we might better start by helping existing communities to be more like the communities we are called to be. This is the crowd that seeks to be born again, even when old. 


Me, I’d like to see the church that perpetually seeks a rebirth of wonder. (To cop a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti).  But if it must be, get a new wine skin for new wine.


Either way: Make the path clear.



Ambiguous loss and the increase and multiplication of mercy

Sermon, Sunday July 26, 2020. St Peter’s Lewes.  Mark Harris

“Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal”

This is from the Collect, a prayer at the beginning of the Eucharist that sets a direction for our meditation on the readings. And today this collect rings true. We could do with a multiplication of God’s mercy in these days. As Mary Gauther says in her song, “We all could use a little mercy now.”
Last week, in the middle of the night on Tuesday, I tried to cry. There was this deep sense of grief within me, and I wanted to let tears wash that grief out. But the tears did not come. I could not cry. I retuned slowly to sleep, without the consolation of tears.

I realized that there was a grieving in my heart that was beyond words, and even beyond my ability to summon up the tears to cry.  Since I spend lots of time in my studio doing printmaking art, I’ve tried to find picture words to use.  Nothing!  My prayer to let the tears come was not met, for the words or even the pictures were not there. I wonder if you have been there too in these strange days? Grief without tears.
There is great comfort in Paul’s comment, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  Sleep returned that Tuesday night, not as consolation but as space for the Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words, or images, or even tears. I believe I went to sleep with the Spirit sighing.
It got me to wondering, in all the pandemic concerns, in the economic uncertainties and in our time of political and social uncertainty I have not taken time to grieve, and it has all caught up with me. And maybe you too.
We are grieving for ambiguous losses.  Unambiguous losses are by comparison clear. We lose a loved one, we deal with debilitating illness, we suffer disappointment, we lose a job. Concrete losses. But here there is an uncertain, ambiguous loss.

Krista Tippitt recently interviewed Pauline Boss who coined the phrase “ambiguous loss” to refer to loss that just does not seem to have any resolution. Someone who has disappeared and now must be declared dead, the loss of someone to dementia without losing their body presence, and in these days for us Episcopalians, the loss of the comfort of the Sacrament without any resolution of the problems that make it impossible to actually receive. And for all of us, a loss of innocence and trust in others.

With ambiguous loss we quickly turn to “what’s next” in part because our losses are not clearly defined, and our grieving, like the losses themselves, seem unending.

I grieve for the ambiguous losses in my life, and I suspect maybe you do too:

I grieve for social engagements that have died. The world of pressing the flesh is gone. But it is not a concrete death, but rather death by a thousand slights.

I grieve for the church I was used to. It has died. St. Peter’s was known as a parish where people sang together, where we jostled our way to the line to receive communion, to go for prayers of healing, and later to robustly gather at the table for eats at coffee-hour. We came together with abandon for meetings of all sizes, like a family of puppies gathered at the food dish. And all of that is gone. Yes, we do come together via the internet, but as we all know, “it’s not the same.”

Even what we experience as family is affected. I grieve the awkward and hesitant meeting with those I love. Dare we embrace? Can we laugh together? Distance seems so artificial, even as it is necessary.

We have experienced a thousand little deaths. And yet we have not set a time for grieving or even allowed for grieving, and no time for tears. We don’t know even know how to name our losses. Instead we essentially admonish ourselves, and are admonished by others, to suck it up, to get on with it, to find a new normal. No time for grieving, move on.

To some extent this is necessary. We are admonished that we need to let the dead bury the dead. We do need to face into the new. That is true, but still the grief is there to be named. And until named that grief hangs on as a ghost, a specter. Until then we cannot hear the Spirit that both sighs and calls us forward.

The Spirit remembers, and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And in the sighing, perhaps those griefs are named, whispered, by the one who comforts us,  like a parent comforting us when we hear sounds under the bed, and holding us close, whispering, “It’s OK, it’s OK. Don’t be afraid. Just go to sleep.” Our wordless grief is met by the Spirit of God, who connects with us, sighing on our behalf. And having interceded, what now? What does the Spirit call us to after the sighs too deep for words?

And it is here, in the acknowledgment of our grief, that we hear the words of the collect echo, “Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal”

The grief is indeed for things temporal…our small ways of life, our normalities, even our ways of being community. We miss them, but we also remember that they were pretty dusty, pretty tattered. Perhaps it was more than time for them to finally be put to rest.

Maybe it is alright to have our old normalities die… do we really want to miss our misogynistic ways, or our racist past, or our reliance on economic inequities as a matter of course? Perhaps we grieve and then finally let go.
Jesus, in his parables often presents us with the promise of the age to come, the Kingdom of God. He calls us beyond our normality and all its impediments.  

He does not teach a reinstitution of old ways whose loss we grieve. He does not offer a program for remedy for the failings of the old. Instead he proposes a radically different new age, one which is a response of the Spirit, who having interceded with sighs too deep for words, now calls us forward.

The mustard seed, like our hopes, made dormant in grief, will grow amazingly.
--------That’s what to expect from God’s reign.

God’s new world will be yeasty, wild in its expansion. There’s a new heaven and new earth for you!

In the Kingdom of God you will find immeasurable joy, like a pearl of great price, and for this you will give everything.

Bury your hopes in grief, then buy the plot so you can have those hopes when you are finished grieving.

Cast your hopes out wide in great expectation and hawl in many things, only to keep what fulfills those hopes.

The Spirit, who sighs with and for us, will also return not to console, but to dance with us a new dance. 

God willing we not find a new normal at all, we will not get back to business as usual, we will not overcome our grief by repetition of who we have been, but by becoming new.
“Behold,” says the Spirit, “I make all things New.” First, we grieve, then we rise from our grief, made new.  Death and Resurrection.

Paul is right, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”….” I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I believe our practice in this hour is to make the destination clear:  To do this we must make unambiguous the losses we now grieve for. We need to name those losses, grieve our lost former selves, and rise to new life. That new life will be unambiguously expansive, as generous as the net that draws all in, the tree that gives shade to the birds, the treasure and the yeast that grows explosively. Jesus offers a multitude of mercies, just as we prayed for in the Collect.

And then we can say in High Expectation, as did the Prophet in the Revelation of John the Divine, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

And so, I say, at long last weep dear friends, and then Arise in great expectation!  Amen.


Why War imagery for the Pandemic is dangerous, and why I am a draft resister.

Well, fellow travelers on this strange journey through Pandemic Land, all this war imagery about Covid-19 is coming home to roost.

It started getting thrown about as an image about those medical and service workers who can not shelter in place and sometimes are put in harm’s way.  It was pretty straightforward to say that their service is extraordinary and that we recognize that what they are doing is essential, dangerous, and much like “front-line” warriors.   I think, pray and do what this miserable carcass can do to support these workers. Mostly, I try to do what I was asked to do, namely get out of the. way, stay home, try not to receive or give the virus a right of passage.  

All this war talk had a cost:  we came to think of those doing essential service as devoted, not to the care of others (which they are) but devoted to winning this “war.”  It is however different to die for others and to die for a cause, particularly when that cause is seen in national terms.  Between service to some humans (near at hand) and service to all humankind there lies the broad range of service to various groups of humans, including nations.  When we think of working to end the Pandemic or working to save the lives of those who have the disease, or those who might have the disease, our goal is healing humans and communities.  When we think of the people doing this work as warriors we are not thinking of them as healers, putting themselves in harm’s way, we are thinking of them as necessary but regrettable “sacrifice” for a cause.  The trouble with the war imagery is that warriors die for a cause wrapped in a flag, or sometimes for no good reason at all, except the country.  We ask our health and essential service people to possibly die so that others might live. There is no flag big enough to represent that service.

Here is what is most bothering, however: When the “front line” is broken open (as happened almost immediately, virus having no need for a pass) everywhere becomes the front line.  Then the war propaganda makes all of us “warriors,” which means, dear friends, that the President has drafted us all into some sort of army that is going to win, making us (USA) victorious and great again and he will be the wartime president who won the war against Covid-19.  This is propaganda tail-wagging-the-dog drivel. Except it is dangerous. 

Now that the war is universal, and we are the universal soldier, and it is assumed that for reasons of national security and cause we must be willing to suffer casualties so that national economic interests (couched as return to normal) can be. maintained. We must be willing to see some of us die because the country needs to get back to business. So the draft has begun, and the draftees will include the elderly (that’s me) and the health compromised, the unemployed and the illegal, people of color and the usual gang of people first conscripted to be canon fodder, namely the poor. 

The health of people has been replaced by the heath of the nation, and the warriors are no longer in service to the people, but the nation. So all of us, first responders, health workers, essential services  personnel, together with everyone else of rank less than general, will engaged the “enemy” and many of us will die. And when it is over those who remain will be declared “winners” in the war,and the leaders will lead the victory parade.  And all we “warriors”will put stars in our windows, and after awhile we will take them down.  When the war is over, the draftees will be briefly remembered as vaguely patriotic, but the leaders will claim victory in their name, but for themselves. 

The “war” theme is as bad now as it was for the “war” on drugs.  The imagery is tempting, but  wrong headed, at its core.

My sense is we would be better off to think of what it is that the virus is doing, hitching a ride with humans, and how we might go about rejecting the virus using us as hosts.   Much as some martial arts make use of the notion of deflection,  where the advance of the other is meet with deflection, rather than attack, perhaps we need to think of our denying the virus access to our bodies as a matter not of attack for attack, but rejection by deflection. This not war, this is about personal security. If everyone could be a warrior, how much more could everyone be trained to deflect the advance of the virus, not only from our bodies, but the bodies of others.  The virus is not the enemy, but a rude and. disruptive visitor, to be tamed or deflected (treated or vaccined against.). The “war” imagery does not serve the needs of public or personal health. In a national context, it serves national interests, and by extension the political machinations of its leaders.

So here is what I know:

(i) I didn’t volunteer for this warrior service, and I an unwilling volunteer, and will become a draft resister.
(ii) War language serves leaders, not those who will must. readily be “sacrificed”. I don’t trust that language, not one bit.
(iii) “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” Calling people heroes, warriors, front-line soldiers, and the like, is fine in a loose sort of way, but those who are working in harms way are, we hope, purposeful.  They are there on purpose, doing hard jobs, and doing them even when dangerous. They are focused. If we were as purposeful in shutting the door on the virus we too would be focused. And focused people do what needs to be done, even if scared or perplexed or alone. 
(iv) Focus and purposeful action is what is needed, not reactive and fearful “fight or flight” response.
(v) I will not give anyone praise for having won the war. I will give thanks and gratitude to those who did not loose their focus,  were peurposeful in finding way to reduce the effect of the virus on our bodies and in our society. 
(vi) Heath and wealth are two very different matters. Confusing the two is disaster in the making.

But then, what the hell do I know?  I’m just a draftee.


Being Anglican in the time of Covid-19

For many of us the “stay in place” rules of the past few weeks are as novel as is the novel Covid-19 virus. New for us as we face a new virus. But stay-in-place is not new, nor is the presence of deadly pestilence.  Those in prisons and other institutions, those in war and situations of high civil unrest, people in high infection areas or for that matter high crime areas, and even those whose immune systems are compromised, all deal with stay-in-place rules and orders.  For once the privilege of free movement is withdrawn from us as it has been for so many others less fortunate than we.

It is here, in the isolation of even modest imprisonment, that we begin to take stock of our spiritual resources, our toolbox for home brew religious life.  It is here that personal prayer, small family group worship, listening for God’s presence, meditation on the Word, all return to us as lifelines to a sense of healing.  And it is here that we can take comfort in Anglican worship and spirituality, if not in Anglican (or anyone else’s) ecclesiology.

I come from a long line of do it-yourself Anglicans. My Grandmother and her mother started evening prayer in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, and from that St. Agatha’s Church arose. They could not say the offices there, however, because they were not men.  My grandfather Harris was a lay reader at the University of Alabama, and my father swore that Grandpa celebrated the Eucharist as a lay person, although I suspect he said Anti-Communion.  I remember my father reading to me from the big family bible in Maracaibo, Venezuela, as a way of connecting not only with the stories there, but with family so far away from us. For a period of ten years I regularly celebrated the Eucharist in exile from the “regular” church. The table was a coffe-house table, the participants were alien to parish life, the music mostly home-made and seemingly secular, and bread was broken and shared and wine liberally poured out. I have often in my later years found myself worshiping in communities that do not speak English, are not English, and whose other gods are not nordic or even Roman.  One way or another little of this looked Anglican, but at its core it was VERY Anglican. It was about Anglican worship in exile.

There is little instructive help from ecclesiastical leaders about how to develop a prayer life in isolation.  There are plenty of examples of ecclesiastical leaders doing morning or evening prayer, anti-communion and communion services that can be virtually attended by the rest of us. But there is very little coaching about how we might “do it ourselves.” And I have heard not a whisper in recent days about baptism in a time of isolation, or worse yet, confinement in medical isolation. The sacraments apparently are thought of primarily as signs done by codified and sanitized rituals, and by ordered leaders, that is, primarily by clergy. The church, in its careful way, has surrounded the sacramental life with the guides provided by the religious leadership of the various faith communities.

It is useful to recall that this was in no way the manner of engagement with sacraments by either Jesus or his immediate circle.  Baptism into Christ seems in the earliest church to be a sacrament by Christians not yet divided into “orders” of ministry. Baptism was apparently a sacrament by which the body grew, some members reaching out and drawing others into the community. And, of course, it is still possible “in emergency” for lay persons to do the reaching and drawing in. But no one talks about it.  Likewise, in the early church, coming together, saying the prayers and breaking the bread were done as a community, with the role of presiding decidedly unregulated by ordination. But you can’t tell that from here, with the oven of time having cooked the books.

That first pattern did not last for very long. My sense is that the hook by which leadership in worship and Sacrament was connected to leaders “ordered” for that task by the community itself was the hook of witness or testimony.  As the community grew certain of its members were singled out to make the case or remind the community of the basis of their being this new community.  That “remembering” included remembering the baptism in the spirit that marked the pentecost experience and remembering the New Commandment, and the words at the meal that prefigured the Eucharist. The people who did this remembering where the ones who experienced the ministry of Jesus or received the visitation of the risen One,  or the experience of the indwelling of the Spirit, or some combination of the three. As they died out their disciples (students) took their place. The central desire to remember then got attached to the sacramental and worship life, and those who were the rememberers also became the officers of the sacraments and of worship life.  But it remains unclear how much we are bound sacramentally to the pattern that makes the officers of the sacrament and the carriers of the core theological and religious witness and message the same.

And here we are, two thousand years later,  doing every thing we can to continue the unbroken contention that sacramental action and ordered worship are properly the work of ordained (or sometimes locally appointed) leaders. It seems very clear that there is little interest in teaching regular people how to pray the daily office, and absolutely no interest in instructing people in the possibility of sacramental worship. Of course we admonish people to say their daily prayers. But there not much to guide us in saying the daily office.  And of course we admonish people not to stay away from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but no hint as to what to do when there is no ordained person to preside.

We do this In the time of pandemic isolation and assume that we can fast for a season, or partake on some level with a priest with whom we share non-physical space.  But we almost never engage the instructional possibilities whereby Eucharist and the daily office might be conducted by people in the most local of communities – those we live with, or if alone as solitaries.  We act as if we believed this moment of isolation is not the future, but only a passing thing.

This is a mistake.  Of course we will get beyond this moment and church will return. But we will continue our failure to address the possibilities that we are AS A PEOPLE, a priesthood of all believers, to whom the commands to go out and baptize and to remember Jesus whenever we do this offering of bread and wine, were given. And in our failure we will miss great opportunities for witness and invitation to faith.

I have recently been reminded again of a novel I read some years ago, The Clowns of God, by Morris West. In it a pope has an apocalyptic vision which both leads him to quit the papacy and to begin an effort to seek some other way forward for humanity. It was written against the backdrop of the end of the 20th Century, but 20 years off is not too far off. The now resigned Pope wrote an encyclical in which he envisions the collapse of social systems around the world in war and economic chaos.  He wrote

“How then must Christians comport themselves in these days of trial and terror?

… Since they will no longer be able to maintain themselves as large groups, they must divide themselves into small communities, each capable of sustaining itself by the exercise of a common faith and a true mutual charity. Their Christian witness must be given by spreading that charity outwards to those who are not of the faith, by aiding the distressed, by sharing even their most meager means with those who are most deprived. When the priestly hierarchy can no longer function, they will elect to themselves ministers and teachers who will maintain the Word in its integrity, and continue to conduct the Eucharist.…”

The second is a story sent to me by an old Seminary classmate, Dick Ulman, who wrote,

“Let me share a story ... I heard this in the mid-1970s. China had just “re-opened” to the world. A senior colleague, Charles Long, had been a missionary in China, and relayed a Chinese friend’s report on a business trip to Shanghai. Here’s the version of the story I found in my sermon file (year, 1977):

After nearly a generation of ruthless suppression of all religion, the Christian Church, never very significant or visible in China, seems to have disappeared. Long’s friend went to a restaurant. In the usual Chinese style, he was seated at a round table with eleven other guests. Each diner introduced himself and small talk round the table began. Long’s friend noticed, however, that one man at one moment lifted a piece of bread in a strange manner, broke it and asked “Does anyone remember?” One other man at the table interrupted his chatter, lifted his bread slightly and said “I remember”.

The meal continued in the normal manner, and Long’s friend forgot the incident until after the final course. At that time the first man lifted his tea cup and again asked, “Does anyone remember?” Again the second stranger spoke: “I remember.” Finally Long’s friend recognized what was happening. He hastened to lift his own cup. “Yes,” he stuttered. “And so do I: I remember!”

These two stories have provoked me once again to raise the question of household based eucharist, against the backdrop of the peculiar and hopefully short term forced closure of large group meetings. We all hope that we can once again worship in large household again – as gatherings of many in relatively close space.  There is no reason to think we can not do so. None, except the recurrence of what will undoubtedly happen, namely the emergence of new hazards, biological, environmental or political, that might make social distancing, lock down, shelter in place, necessary.

The two stories speak of alternate scenarios in which there is the  ending of social gathering, including religious gathering: endings because of havoc and chaos, and endings because of social attempts at control.   And now we see a third: as the world becomes more and more connected – in all ways- the possibility of virus-like dangers grow.

In an earlier blog  I wrote of the possibility of rethinking the eucharistic community in a form that does not require the combination of priest / temple / and community. Where there is no gathering of the whole congregation possible, where there is no gathering at the temple, because of extreme social distancing, where we essentially become household communities, can we rethink the celebration of the eucharist such that a priest is not a requirement for the celebration of the sacrament? I believe so.

I think the church can and ought to teach and instruct on the matter of eucharistic and daily worship so that communities without a priest, including domicile communities (groups of people living together), might be the persons who both remember and act in accord with the encouragements of Jesus. It can be done decently and in order. It can be done in ways that do not degrade the need for or desire for trained clergy. That the church is ready to do this is another matter entirely.  But the day will come when we will not be able to meet in large groups, for one reason or another, and when there will be a serious shortage of clergy. Not to prepare for this involves a failure of nerve, not unlike the Episcopal Church’s failure of nerve to be genuinely missionary.

The Anglican Communion website has marked this pandemic, which has affected so many of us, all over the world, by good words of encouragement, and by the offering of virtual worship services, but not by any (as far as I can find) practical encouragement, by training and instruction, as to how to continue in prayer,  worship and sacramental engagement, in a time of forced separation There is no communion wide record of just how Anglican communities are finding new ways of being incarnational, sacramental and faithful in a time of social distancing.  And more generally, I find very little that suggests an alternative to virtual reality involvement.

But I think that is blasphemy: to suggest that the solution to separation is un-incarnate worship and vicarious inclusion in the process (but not the reality) of sacrament, is to consign those separated to a kind of spiritual starvation.  At the very least the church needs better to make those particularly Anglican worship events of daily prayer and Eucharist tangible in days of separation.

For many years I have put my more or less ineffectual shoulder to the wheel, working for the health and vitality of the Anglican Communion as a religious community rather an an ecclesiastical hierarchy and body, seeing the Communion as a way of being Christian, not the “true Church.”  But I have to say that the combination of age, disinterest in radical reformation  by the governance of my own or any other Anglican province, and the general failure of nerve and lack of vision by the governing bodies of the Communion, has led me to have to acknowledge a disappointment in the way the churches play out what it is to be Anglican.  I mostly do not care any more much what The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any other agent of Anglican churches has to say. And, to be clear, I care even less what the various “orthodox Anglican” alternative have to say.

In this pandemic, and in the general disintegration of nation states, general churches, and other attempts to organize our civic and religious sensibilities, I find precious little from the various offices of Anglican bodies about how to BE Christian in community, when communities become fragmented and we become more and more witnesses in a world that has lost faith in what we represent.

So I don’t hold my breath that the various powers that be in the Anglican Communion, or for that matter, the Episcopal Church, will care to look beyond themselves to the small, tender, and fragile communities of believers that will carry the witness forward in  hard times.

And yet, at table with others, I will lift bread and say, “I remember. Does anyone else?” and lift the wine in toast and say, “I remember. Does anyone else?” And there will be, God willing, a response. And there will have been the most Holy of Eucharist at the lowest of tables and the lest of us will be the greatest.

The remembering, like the struggle,  will continue.