written by Ryan D. Newman
As seminarians in the late nineties at the Virginia Theological Seminary, we were “required to attend” morning worship every day of the week. Honestly, I dreaded most days except Wednesdays when Eucharist was celebrated. On the other days of the week, the Office of Morning Prayer was said. As a young, headstrong, seminarian, I thought if it was not Eucharist, it was not a “real” service. I believed the only way to be fed in worship was through the body and blood of Jesus Christ. My worship attendance record at seminary reflected my skewed theology—and I was not the only one at VTS regularly skipping Morning Prayer for these reasons.
Last week, amid the growing concern about the Coronavirus (COVID-19), we witnessed Bishops throughout the country scrambling to communicate to their Dioceses the best practices for distribution of Communion and the exchange of the Peace. Bishops called for baptismal fonts to be drained and for bows and peace signs to replace hugs and handshakes at the Peace. Some bishops instructed their clergy to cease the administration of the common cup meaning that communicants would only receive the bread and not the wine. However, Bishop Jennifer Reddall, Bishop of Arizona, astutely wrote her Diocese and said, “My understanding of both the rubrics and doctrine of the Episcopal Church (specifically page 365 of the Book of Common Prayer and Article XXX of the Articles of Religion) prohibit me from [suspending the reception of the cup from clergy and laity].
The Coronavirus has created a monumental sacramental conundrum for churches like the Episcopal Church especially during this ever-important season of Lent. How do we safely worship together and feed one another?
There is an obvious alternative to the Eucharist that is being overlooked—Morning Prayer (and Evening Prayer for evening services). What would it look like if during the Coronavirus outbreak the Episcopal Church reclaimed Morning Prayer as the primary service? Remember, until the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Morning Prayer was commonly celebrated on Sundays in many congregations throughout the country. Morning Prayer would eliminate concerns arising from the Peace and distribution of Communion. Also, if congregations can no longer worship in-person together during a quarantine period, Morning Prayer could be offered digitally through Facebook and websites.
A few years ago, following a conversation with my spiritual director, I decided to abstain from taking Communion during Lent. As a priest, I found myself celebrating the Eucharist five times a week. As a communicant, I began to feel detached from the mystery and grace offered through communion. Abstaining from communion was the single best Lenten experience of my life. I discovered that I could be fed by the Word and other elements of worship. During this period, I discovered God’s abundant grace and love not in the bread or wine but in other simple ways—a hymn, the sermon, and even in the exchange of a smile with a member of the congregation. My Easter experience was made extraordinary through my Lenten practice. I truly came to appreciate worship in all its diversity in the Episcopal Church.
God-willing, the Coronavirus will come and go, and the Church will be able to resume its standard worship practices. Until then, what would it look like if the Episcopal Church embraced Morning Prayer? We could still worship together! We could still feed one another! We would still be the Church together in worship!
The Very Reverend Ryan D. Newman is the Dean of St. James Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin (Fresno, California). He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org