‘O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker’, sings the Psalmist, reminding us of our need to worship God (95.6; cf. Philippians 2.10). We Christians are especially conscious of that need given God’s own Commandment to keep holy the sabbath (Exodus 20.2–17 and Deuteronomy 5.6–21). Among the privations of the Covid-19 pandemic are the limitations imposed on our worship of God. There is hope that we will return to worship as we did before March 2020, but that return will neither annul the trials of the past year nor conclude the lessons to be learned. A year and a bit into lockdown is an auspicious time to begin theological reflection about how we gather and worship as God’s people.
Part of that theological reflection will inevitably include the efficacy of online worship. Online worship has burgeoned since March 2020, but in what ways, if any, can it replace onsite worship? Prior to the pandemic, the question would have been moot because there was relatively little online worship. Onsite worship was de rigueur and part of the fabric of Christian life. Restrictions like social distancing, masks and the dearth of singing are difficult enough. However, with the closing of churches by the state, even to the point of criminalising onsite gathering for worship, our theological reflection is perforce jumpstarted.
In late March a number of Scottish Christians challenged by judicial review the unilateral closing of places of worship from January 2021 by Scottish Ministers. The petitioners were from a diversity of Reformed churches, with a Roman Catholic as a supporting party; Episcopalians were not among them. Their petition was taken in the Court of Session where Lord Braid deemed the closing of places of worship unlawful in his Opinion. Lord Braid accepted the petitioners’ claim that central to their faith ‘is the importance of physically congregating to undertake corporate worship’ (para 60) and that the Regulations, which simply closed churches and forbade onsite gathering for worship entirely ‘went further than they were lawfully able to do’ (para 129). The petitioners, in other words, should not have been prevented from gathering for corporate worship in their churches when other premises were in use for services deemed essential, for example bicycle shops, notwithstanding lawful restrictions in use elsewhere.
The Opinion, specifically the petitioners’ emphasis on the importance of onsite, corporate worship in church, is food for thought. On the one hand, Jesus was clear in saying that we may pray alone, even in secret (Matthew 6.6). Private prayer and worship are staples of the spiritual life. Jesus often took time to pray alone, for example getting up in the morning to pray in a lonely place (Mark 1.35). Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, particularly with the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.9–13 and Luke 11.1–4). Jesus assured us of his presence when we congregate: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18.20). Praying alone (or with others at home) and praying together online are moments of worship, even corporate worship, for the Lord Jesus is present with us.
On the other hand, there are acts of worship, like the Lord’s Supper, that cannot be replicated online. That is not to say that one could not share parts of the Communion Office virtually, say, with livestreaming; but it is to say that it is not the same as experiencing the Holy Eucharist. As the Gospels recount (Matthew 26.17–30; Mark 14.12–26; Luke 22.7–39; John 13.1–17.26), the receiving of the consecrated bread and wine in a communal context are fundamental to the Last Supper. St Paul, likewise, emphasises eating and drinking together at the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11.17–34). The Eucharist underscores the reality of our existential experience: we are incarnate spirits. Our present being is embodied as is our future being (1 Corinthians 15.35–54), for that is how God made us and redeemed us.
Our post-pandemic theological reflection, then, will take into account the extraordinary ways we have worshipped and prayed, especially online, during the lockdowns, and the suitability of continued worship online after we return to church without restrictions in due course. Yet, reflection is also needed on what we have endured vis-à-vis this captivity wherein we have been deprived of our sacred spaces, our sacraments and ourselves. As we return from our exile, it will surely not be ‘church as usual’. Good will surely come from evil, nonetheless the process may be slow. We are in a position now to pause and to reflect. Most importantly, though, let us be thankful to return to church, to bow down in worship and to kneel before the Lord our maker.
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull is an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s, and Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.