On death and resurrection: Easter reflections on the future of the Episcopal church

By | April 12, 2020

I loved my grandmother dearly.

Like many in my family, she lived well into her 90’s. While she suffered from senile dementia in her later years, even in her final days she could carry on an extended and engaging conversation, despite her failing memory.

Throughout 2019, it became clear that her days were drawing to a close. Minor health issues, including recurring bladder infections, became increasingly common, until finally she qualified for hospice.

Still, she seemed to do reasonably well until last Christmas—a day that, in keeping with her heritage, she had celebrated with true Teutonic splendor throughout her life.

On Christmas morning, she woke up remarkably cogent. Shortly after breakfast, she asked her nurse how her daughter (my mother), also terminally ill, was doing. The nurse replied that she was not doing all that well, but that she had many friends who loved her and would look after her.

Shooting her nurse a piercing look, my grandmother said, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear.” With that, she asked to go back to bed, and refused any further food or drink. Indeed, when a well-meaning caretaker tried several days later to tempt her with a container of Godiva dark chocolate ice cream, her all-time favorite pig-out, she croaked angrily, “Get the hell out of here.”

Fourteen days later she died, kept comfortable with morphine. It was clear that she had decided to welcome death.

And so it is with The Episcopal Church.

As I look around me, particularly at the many live-streamed Easter services, I see a church in rapidly failing health, unable to fully recover, increasingly disconnected from the world around it, and focused on the past, not the future. Perhaps most troubling, The Episcopal Church lacks introspection, including the ability to see and address its flaws.

This leaves me torn between two possibilities. Part of me wonders if it is time for The Episcopal Church to let go, recognize that it is dying, and take care to wind down its affairs in an orderly fashion as it contemplates its last few Easters. Another, smaller part of me, thinks that perhaps we’re seeing the beginning of a turnaround for the church. Or perhaps, as with many who are dying, we are seeing the patient experience one final rally before the end.

Only time will tell, but I am not sanguine about the outcome, particularly after watching myriad live-streamed Easter services today.

COVID-19 and the live-streaming of Easter

Today, just 12 weeks after my grandmother’s death, we experience an Easter unlike any other, in which many services in the western countries are either live-streamed or canceled.

Live-streaming offered me the chance to virtually drop by a number of services, ranging from that of my childhood parish, to the Washington National Cathedral, to various small churches where I have connections. I also randomly surfed by a number of services at small, rural churches, as well as several well-known urban churches.

Overall, the experience was at best mixed, with unexpected results. Some small rural parishes, comprised mainly of elderly persons, and clearly lacking resources, startled with spectacularly skilled online services. Indeed, in one case, the rector gleefully admitted she had pulled in the grandkids, who wasted no time in bringing the service to virtual life and, from the looks of it, had a blast in doing so.

On the other hand, there were some large, affluent parishes that clearly struggled — including one nationally known church in which someone didn’t realize he had an open mic. Oops. In fact, several looked like the grandkids indeed had taken over, intent on pranking pushy parents who had tried to foist Easter on them.

Still others took the old-fashioned Episcopal approach to problem-solving, which involved throwing money at the issue. Over-produced, undoubtedly costly, and clearly done by videographers with no clue about the liturgical practices of the church, these productions looked great to the casual observer, but appallingly bad once one scratched the surface.

But regardless of the quality of the video feed, I was left aghast at much of the content. Too often, the video feed was nothing but a tired rehash of past Easter services, but with fewer flowers, no congregation, sermons that were flat and uninspired, and formulaic music.

The result was the impression of an old, tired, clueless church, struggling to find its place in the world. And sure enough, at a time when some economists believe we are moving into a full-blown depression, a great many churches added a link to their video by which one could send money. No surprise there.

Who was the Audience? What was the message?

In all of this, what I found interesting is that some anecdotes suggest that virtual attendance soared this year, versus in-person attendance in previous years. If these observations are accurate, my guess is that this is due to the isolation of social distancing, combined with a yearning amidst the pandemic for the comfortable norms of past years. But whether or not this is accurate, the pandemic was a spectacular opportunity to reach the unchurched, to meet young people in cyberspace, to re-engage with the alienated and indifferent, and overall for the church to put its best foot forward.

Yet when it comes to the underlying message, it seems to me that a great many churches flubbed their grand debut in cyberspace. (Just now, I can hear the gnashing of teeth, but hear me out.) In fact, a great many churches already online struggled as well.

How so?

First, there was a foundational question that many churches failed to answer, or perhaps fully consider. Specifically, who is the audience?

For many, the answer was that the audience was members of the parish. Fair enough, but that overlooks the possibility that maybe, just maybe, someone who is unchurched would check out the church’s livestream.

Consider your experience if you are that unchurched person and come across the live-streamed service. True, you may not be fumbling between your Book of Common Prayer, hymnal and service bulletin. But a lot of what is going on will seem alien and lacking in context. In short, if you don’t understand what’s going on, your virtual visit to the church probably won’t mean much to you, and may even feel downright unwelcoming.

By way of further illustration, consider what would happen if churches started their broadcast by providing a scrolling summary of the church’s beliefs and history. “Saint Brigit’s, founded in 1853, was started by members of Saint Thomas’, which had grown to overflowing…today, we are a welcoming, inclusive church that offers programs for children, youth, adults and the aged. We support the community around us by….” As a visitor, this gives me a sense of what’s important to the church, as well as a starting point to read more, or to ask additional questions. In other words, tell me why I should care about your church.

Similarly, an explanation of the order of service would help newcomers. Without it, things start off with a beautiful hymn, but quickly go downhill from there. Consider: Does the average person understand what a voluntary is? An introit? A sequence hymn? Without this information, a newcomer accessing an online service bulletin faces a whole lot of church-speak that smacks of a private, members-only club.

Visual cues are equally important. Does someone who’s unchurched understand why your video zooms in and lingers on the Paschal candle? What about the items on the altar? You and I may know the answers, but a casual visitor may not. And asking questions about these sorts of things can be intimidating, for it essentially forces the newcomer — if she ever gets the chance to ask questions — to admit to being clueless. Not a great way to put people at ease.

Then there’s the issue of communion. If you come to a live-streamed service without an understanding of Eucharistic theology, what are you to make of the whole spiritual reception thing? If nothing else, without an explanation, the first-time visitor is going to have some very skewed theology, and will not understand the importance of in-person worship.

In short, almost without fail the live-streamed services were nothing but a weak attempt to replicate in-person services for members of the congregation, with no thought given to others.

Second, there was the question of access to these livestreams. Yes, Zoombombing is an issue, just as is the case with disruptive homeless people for urban churches. But it comes with the territory, and there are ways to respectfully deal with these matters. But if I’m unchurched and I come across references to needing a passcode to access a service, do you really think I’m going to call the church office, introduce myself, and try to finagle an access code? Of course not. So this approach is both unsustainable, and suggests that churches are treating live-streaming as a temporary solution. That’s problematic, as we clearly are not going to see the virus go away any time soon.

Third, very few sermons actually dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. That’s different than mentioning the crisis,which almost all did. The problem is that none — not a single one of the sermons I heard — actually offered help or support. It would be so easy to be honest and say, “In times like this, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t understand why God allows pain and suffering. And even with tremendous faith, it is easy and normal to be frightened, anxious or depressed. If you need help, or just want to talk, we are here for you.” Instead, a great many tried to talk these issues away by saying something like, “With Jesus on our side, we have no fears.”

Not exactly helpful for the single parent who can’t feed his children. Or who fears she will lose her home due to unemployment.

In short, the painful reality is that the Resurrection doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering. It may show that God understands it. But pain and suffering are still all too real, and today was a missed chance for churches to show that they genuinely care.

Fourth, a surprising number of live-streamed services still are not appropriately socially distanced. Yes, your choir may not sound right if members don’t sit together, but one has only to look at the case of a church choir in Washington State, apparently infected by one or more asymptomatic carriers, to learn just how dangerous this conduct can be. If churches can’t lead by example in the midst of a pandemic, then they truly have a problem. (And for heaven’s sake, if you are the celebrant, quit touching your face. Nothing makes viewers as uneasy as seeing you pull your used handkerchief out of your back pocket and dab at your nose, then go back to celebrating the Eucharist, sans hand sanitizer.. And no, we don’t care that you’re the only person receiving communion, either.)

Connections count

By now, you’ve figured out that I believe many churches sent conflicting messages and didn’t engage with viewers. But before you dismiss this conclusion, consider how many churches didn’t provide any way to engage after the service. How many, for example, ended with an invitation to come back? Or information on next week’s broadcast? Or to comment and discuss what was heard?

Even the Washington National Cathedral’s livestream, which enjoyed more than 260,000 views — impressive, by any measure — turned off comments and included no invitation to future engagement, except to send money.

Part of me understands why churches don’t allow comments. Cyber is full of trolls, and churches are not immune. But that is part and parcel of being in cyber. Just as Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes, the modern church has to deal with trolls. That doesn’t mean that it has to accept bad behavior, but the days are gone in which the church can afford to sit in splendid isolation and refuse to permit comments or discussion.

So, instead of this approach, why not end the service with a question? Something like, “What did this service mean to you?” Yes, you will need volunteer moderators, and you may need to set a time limit on comments, so that all your time and energy isn’t spent on these issues. But the feedback and engagement is priceless.

Or be brave and ask the question, “What would you like to see in future livestreams? You certainly will get answers you won’t like, and some will be ugly. But you may also get valuable insight into what’s important to people.

It’s all in the ask

Did you ever run into someone who was a natural salesperson, but who was afraid to ask for the sale? Probably everyone has, and “the ask” can be remarkably hard for people, particularly clergy.

But instead of asking for money — something churches included almost without fail in their livestreams — how about asking viewers to come back? While it’s important to be willing to ask for money, far more important is asking people to be part of your community, whether in-person or online. With engagement comes giving, but it can be a big turn-off to visit a streamed service where the message is, “Welcome. And by the way, if you like our service, we’d love a donation.” That’s especially off-putting in the midst of what some economists say is a full-blown depression.

Speaking of off-putting, very few churches showed any recognition that this is not a temporary thing. Even once state-mandated lockdowns are lifted, the painful reality is that the elderly, the immuno-compromised, and those with chronic illnesses will find it difficult to attend church. Indeed, with the possible exception of the National Cathedral, few churches are large enough to allow for social distancing. So churches are wise both to treat live-streaming as the new norm, and to make sure people know that they will continue to be welcome to join online services. Otherwise, their older members will no longer able to be part of the parish if they don’t want to die of COVID-19.

There’s another wrinkle in this, which is that even for those who are not elderly, church as normal will prove epidemiologically risky. For example, one church where I was a member had a regular homeless visitor, who besides being obviously mentally ill spit when he spoke, and loved to station himself near the coffee hour refreshments, where he would ramble noisily. Not exactly reassuring in the best of times, but truly problematic in the midst of a pandemic. And even without the homeless, who may wind up as a reservoir for the virus due to lack of access to medical care, the fact that COVID-19 can live on hard surfaces for up to five days means it will be a very long time if ever before in-person attendance becomes normative for many church members. Indeed, the possibility of transmission via asymptomatic carriers and the extended reach of respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes makes church attendance a risky proposition for the forseeable future.

Looking forward

As one wag once observed, there are only three problems facing The Episcopal Church. That’s right, just three.

The three problems are:

  • The church doesn’t realize it has a problem.
  • The church doesn’t realize its problem is serious.
  • The church’s leadership doesn’t realize it’s the source of the problem.

This Easter Sunday, it’s painfully obvious that all three are true. If the Episcopal Church doesn’t wake up and have its own resurrection moment, the church indeed is down to its last few Easters.

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