[Episcopal News Service] As parishes across The Episcopal Church suspend in-person worship in a precautionary effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday, March 15 is shaping up to be a historic day, with many – if not most – churches switching to online services. With only a few days’ notice, churches are preparing for a radical, unprecedented shift in the way they gather as a community, and there’s no certainty about how long it will last – whether congregations will be back in church in time for Easter or virtual services will become “the new normal” for a while.
Churches large and small are rapidly figuring out what a virtual service looks like and how it can be broadcast over the internet, many for the first time. In Washington, D.C., Washington National Cathedral has suspended in-person worship for the next two Sundays, the longest preplanned closure in its history (not counting a closure of several weeks after the 2011 earthquake that seriously damaged it). The 11 a.m. (Eastern time) Eucharist on March 15 will be livestreamed here and feature a sermon from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, though he won’t be at the cathedral either; the sermon will be recorded from his home in North Carolina.
While writing the sermon, titled “Is there any message in this mess?” Curry pondered the Gospel reading for March 15: a passage from John 4 in which a Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether it is holier to worship God on a mountain or in a temple, and he replies, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
“Those ancient words speak to us who have to worship online or at a distance,” Curry said in a statement sent to Episcopal News Service. “On the mountain top or in the church building isn’t important. In spirit and in truth is what matters. So on livestreams or in a church building, all that matters is to worship God in spirit and truth.”
Other major churches, like Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, and Trinity Church Wall Street in New York are only holding online services for the immediate future, although some – including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas – were still planning to hold in-person services as well, as of the afternoon of March 13.
But most parishes don’t have the resources of those large churches, and many have no experience with livestreaming, so the past few days have been a crash course in virtual worship for leaders from across the church. The Episcopal Church has included a list of digital worship resources on its COVID-19 page, including livestreaming tutorials, apps and websites for daily prayer and fellowship, and online versions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Daily Office.
Some dioceses have put together their own guides for online worship, like “Offering Online Worship: A Simple Guide” from the Diocese of Chicago, a webinar from the Diocese of Oregon, and a video tutorial from the Diocese of San Diego on how to livestream a service using just a smartphone, a Facebook account and a tripod.
One issue that has come up is hymn licensing. Typically, hymns that are under copyright require a license to be used in a livestreamed service. Some licensing companies are relaxing their restrictions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. One License, which covers dozens of hymn publishers, is offering churches a one-month streaming license for free. Alternately, churches can use any public domain hymn without licensing; a list with scores and lyrics is available here.
Beyond broadcasting Sunday services, church leaders are using the internet to keep clergy and congregants connected in other ways. Virginia Theological Seminary is offering “Digital Ministry Open Office Hours” through its eFormation Learning Community, focusing on “how best to serve our communities of faith in times of crisis and concern.” Forward Movement has offered a list of resources for prayer and worship at home, including a Daily Office podcast and its ChurchNext video courses.
“Especially in this time, we must turn to Jesus Christ our Lord as we face fear and uncertainty,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, in releasing its list of resources. “Though we may not be able to gather in person with others in our churches, we can pray knowing that we are never alone, as Jesus has promised to be with us, even to the end of age.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.