Open and Closed Churches
This past weekend, President Trump made headlines by calling for churches to “open,” and for state prohibitions of congregational gatherings to be lifted. This announcement led to all manner of social media postings, letters-to-the-editor and online commentary by outraged clergy and religious leaders (including me). We’re not “closed,” we protested! We’re open– on Zoom where we can all worship safely. We’re not closed, we’re open—as we care for one another through phone calls and letters. We’re not closed, we’re open— as we advocate for and assist those in need through online meetings, the giving of money and direct service done in a safe, socially distant, way.
And it’s true — churches are open whether or not we gather together in our buildings. But our protest does beg the question: when will it be time to gather in our sanctuaries? You can find a range of opinion on this question among clergy and denominational leaders. Some folks say churches shouldn’t open until it’s safe for everyone — which probably means until there’s a vaccine. The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly recommends that congregations plan for virtual worship through May 2021— allowing that it may be possible to gather earlier. Other churches are opening this month while trying to observe CDC guidelines: no choirs, no congregational singing or sharing of pew bibles, no passing of the peace, no coffee hours; tightly limiting the number of people, urging people at risk to stay home, and, of course, everyone wearing a mask. This month it’s clear (IMHO) that gathering in person is wrong, as the virus is still prevalent enough that we could spread infection among neighbors as well as members. But if that risk lessens over the next year, the “right” answer may not be so clear. It’s hard to imagine planning a worship service where we’d encourage at-risk people to stay away, or where we might have to turn away people at the door . On the other hand, although Zoom can be wildly inclusive and welcoming (international worship!) it does exclude those without phones or devices.
So there may not always be a clear right answer, but I do think there’s a right question: what form of worship, at any given time, will best glorify God? A God who loves all people, and who calls us to care for the most vulnerable. A God who is Lord of time and space and can hear prayer wherever we may be. A God who wants us to welcome everyone, as Jesus welcomed Samaritans and tax collectors. A God of beauty and grace who calls us to joyful praise. It’s this question (and it’s sub-questions) that should govern our discernment, rather than being guided simply by what we miss, or by a political statement we may wish to make. Such discernment and waiting will require prayer , fortitude and imagination. But I’m not anxious! I’m confident Summit will make sound and faithful decisions, as we lay our questions before the Holy Spirit.
In the meantime, it’s OK to grieve what we’re missing: the choir, coffee hour, the organ! Let’s also welcome new blessings as we experiment and learn all kinds of things we could not have imagined learning a mere three months ago. God’s wonders never cease.
With gratitude for this congregation, for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for all those working behind the scenes that allow us to gather while physically distant,
Grace and Peace,