Last Sunday the New York Times published an op-ed by Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America entitled, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.”
She writes, “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.”
To offer both in-person and virtual worship, she argues, makes embodiment, “elective,” akin to any other “consumer preference.” “A chief thing that the church has to offer the world now,” she closes, “is to remind us all how to be human creatures, with all the embodiment and physical limits that implies. We need to embrace that countercultural call.”
This has set off a whirlwind of responses and conversation about the nature of worship, what we hope to be doing in it, and what the past two years have revealed to us about the reaches of “presence” and even what “embodiment” can mean.
I’ll admit my initial reaction was that the author seemed dismissive of those who cannot, for medical reasons, gather in person, even before Covid. “This, however, is not a new problem for the church,” she writes, “For centuries, churches have handled this inevitability by visiting these people at home in person.”
True, but this read to me a little like, “Certain folks are used to not being included in worship.” One of the gifts of this long season, for me, has been gaining a greater awareness of and appreciation for the people for whom our traditional rhythms of worship are not designed. Namely, those who are home-centered for reasons of health, age, or even work scheduling.
Others have pointed out that the prevalence of online worship offerings has allowed folks to find types of churches that they simply don’t have access to in person. For instance, a church that is of a different theological position than the norm in their area, or one that is intentionally welcoming in the way they need it to be, or want to be a part of.
For these people, online worship isn’t an alternative to gathering in person. It’s an alternative to not gathering at all.
Much of the author’s experience of the past two years resonated with my own, namely the struggles (and joys…but mostly struggles) of reconfiguring church in the face of relentless obstacles.
Like her, there are few things that feed my soul more than gathering with others in worship, with all the coughing and children making a ruckus (usually the pastor’s) and papers shuffling and pews creaking and all the rest of it. To return to that, even in the park across the street or our parking lot, was nothing short of a revelation.
But something else of which the pandemic has made me keenly aware is the necessity of grace.
Grace toward each other, remembering that we all carry so much more than we show.
Grace toward ourselves, remembering that we can only do and be so much.
And grace toward this world of ours that is broken in so many places, but beautiful—I’m convinced—in so many more. Often it’s both at the same time.
There’s a tremendous grace in realizing that many things can be true at once, and that God can work with even our most humble, “diminished” efforts. And learning that—deeply and truly, in body, mind, and spirit—may be why we worship in the first place.