The church may be ending as we know it, says the Rev. Kyle Wagner—but as we look beyond today’s crisis, what new life might we see?
In light of the novel coronavirus and the serious disease it causes (COVID-19), frontman Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M. was interviewed about the popular single It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine). He said, “I do feel fine. I feel okay. The important part of that lyric and song title is ‘as we know it.’ We’re going through something that none of us have ever encountered before, and that is, of course, the coronavirus.”
The first time I felt the coronavirus’s presence was when I was in Toronto a few weeks ago. My wife and I travelled to the Toronto School of Theology, where I successfully defended my doctorate of ministry degree. As people moved about the campus, and in the streets, I noticed face masks and felt a little unease. Travelling home to Nova Scotia, I saw more masks on the GO Train and in airports. As the numbers of positive cases increased across our country, and with the Nova Scotian government essentially shutting down the province, like many clergy and other Anglicans, I find myself in a wilderness experience. What a Lent it is indeed.
On March 15, after worshiping with no handshakes or hugs—and with a 40% decrease in attendance—I felt like this would be the end of regular worship because of the pandemic. At the end of our service, I usually dismiss parishioners with words, “Our worship has ended, now let our service begin as we go out into the world.” I almost hesitated when I said these words, as I sensed that people weren’t in a place necessarily to spread the gospel in the usual way—living it in public. The feeling of collective unease was palpable, and many suggested following the service, “This is going to be the last time we gather for quite some time.”
As many sit home, challenging their peers to push-ups, special dances and offering cooking tutorials, essential service workers continue to carry on. God bless those doctors, nurses, people in the service industry, lab technicians, research scientists and truck drivers (I apologize to those I’ve missed). I wonder if clergy and ministry practitioners are considered essential service workers? Nonetheless, those who are at home are looking for connection, for continuity of community and pastoral care in these hard times, and we’ve had to sort this out in solitude. With Zoom groups established and Facebook and Instagram messages posted, the digitally savvy are able to connect with our parish; however, I’ve had to figure out how to maintain the connection to those who are not online. A phone chain was quickly established, with each member of the parish receiving a phone call from our pastoral visitors group, as a check-in to see if folks need any assistance. For the most part, people seem okay, but our callers could sense a feeling of unease.
We’ve also had to figure out how to support those who depend on the ministry of Christ Church to meet their material needs. One program that is vital to many in downtown Dartmouth is our foodbank and clothing ministry. In our parish, we serve roughly 65 clients weekly. This community has been gathering for nearly 25 years—and it is a community, offering people a hot cup of coffee, social interaction and a safe place, in addition to food and clothing. This sort of community is often just what people need.
Our foodbank serves people living below the poverty line and the “working poor”—now working less and less. Need is exploding, but so are restrictions and limitations. In conjunction with Feed Nova Scotia, we have had to adjust our operations. Now we can’t allow people the dignity of walking down our makeshift food aisles (Christ Church’s pantry resembles a small grocer) to select what they would like. Instead, we now have to pass a bag of groceries through the door. With gloved hands and the smell of sanitizer, you do miss the personal connection. And with limited office hours and a lack of funds coming across the collection plate on Sunday mornings, we must wonder: how long can we continue this ministry? It’s hard to say.
Will the landscape of the church be radically different, when we reunite? In my mind, there’s no question. But I also trust that once the pandemic is over, we will come out of the darkness and be reunited in a way that we have not seen in some time, perhaps with a sweetness as yet unknown to us.
Then there’s worship. Once bishops across our country began to direct dioceses to close their doors to public worship, thousands of parishes, clergy, and laity have had to find creative ways of gathering to praise God, to pray and to dwell in Scriptures. I’m a priest in an urban church in downtown Dartmouth. Christ Church is progressive in many ways, but in terms of technology, we still have some work to do. Without any live-streaming or camera skills, what were we to do? Thankfully a handful of folks stepped up and offered to facilitate that and record a Holy Eucharist, two Morning and Evening Prayer sessions, and Compline. Over two days, and about 150 hours of work combined, we were able to record and edit services in a dignified fashion. However, uploading to the internet was difficult. (I suspect many churches were clogging up the internet connection last Sunday as liturgies were live-streamed for the world to see.)
I have to say that my experience recording worship was not heartily fulfilling. Presiding at Holy Communion with an empty church, except four people, standing six feet apart, provided me with little inspiration. The nature of our filming involved stopping at points. After filming one Eucharist of two, I had to pause. I just couldn’t do it. Filming worship for a “TV audience” didn’t seem authentic, didn’t seem right. I honestly had a sense of profound guilt afterwards. For the foreseeable future, I see Evening and Morning Prayer, and other adapted liturgies, as a way of drawing the community of Christ Church together.
Might this be a time for the church to reflect on its liturgical practice? Is this an opportunity for the church to educate the faithful about its prayer books and the importance of establishing a rhythm of prayer and dedication to the Scriptures for daily life? In a sense, I believe we have lost the art of ordering Morning and Evening Prayer. Yet the church has now moved to a place where having bread and wine on a Sunday isn’t considered church. Is this an opportunity to reflect further?
For me, Lent has always been about prayer, self-reflection and giving. I’ve always enjoyed gathering together as a community to learn from Lenten book studies, connecting through public worship, experiencing the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, grieving the death of our Lord on Good Friday and seeing new life on Easter morning. This year I suspect none of this will be possible, or at least impossible as we’ve experienced it before.
I think we are in this battle against COVID-19 for the long haul. Some churches will die. I fear that some clergy will be laid off. For the first time, I am scared not just for smaller parishes, their health and vitality, but I am scared for my parish family and for members of our community who are facing layoffs. I’m afraid for my wife and my two young boys. What will our futures hold? I’m not sure, but right now, as a priest, I’m taking it day by day, and my story is just one of many, many thousands, in terms of clergy—and many millions worldwide, as “people in the pews” are forced from church, from everything, and must adjust to this new isolation.
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I did not know how scary creation can be until I met my wife. (No, I do not mean in that way!) You see, Julie is a medical microbiologist, and she earned her PhD from the University of Manitoba, where she worked at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg during the SARS outbreak in 2003. After getting married, building a house, the birth of two boys, laying my late father to rest and completing a doctorate, Julie and I have not had much time to talk about viruses, death, plagues and the resetting of the human population. Until now. Now I speak to her every day about this stuff, stuff that I don’t understand. She’s my go-to person for information. I wonder if God had this in mind when we met?
How does this virus work? How does it spread? Are such measures necessary? As a priest, I take my role as a leader seriously. I’ve done some reading from reliable sources (this is key). The reality is, the science is correct. This virus is terrible—that’s just fact. As a society, we have to be apart now so that we can be together later. I know there is some chatter that we should keep sanctuaries open, and that if the liquor stores can limit to five people, why can’t the church? Perhaps. But I believe that the church has a responsibility to practice social distancing, to love thy neighbour as thyself, to serve as an example of good health.
As I look forward to the day when the body of Christ can gather in our historic church in Dartmouth, I lament: How long, O Lord? Will the landscape of the church be radically different, when we reunite? In my mind, there’s no question. But I also trust that once the pandemic is over, we will come out of the darkness and be reunited in a way that we have not seen in some time, perhaps with a sweetness as yet unknown to us. After a period of self-isolation, we will have had plenty of time to pray, reflect and give. I think that when we pull ourselves from the mess of it, the world will be different than we’ve ever known.
As Michael Stipe said, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Will the church be fine after all of this? Yes! But I think the actions we take now will determine the shape of our worshiping communities on the other side of COVID-19. As a person of faith, I draw upon the Holy Spirit, upon the teachings of Christ and from the divine presence of God to get me through this time, until we can all join hands.
I look forward to the day when we draw together at the altar for the first time in a long while and celebrate that first Easter Holy Communion—whenever that Easter morning comes. I wonder what the Lord will taste like?
Until then, let us be of good courage.
The Rev. Kyle Wagner is rector of Christ Church in Dartmouth, N.S.