By The Rev’d Sue Grimmett:
I sometimes find myself doubting the reality in which we find ourselves, preaching to a video camera and praying together where the only gathering is faces on a computer screen. Certainly, Easter with empty pews was both poignant and surreal for everyone, but perhaps especially for those who lead congregations at this time where the people are scattered in their own homes and hidden from view. When physical presence is denied to us, how can we be present to one another, supporting the leadership and mission of the church?
It is said, worship is not worship if it is done alone. Like everything in Christian faith, worship in its many and various forms, is fundamentally relational, just as the very being of God is relational. In the weeks of COVID-19 physical distancing, I found it initially disorienting to reimagine Sunday worship without physical gathering, followed then by a deep sense of loss in the absence of the community.
Of course, this sense of loss reveals in sharp focus what matters most, providing a guide for how we need to negotiate these times as a worshipping community. We are the Church, and we are not on hold until better times, but actively in mission. For both clergy and congregations to thrive in this time, there needs to be continuity of connection. This is being achieved in countless creative ways across parishes, such as through recorded and streamed worship services, Bible studies, small group gatherings and coffee mornings via online meeting platforms, telephone conversations and letter writing.
The change of the ministry environment has been rapid, and clergy everywhere have reported how much encouragement has been provided by those in their congregations who have found ways to keep community connection vital and strong. I know when I am leading a worship service to rows of empty pews, there is enormous strength gained by knowing, as I stare into a camera lens, that our church family is there with me, from their lounge rooms, bedrooms or verandas, and actively participating in the liturgy as they follow the guide to worship. When we gather online for a fellowship morning tea after the service, we have time to collectively reflect on the readings or the music, or just to share what matters most to us at this time.
The wrong choice I believe would be to think, “I will return to church when this is over, and things are back to normal.” Relationships are the lifeblood of community and when members of a church are absent in this way, vitality is lost and the clergy’s task of leading a community that is not only connected but missional, is so much more difficult. The Spirit is always moving in the life of the Church, and now more than ever the world needs sacred communities held together with tender and strong ties of unity and peace. Our vocation in the family of God is always and eternally grounded in the present moment.
Every weekday early in the morning, I settle in the side chapel of our church in front of my laptop to welcome the group that gathers on Zoom. One by one their faces appear, and with each greeting my heart lifts. Every morning we say, “The night has passed and the day lies open before us; Let us pray with one heart and mind,” and every time I am strengthened by the knowledge that though we are apart, we are one heart and mind, unified by the Spirit and called into the mission of God.
This mission is not for when things return to normal, but is for this time, this ‘now’ in which we live. Nothing can more surely sustain our clergy and lay leaders in this time than the people of God active and engaged in the sacred relationships that are the birthplace of God’s kingdom on earth.
Vital and loving missional communities with the courage to engage in new and creative ways of being together are what will strengthen the Church and its leaders to realise their vocation in the COVID-19 environment.
After all, it is only through relationship that the Church is sustained, underlining the importance of participation in all those parish activities which nurture connection in these times; through online services, fellowship gatherings and Bible studies, telephone conversations, and letter writing.