Holy Week & Easter In-Person Services Suspended

(Message from the Bishop Sally)

We’re starting our second week of “sheltering in place.” Most churches have had at least two if not three Sundays of only online worship or some other means to reach out spiritually to our congregations. We’ve got this week to prepare for Holy Week and then…Easter! 
Let me just say, given the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Illinois and the extension of the “stay-at-home” order, I am still suspending worship in our churches indefinitely until we are given a green light to gather in community again. 
But that doesn’t mean our Holy Week and Easter are a loss. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that many are being more intentional about preparation for and anticipation of a very meaningful Holy Week and Easter in new ways!
If you wish to use a video I made for a local church reading the gospel of John’s story of Easter (20:1-18), it is available on the NIC website at umcnic.org/videos. I’d be happy to have a virtual appearance in your church’s worship!
Now for a more complicated topic: online communion. Many have been asking whether they have permission to consecrate the elements during the livestream of their worship service. I, for one, am not ready for online communion…at this point. Like other denominations, I recommend that we fast from communion until we can gather and see each other face to face and rejoice in knowing that we are “yet alive.” Then we can break the “fast” of communion together. 
But I’m not taking a hard line about it. I think every clergy should be in conversation with leadership in the church about what to do during Holy Week in terms of communion and make an intentional and informed decision about it.
I am pleased to hear about some churches who are planning worship services in the parking lot! The clergy radio broadcasts to the congregated drive-in worshipers for prayer, scripture, a sermon and communion. More than anything, I get the sense that the “passing of the peace” is the anticipated moment when everyone honks their horn to each other! Elements are bagged and dropped off at each car with care in their preparation. 
I would discourage drive-by and pick-up communion, where parishioners drive by the church and pick up a paper bag of elements that have already been consecrated. This is a kairos moment when we need to ground our sacrament in prayer and deep reflection on scripture and liturgy in light of the experience that we are going through with some personal connection. 
I would also consider a Love Feast on Maunday Thursday, or as worship designer Marcia McFee calls it, “Comfort Food for Holy Week and Easter.” A love feast isn’t overly familiar to most of us so it would be a special but also traditional way to come together online over the sharing of food. But it’s not communion. I like the way her liturgy in particular asks people to share something about the food or drink they have prepared for themselves.
However, there are more traditional Love Feast liturgies that can connect people in the sharing of grace with each other. You can find an explanation of the history and theology of the Love Feast, along with prayers and scriptures for it, in the Book of Worship pg. 581. It has a section of “testimonies and praise” which are doable on Zoom or a comparable video-conferencing platform. The Love Feast could be an opportunity to actually eat together as the dinner table appropriately becomes an altar of sorts.
But if after informed discussion between the leadership and clergy, a church truly desires to do online, livestreaming worship, I would ask you to think about these things: 

  1. Read widely—at least for a few hours—about both the pros and cons of online communion. If nothing else, it will provide a greater sensitivity toward those in your congregation or your colleagues who wouldn’t choose this route. Trust me: I’ve found this to be true already! See below for some resources that you can find; most of them on the Discipleship Ministries website. There are reasons why the UMC has discouraged online communion over the years – primarily because our tradition, theology and polity emphasize celebrating it in the midst of a gathered community.
  2. Embed the communion in teaching on its unique meaning in light of our experience and the story of our salvation with the use of the rich liturgy in our hymnal. This is not an occasion for a casual approach but a profound moment of grounding ourselves in “this holy mystery.” 
  3. This is an act “in extremis.” As a colleague friend of mine pointed out, “in extremis” is a Latin term that began during the plague of the 16th century; it means that it’s an extraordinary time that calls for extraordinary measures that don’t apply afterward. If you practice online communion, understand that it is not now a regular practice of the UMC.

No matter what you decide, in providing any of these “means of grace,” please give great thought to the preparation and any distribution of the elements—the bread and cup, how to provide them or instructions for supplying one’s own.
Finally, but especially, don’t let our differences about online communion now drive a wedge of conflict and division between us. Let us all practice the “means of grace” in a gracious way toward others! 
As I said earlier, this may be a year in which our Holy Week and Easter services are more intentionally prepared, led, and experienced by all. 
Know that in this week of preparation you are all in my prayers. Many of us are now hear of people we know and love who are developing COVID-19. We pray for them and their loved ones who are not able to be with or at least close to them or with those who are dying of other reasons. 
So I want to quote Marcia McFee’s benediction: 
May you shelter not only in place, but in peace. May the peace and comfort of Christ be present with you now and forever more. Amen.

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