I remember the last Sunday before the suspension of in-person worship back in March. I remember remaining on my knees at the altar rail after receiving the host—the common cup had been suspended the week before—and getting choked up.
Or shall I say, a good deal more choked up than usual!
It happened again after the service, as I greeted the priest at the door. Tears came as I stammered something about ‘how much this place has meant to me.’ I’m not sure what the priest made of my doorstep confession, but in that moment I sensed that something big was shifting for me.
The last Sunday
What I felt at the altar rail and at the door was a welling up of two feelings. The first was immense gratitude for the ways that this congregation and the Eucharist had saved me and sustained me over the previous few years, during a difficult period of transition.
The second was a great sadness that something was coming to an end. It was as if I knew that however short or long the Covid-19 suspension might be, that there would be a lasting significance to this interruption. That I might not be coming back to that place, and that altar rail, in the same way again.
A few weeks into Coronatide, when Zoom meetings were still a novelty, some colleagues gathered and we began to talk about what we, and the people we had spoken with, were missing most about in-person worship. I was not surprised to hear that, for most people, what they most missed was “community.”
I was not surprised because it seems to me that “community” has become the most important word we use to describe what church is all about for us in the mainline. Community trumps all the other words we might think of when we describe church: communion, Eucharist, sacrament, worship, liturgy, body of Christ, belief, prayer, praise, gospel, Jesus, mission.
In that Zoom call I felt more than a little curmudgeonly as I admitted that community was not what I was missing most. What I was missing most was the Eucharist.
It seemed a bit cold, austere, priestly, to suggest that what stirred my heart and soul the most each Sunday was the sacrament—and not the people.
What about the people?
Now, to be clear, when I think of the Eucharist I think of the whole of it, the communal participation, all of us kneeling at the altar rail, all beggars in need of grace. I am not thinking of it as a purely private moment.
I should also hasten to add that it’s not that I don’t miss or care about the people in that congregation that saved and sustained me. I do, and I will always be grateful for them. I can testify that community is powerful and can be salvific and sustaining.
In the days following the Zoom call I puzzled over my confession. It occurred to me that the things other people talked about as central to their experience of church were not as central for me.
Yes, when I thought of the particular people of the congregation, I had great affection for them and I missed them. But when I though about “community” in the abstract, that isn’t what I valued most about church.
A Christian community
The question I pondered was whether community ought to be the most important thing about church. After all, community and a sense of belonging are available in many places, and in many forms. What is distinctive about Christian community?
I recognized that outside of the congregation, I had other sources of community in my life. I had opportunities to participate in Christian mission. I had resources for prayer and praise and Scripture reading. I even had opportunities to support fundraising campaigns!
What I couldn’t get anywhere else was the Eucharist. What I rely on church for is Eucharistic community. A community of all sorts, united in a desire to share this meal and be transformed by the experience.
A community that recognizes that this meal is powerful and even dangerous—in that it threatens to upend our settled ways and draw us more deeply into the life of Jesus in the world.
Worship in the time of Covid
Now, nine months on, those early insights have proved to be prescient. In-person worship remains suspended, likely until next spring or summer. On-line worship opportunities abound. The Eucharist is still not available.
All of that has reshaped my relationship to congregational participation.
What has become central to my worship life is praying the Daily Office, a practice I began almost three years ago. I take great comfort in praying with the communion of saints in this world and the next. I participate in online worship. I find opportunities for missional service through a variety of local and global initiatives.
I still miss the Eucharist, and the opportunity to participate in a Eucharistic community.
What all of this has got me thinking about is the question of what should be most central to our definition of church? What ought we to miss the most about not being able to gather in person?
What do you miss? Why do you think that is?
I hope this question is something we can work on when we are able to gather again.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is an Anglican priest and former United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).