Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.
~John Chapman, English Benedictine monk
At the time of writing, we should be in Geneva on a locum placement within the Diocese in Europe. It was to be our sixth extended period of ministry in Europe after full-time ministry in Canberra. It can take a couple of years to fill a vacancy in the Diocese and chaplaincies, and communities look for stability during an inter-regnum. It is an enriching ministry where our language skills can broaden the ministry to the mostly anglophone congregations.
COVID-19, however, has changed all that and we are here, at home, like everyone else! Our disappointment is nothing compared to the great problems many places have had to endure. It has been a privilege and a joy, however, to fill the gap, at least on Sunday, as I stream from the confines of the study to Geneva and Lausanne. I shall ‘be’ in Lisbon in August and September.
This new liturgical life has presented the church with options and challenges. The church could not let things languish in inactivity and there was a very steep curve, both in discerning what was the ‘right’ approach and then in developing a way to do it. Some clergy were most uncomfortable with any idea of a streamed service. Others, for good reason, determined that celebration of the Eucharist was not appropriate in these circumstances. Here, services of the Word took the place of Holy Communion. In some places, live or recorded services are streamed to ‘congregants’ in their homes.
The leadership at Holy Trinity, Geneva, developed online services where the Eucharist could be celebrated following a strong desire to see the pattern and rhythm of regular worship maintained, albeit differently. They asked me to be a part of their ministry, even from afar. I inherited that situation and set out to find a way to create sacred space in a corner of our home which might bring something of its own tradition and practice. It seemed right to improvise a church setting, which the congregation has valued.
They were using Zoom. I was, frankly, apprehensive and wondered how we might be able to create a sense of prayerfulness, of dignity, reverence and a necessary ‘togetherness’. Nothing could have succeeded without the courageous inventiveness of many people. Holy Trinity has a very strong music ministry, and this has been sustained both instrumentally and with a ‘virtual choir’. Their collaborative effort illustrates amply how liturgy truly is the work of the people!
And my apprehension has vanished, due largely to two things.
First, I have become conscious that it is not Zoom, FaceTime or WhatsApp that mediates the grace of God in worship. It is the presence of God’s very self, beyond and above the hard reality of the technology, especially when there are practical problems.
Second, my initial reluctance to use Zoom (clunky, mechanical, the strange context of people’s kitchens or bookcases) has been lost in the intimacy it permits, of people being together, gathered, even when they are not.
I have been able to work with Canon Alan Amos and his wife, Dr Clare Amos, members of Holy Trinity. Prior to moving to Geneva in 2011 Clare was director of theological studies for the Anglican Communion and is now Director of Lay Discipleship in the Diocese. Alan officiated at the early services established for the pandemic. They developed a more modern version of the prayer for an act of spiritual communion, which worshippers can use. Certainly, there is no sense of the elements being consecrated at great distance for people to consume at home! This prayer is reproduced at the end of this piece, along with a poem, written by Alan.
This has been, and remains, a humbling experience. In all our ministry, we are given opportunities to create worship to fit the needs of those who are gathered with us. For me, it was always interesting to lead Chapel every week for a couple of hundred children in Prep to Year 2. In this remote worship, I have been similarly challenged to respond to whatever it can mean to be a member of the Body of Christ, to recognise that the orthodoxies of our tradition must faithfully serve the needs of the people and so nourish them. And I continue to reflect upon how this may affect our thought and practice when the pandemic is past.
Prayer for an Act of Spiritual Communion
We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
… [ short pause ] Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; as we unite with one another from the places where we are, may your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.
Love’s feast is come again
this year we celebrate online
the ardent lines
that reach out to infinity;
parameters of love that know no end
and where we are
becomes the place of grace.
by Reverend Chris Welsh