By the Rev. Canon Scott Slater
President Trump wanted to reopen all churches and other places of worship by Memorial Day weekend because, “we need more prayer, not less.” I don’t understand this comment; people of all faiths can pray anywhere. We do not need a designated building to do so. In the Diocese of Maryland, where I serve as an Episcopal priest, many of us will continue to avoid regathering in our worship spaces until we determine we can do so with a significant measure of safety and integrity. None will be open this weekend for public worship and only a few in more rural areas will begin cautiously regathering next weekend with significant safeguards in place and in limited numbers.
We are using the term “regather” rather than open, because we never closed. The word “church” is a misnomer in American society. It connotes an edifice used for holding corporate religious worship in the Christian tradition, similar to the way we think of the use of a mosque, synagogue or temple in other traditions. We who regularly practice the Christian faith understand that “church” is a gathering of people, whether in a particular edifice or collectively as the church universal.
Even though thousands of religious structures have been closed to the public and restricted to no more than ten people present (usually for the purpose of livestreaming worship) or maintaining essential ministries such as food pantries, the church never closed. We are still doing what we do every day: praying, ministering to the marginalized, gathering virtually, continuing to inspire, connect and support pastorally. In fact I am aware that many congregations have experienced a significant uptick in views of their online worship compared to before the pandemic.
So I don’t know that we’re praying less as much as we’re praying differently. We are being forced to adapt and tap into our creativity. And that may help resurrect the church that Jesus really wants in this postmodern era.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has taken a toll on congregations of all faiths. Some on the edge of financial survival will close. But some will adapt and choose to “be church” differently going forward. If our buildings are only being used for prayer and worship, then do we really need them, as beautiful as they are? We can do that online if we must. But the faith community’s primary impact on the world should always be outside the doors of its properties, not within them. As I often say in my sermons, we gather within our walls to be fed by the Body of Christ, so that we can be the Body of Christ beyond them, in our daily lives, where the real presence of our risen Lord is embodied in our faithful actions and attitudes. Our buildings are a small part of who we are as church.
The Rev. Scott Slater is canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland