by the Rev. Canon Mark Harris
This essay is an invitation to larger conversation and not intended to explain the views of the Episcopal Church in Delaware. The Rev. Canon Mark Harris is a priest of the Episcopal Church in Delaware.
“The Church is open, even when the church is closed.” We in the Episcopal Church in Delaware have found that nothing, not even a pandemic, can keep the love of God in Jesus Christ from being present and real. That’s a powerful learning!
Plans for how we re-emerge from stay-at-home rules are already in place. We will come back with new skills, new challenges, and a new appreciation of how we are one body. What will our return as church look like? What challenges will it bring? What even newer skills will be needed?
Our experiences during this time of pandemic — with all its anxieties, pain, sadness, and death — are the source material for new witness and new stories of faithfulness. Perhaps out of this, we can find new ways to practice resurrection with some of these possibilities, hopes, and predictions for the future as the new Episcopal Church.
- The new Episcopal Church will see cyberspace as a place of mission engagement: Various internet conferencing, mail services, and meeting portals will be used much more widely, and that in turn will help us see cyberspace as a place where we can be as present as we are in ’normal’ space. There will be growing conversation about whether or not cyberspace can be incarnate space, space where God’s presence can be experienced and known.
Those interesting new verbs, following and friending, are secular ideas close to the ideas guiding the Invite Welcome Connect evangelism program that was under way all those months ago before the pandemic. What might Invite Welcome Connect look like as we engage, friend, and follow one another? And what will happen when we see cyberspace as yet another place to which we are called to proclaim new life?
- The new Episcopal Church will be nimbler. The laboratories for new ways of being church in the post-pandemic world will primarily be our parishes. Delaware parishes have been amazingly creative during the shut-down of public gatherings, both in providing alternative forms of worship and continued social and pastoral care. There are many online services, online meetings, and new food ministries. More will come.
Because we are an episcopal church, with bishops who connect us to the apostolic traditions, those laboratories (the parishes) will need to work with supervision so that we keep the core of our faith on a steady footing. At the same time, these experiments will be vital to our becoming new. The trick is to be nimble without breaking the china. We will need to nurture nimbleness in our bishops, clergy, and lay leaders.
- The new Episcopal Church will be a church of small groups. A parish may gather less often as a whole for worship, ministry, study, or even for annual meetings. Continued need for social distancing and aversion to crowds will make large gatherings less attractive or even impossible. The Episcopal Church must promote small groups as a more intimate and more focused way to connect.
They are also most like the communities that first gathered who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”(Acts 2:42). Eucharist in small group settings will present many theological and pastoral challenges, but such eucharistic gatherings will be essential, because these small, contained communities are the core of our own ’virus’ that continues to spread the Christian witness in the world.
- The new Episcopal Church will have less baggage, it will be leaner. Financially the post pandemic world will be very difficult for smaller and even some larger churches. Some buildings and programs will close and end. But just as we now know that closing a building does not mean the church is closed, maybe we can also know that selling a building does not necessarily mean the end of community life. How then do we keep community alive even as church structures close?
Smaller churches already know a lot about how to be a faith community without large services, multi-person staffs, full music programs, etc. Clergy and lay leaders in these churches in Delaware have found ways to bring the gifts of the Episcopal Church to their communities. Their experience can help us be present in ways that don’t require edifices, large staffs, and extensive programming.
We will have to raise up a new clergy who will help small communities be the place of incarnation of Word and Sacrament, who will understand ministry to be the work of all the people, and who will see themselves as servants of that work. To a much greater extent than now, the ordained ministers of the Gospel will be itinerant and have other means of livelihood.
If the church becomes leaner it will be possible for the closing of church buildings to be separate from and unrelated to the health of a local eucharistic community. Instead of our roster of churches becoming smaller as church buildings are closed and sold, we will count our presence as eucharistic communities, many of which will consist of small cell communities joined as possible by occasional larger gatherings. That roster might grow! The bishops and clergy will be essential glue that keeps these communities together as part of the greater body of Christ.
- The new Episcopal Church will foster the beloved community, now more than ever. The notion of the beloved community —the church as a gathering of people set on showing the love of God in Jesus Christ — is a vision whose time has come.
Smaller groups of all sorts already exist in our churches — Bible study groups, ECW, singing groups (a choir), contemplative prayer groups, pastoral care committees, etc. If they are also nurtured as beloved communities in which there is “the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”, they each are a manifestation of church. Together with small gatherings of people in the cities and towns concerned with basic human rights and needs, the church small groups will make alliances for the social good, and thus the beloved community will always be larger than the church itself, broader in reach than the Episcopal Church, and more resilient than any of the groups by themselves might be.
We will know church is not a product of the powers of this world alone, where size, wealth, territory, and possessions matter most. The church is the manifestation of the beloved community, for which there are no limits, save love. And that is our future.