4/29/2020

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  For once the privilege of free movement is withdrawn from us as it has been for so many others less fortunate than we.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.


3 comments:

  1. As always, you compose of a few of my silent, random, and disconnected thoughts so articulately, with Reason and the Spirit, in a great ease of style that I cannot fathom WHY we don't already know this. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you for this Didache for this time. It resonates with me as I imagine the original must have done with those for whom it was intended, and I take it to heart.

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