News about COVID has been supplanted by news about protests, at least for the time being, but until a few weeks ago, speculation about reopening closed churches was a hot topic.
Pastors responded to the speculation declaring that their churches were never closed because church is first, and most importantly, a gathering of the people of faith. The church exists whenever and however two or more are gathered in prayer and fellowship.
A church building is where we most often gather for worship and fellowship, but the faithful can be gathered anywhere by any means. During COVID restrictions, churches have gathered through live streamed services and Zoom meetings. They’ve never been closed, just gathered in unusual ways for worship, education, fellowship, and to be sent out into the world to do the work God has given them to do.
Church buildings, but not the church, were closed in response to the governor’s executive orders, but willingly out of loving concern for the health and welfare of the people they serve, and for the broader community in which we live. Closing the buildings was the loving thing to do, and they will be reopened in a loving, responsible way.
It has been a bit tricky, sometimes awkward. Seminaries don’t teach pastors how to be live streaming videographers, and few had ever heard of Zoom before this year. New skills don’t come with overnight delivery from Amazon. Congregations have had to give up some things of great importance to them. My tradition, Episcopalian, treasures the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion) in which we recognize the true presence of Christ in consecrated bread and wine. It’s an intimate moment of communion with the physical presence of God delivered into our hands in an intimate way, including small sips of wine from a common cup. There’s a lot of touching and sharing going on, and that’s out. Giving that up for an extended period has been tough, and we don’t know how we will be able to resume, but we will.
Another much loved practice we’ve had to surrender is congregational singing led by choirs, and more contemporary worship practices have had to give up praise bands that lead their services. It may be some time before we do much singing again. Unfortunately, singing blasts mist and droplets in every direction for 10 to 20 feet, and it seems wise to continue abstaining until we know more about the COVID virus.
It has not stopped the church from being open and gathered for worship without a building, but COVID has closed our buildings to the many other gatherings they’re used for: scouting, recovery groups, community meetings, free meals, Christian education, etc.
Yet the important work of being Christ in the community, of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the spiritually broken has continued through alternate pathways. Congregations have been able to funnel resources and time toward organizations like the Christian Aid Center, Homeless Alliance, Catholic Charities, United Way and others to see that needs continue to be met as best as can be done under the circumstances.
As restrictions are eased, churches are planning on how to wisely and lovingly reopen their buildings. Clergy and lay leaders know there will have to be rules about physical distancing, cleaning, hand washing, mask wearing and so on.
With another retired priest, I serve the small congregation meeting in the small building of Grace Episcopal Church in Dayton. We plan on gathering outside, on the lawn, at least through the summer. Congregations with larger, more accommodating spaces, will no doubt find ways to gather inside. As soon as possible, most churches will reopen to community use, but with appropriate restrictions.
The church is open. It always has been, and its building will soon return to bubbling life too.