The word “ecclesiastical” refers to the Church. It is derived from the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). Ekklesia, which is translated Church, occurs 114 times in the New Testament. There seems to be strong consensus that its original secular meaning was a gathering of citizens called out by the herald from their homes into some public place; an assembly.
The Church, therefore, is a public gathering of Christ’s followers. For me, that is the hardest thing to reconcile during this time when we are counseled to stay at home, apart from one another. While I can’t quite solve the theological problem, I have discerned four practices that we as Christians can do for each other and the world at our doorsteps during this season I'm calling Covidtide. I offer them for your consideration.
We can stop thinking everything will soon be back to normal.
This pandemic is far from over. The number of new cases nationally continues to rise. People continue to die because of the virus. The search for and production of a treatment will take months. It may take more than a year to develop a vaccine. Those who are working in laboratories and hospitals are moving as fast as they can and are working incredible hours. My worrying and complaining is not going to help them. I can use my emotional and spiritual energies in better ways.
Even when we take a long view of how this will play out, we hear ourselves and others speak of a “new normal.” I heard a lot of that in 2008 after Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston Island. What we discovered was that some things were permanently changed. What emerged as the months dragged on was not a new normal but a new reality.
After this pandemic has passed, what kind of persons do we want to be as we live into the new reality we are bound to experience? How can we look to the uncertain future with hope and purpose? What can we contribute to the new reality? What kind of church are we becoming? How will the lessons we learn in this crisis impact the mission to which God calls us?
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).
We can plan how to continue.
“Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?" That just about sums up the kind of work we need to be doing right now.
At St. Martin’s, we are engaging in that work. We have recruited a diverse group of people within the parish to help us develop a plan that will define how to continue. Yesterday evening, St. Martin’s Regathering Team had its first video conference. Fourteen of us reviewed the science, the philosophy, the morality, and the theology of how we ought to proceed. We discussed some extremely helpful work that has been shared by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas describing a phase approach that we think we can adapt for our use. We’ll meet again next week. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we'll be ready to take the plan to the Vestry and then to the parish. In each phase, church protocols will be determined by health characteristics that apply to our context. We will decide what the health characteristics will be, based on the best scientific and public health guidelines.
We plan to continue! So, understanding how we continue is paramount.
We can view our precautions as something we do for the sake of others.
Charles Kurkul, a physician who is a member of our St. Martin’s Regathering Team, was asked about how effective precautions such as masks and distancing are. He responded by saying, “Seat belts help save lives. So do brakes. Both are more effective when we use them together.”
We expect that regathering will happen in phases and that numbers of people following precautions will start small and gradually increase as long as the health characteristics are met. Practicing wearing masks and physical distancing while we are apart will make it easier and safer when we gather again.
When I’ve encountered people complaining about wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, my response has been, “My precautions protect you. Your precautions protect me.” That’s another way of saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). It’s also a way of loving God. “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20). Love for God and love for our neighbor are defining characteristics of the Christian community and each of its members.
We can uphold one another.
Paula Jefferson shared this reflection by Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: “We cannot do it alone. This isn’t private religion. We regularly need to be with other followers of Jesus with whom to pray and praise and worship, to listen and speak, and to sit at table and eat.”
We long for the time when we are able to gather around the Table at the Eucharistic Banquet. For now, let us uphold one another in ways that are appropriate. Pray for one another daily. Call, send an email or text message, have a video visit, tune in to our online worship services and virtual coffee hour, tell your story and listen to the stories of your sisters and brothers in Christ. There also have been and will be some safe opportunities for outreach to those in need.
We, who are all in this together during Covidtide, were all together before it started. Limiting contact does not mean limiting care. Let’s care for one another as we continue into the future God will set before us. The Holy Spirit is already preparing the way!
I close with this beautiful prayer for the Church.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
– The Book of Common Prayer
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church