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Christ Church Frederica, St. Simons Island, GA
Christ Church Frederica

Rector's Ramblings May 13, 2020

RAM1 5 13 2020Now that we are months deep in this pandemic and don’t yet have a clear picture of how it will “end,” conversations about the future are starting to get interesting. Every business and institution is faced with a host of questions that don’t have answers and the church is no different. For example, is this pandemic a temporary disrupting event, or is it the harbinger of permanent change that requires significant adaptation? The truth is somewhere in the middle of these two realities and discerning that truth in bits and pieces as we move forward, is both exciting and daunting.

The present-day situation in the church is an unparalleled phenomenon in modern history, certainly on this scale. Never before have so many been prevented from the basic routines and ministrations of the church for so long. In-person worship, sacrament, pastoral care, mission, and learning have all been affected. The way we functioned just two months ago, and how far we’ve come from that normalcy is hard to fathom. Reflection on the depth of the change we’ve endured in such a short time can take one’s breath away. Are those changes good, bad, or neutral?

There are those who are already signaling impending doom for the Church. Already in a decades long period of decline (by some measures, which may not be the right measures), some see a church that is beginning to gasp from breath, as though the Church itself will also need some kind of institutional ventilator to survive this virus. The basic forms of this argument are that the church was already struggling to stay relevant, and now that we can’t be irrelevant in person, there’s no hope. People will get used to sitting in their PJ’s on Sunday mornings, and will develop an even stronger consumer-minded mentality about their faith. Just as on-line, on-demand shopping has killed small town mom and pop establishments, we’ve just set the stage for the same course for our churches when it comes to worship. If the socially distanced on-line-heavy trend continues for too long, we will cross a point of no return. That’s what they say, anyway.

The negativity is also showing up in deeply theological ways, too. Churches in the liturgical tradition, which have a high view of the sacrament, are still figuring out what to do about something as basic as communion. Until this pandemic, it was an unthinkably simple and assumed part of Christian community for Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and others.  Centuries of theology and liturgics have shaped the thinking around and reception of communion, as arguments have ebbed and flowed from generation to generation. At the end of the day, it was still easy to do “something” with communion, making it readily available.  Now, not so much. Again, some say the church will die if we don’t begin consecrating bread and wine remotely via the internet as parishioners hold up bread and wine in their homes. It’s merely a power grab on the part of the institutional church, they say, as we clergy grasp onto one of the few remaining aspects of Christian belief and practice that isn’t already accessible to the “priesthood of all believers.” That’s what they say, anyway.

I am, of course, a biased observer in all of this. As an ordained priest, whose vocation is not just a source of personal meaning and identity, but also the means by which I provide for my family, I am well aware that I wear the hat of institutional Pharisee from time to time. Seeing as how I pledged my life to the institution and authority of the Church, however, it also comes with the collar, and Pharisees aren’t all bad. Jesus even says some nice things about them occasionally.  Starting with the last point about communion, let me just say that none of us is withholding communion from anyone as a power grab. Instead, we’re trying to honor those centuries of tradition and theology as we consider how best to return to a regular practice of communion.  

As important as communion is, it’s not the most important part of the Christian faith or tradition, even for us Episcopalians. There are periods of Christian history where Communion wasn’t available, and the church still thrived. Sometimes, communion wasn’t available because of wars or oppressive regimes, or maybe because of a simple lack of clergy, as in the colonies.  Not being able to distribute or receive Holy Communion for a time will not kill the church, nor should we abandon theology and practice after a few weeks of inconvenience and anxiety. I rest assured that there are many persons thinking and praying about the sacrament and that this experience will enter the stream of theological work that continues to flow from the ancient church through the present day. I don’t know what comes next, but I chalk the histrionics up to the combination of free time and free-range anxiety of these days.

The life-giving observers of the present day see much to celebrate right now. After all, we are a people of resurrection and a God who can make all things new. There may well be some things that die or diminish as a result of this pandemic, and yet death so often yields to life in unexpected ways. The Church is old enough that she has been this way before, even if we can’t remember. And God, well, God’s seen more than we can begin to imagine. The Church has not been a monolithic presence in world history. Sure, we’ve been around through a lot, and at some points and places in history, the Church has held more or less power. The Church has been shaped and reshaped by periods of decline and revival. There are historic shifts that at their time felt disastrous, like the east-west split one thousand years ago, or the Reformation five hundred years ago. Despite that, the Gospel remains and the church calls and baptizes still.  That’s what Jesus says, anyway.

I don’t think this pandemic will rank on the level of the East-West split or the Reformation. Yes, it will shape us and shape Christianity, nonetheless. The Black Death and the Great Lisbon Earthquake were events that shaped philosophy and theology, to name two, and this will join that list. We won’t fully know how for many years to come, but I have no doubt that it will end up in dissertations, tomes, and debates for decades to come. That’s how God works. God may not cause things to happen, but God walks with us as we make meaning out of what happens.  God is walking with the Church now, and on some level, we all know this to be true. That’s what our faith says, anyway.

There is renewed life in the Church right now. Many are reporting an increase in personal prayer and devotion. We can see many of our neighbors living out their faith through acts of generosity and compassion. A forced sabbath has given us a new perspective on a non-stop lifestyle, and some of our practices and connections to one another and to the world around us will no doubt continue because we find comfort and meaning in them. For all that has been lost in terms of both economics and life, we can and do have the ability to be grateful and express that gratefulness to God. As the hymn says, God is working God’s purpose out, as God always does. Whatever hand is dealt, God finds a way to play it, and we will too. 

Is this pandemic a disrupting event we must only endure until we can get back to normal? Or is this a moment of change that we risk missing if we hold onto the past, unwilling to find the new thing? Yes. To both. But that’s true with or without the pandemic. The pendulum has always swung from one reality, one focus to another, in the Church. As I encountered in a conversation this week, transformation always involves a balance between holding onto that which we value and embracing new ways of being. We will find the way through this and into what tomorrow holds, I have no doubt.  We always have, and we always will, so long as we are faithful and work together.  That’s what I say, anyway.  

Tom+

God is working his purpose out,
as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

From utmost east to utmost west,
wherever feet have trod,
by the mouth of many messengers
goes forth the voice of God,
'Give ear to me, ye continents,
ye isles, give ear to me,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.'

What can we do to work God's work,
to prosper and increase
the love of God in all mankind,
the reign of the Prince of peace?
What can we do to hasten the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea?

March we forth in the strength of God,
with the banner of Christ unfurled,
that the light of the glorious gospel of truth
may shine throughout the world;
fight we the fight with sorrow and sin,
to set their captives free,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth
unless God blesses the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

Photo Credit: “Change Ahead” by Amman Wahub Nizamani, via Wikimedia.org, licensed via CC BY-SA 4.0

Christ Church Frederica
Christ Church Frederica

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Christ Church, Frederica
6329 Frederica Rd.
St. Simons Island, GA 31522

(912) 638-8683