Online worship is on the rise as congregations respond to COVID-19

Bedford livestream Courtesy photo St. Paul's Church in Bedford was one of many congregations livestreaming Sunday services on March 15--allowing people to participate from the safety of their homes.

With the wave of closures and restrictions sweeping aside daily routines and business as usual--all in the attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Massachusetts--congregations are rising to the occasion in all kinds of ways, as they move worship services online, find ways to stay connected with their people, strategize about physically distanced outreach to the vulnerable in their communities and settle in for what public health authorities say will be a long haul.

"In all of this we face dilemmas of incomplete epidemiological information and varying pastoral imperatives that do not always point clearly in a single direction. God invites us to respond as fully as we can, with the best information we have, with both patience and timely determination, and with hearts full of compassion and concern for the most vulnerable in our midst," Bishop Alan M. Gates said in a March 12 pastoral guidance sent to the diocesan community.

He has convened an advisory group of professionals with expertise in epidemiology, public health and disaster response to provide guidance for diocesan congregations and organizations, and regular conference calls are being scheduled with clergy and wardens in charge of congregations for information sharing and mutual support.

With the bishops' full support for local decisions to close, nearly a third of the diocese's 180 congregations reported the suspension of worship services and other in-person group activities in the days prior to Governor Charlie Baker's March 16 ban on gatherings of 25 or more people.  Nearly 50 congregations of the diocese, to date, have listed their online worship opportunities on the diocesan website (find the list here).

"It's very odd in the sense that it feels like the run-up to a blizzard," the Rev. Phil LaBelle, the rector of St. Mark's Church in Southborough, said by phone, but without knowing when it will hit or how long it will last.

"People are wanting to do things for others and don't know how best to do that because there's not much to be done right now," in terms of direct service, he said. 

Reading livestream Courtesy photo Young members of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Reading watch a livestream of the service on Sunday, March 15.

So the immediate focus, he said, is finding ways to keep people connected in these days of mandatory physical distancing.

His vestry has created a weekly phone-calling list to check in on members who are in a risk demographic.  St. Mark's has shifted its Sunday morning worship services to online Morning Prayer, as many others have done.  Its new online offerings include virtual Stations of the Cross walks on Wednesday evenings in Lent, using the online video conferencing platform Zoom. 

LaBelle has also launched "PJ Prayers with Father Phil," using Facebook Live to offer Bible stories and bedtime prayers for children three nights a week.  "It's a great way for me to just connect with kids in our congregation, so they have something to look forward to, something routine," he said.

At the Church of the Holy Spirit in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, last Sunday's service was conducted by teleconference and was "well attended," the rector, the Rev. Zenetta Armstrong, said by e-mail. 

"It would have been an empty void for most if worship was not available," she said.  "The gift of that is not only that many from the church signed in, but it was an opportunity for friends of church members and former members that now live out of state to join us for worship.  My family joined in from out of state which was a wonderful gift."

A technology team of parishioners worked diligently to get Holy Spirit up and running to livestream worship via Zoom, she said.

"It is all unfolding with God's help.  Yes, we are going through a period of strange and uncertain times.  It has brought us closer together, which happens during times of crisis.  We are truly working and praying together," she said.

Restriction on visits to people in nursing homes and hospitals is one of her concerns, she said. 

"Prayer for the safety of all is what we are continuing to lift up at this time.  We will certainly try to help those in need in the parish and beyond as we are able," she said.

All Saints Church of the North Shore in Danvers held its last in-person worship service--for now--last Sunday, "with many hygienic precautions and much joy in being together," the rector, the Rev. Marya DeCarlen, said by e-mail.  "My sense is that our congregation is responsive to this new normal and feels both the pangs of separation from ministry and the wisdom of social distancing to hamper the rise in the curve of this virus."

For people struggling to make meaning out of current circumstances, DeCarlen cited a poem, "God's works," by Steve Garnaas-Holmes.  It describes how a time like this "opens our eyes to the work of love."

In addition to continuing its podcasts of homilies and online links to music sound files, Scripture and prayers on its website and electronic newsletter, All Saints plans to implement what it's calling "Love on the Line" and "Love on a Plate"--wording borrowed from All Saints Church in Chicago, DeCarlen said.

"We will roll out this initiative specifically for people who feel physically isolated and could use the connection of a phone call or could benefit from someone from All Saints who can bring meals to parishioners in need or others identified in need," she said.

Because these are still-early days in the pandemic's spread, there is much uncertainty, anxiety and restlessness to be countered.

"We have a tendency--certainly in our parish, and I know we're not alone--to be Type A sort of do-ers.  It's very hard for us to lay low," LaBelle said of his Southborough community.  "Besides giving up church for Lent--at least in the sense of the physical gathering of being at church--it might be that we're being asked to give up not having to always be doing stuff."

It brings to mind, he said, one of the prayers for use by those who are sick found on page 461 of The Book of Common Prayer:  "This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly."

And though still walking the way of this most unusual Lenten season, people are already asking him: "What about Easter?" 

LaBelle's reply:  "Easter is 50 days.  It will still be a celebration of resurrection when we get back together in person, whenever that is."

--Tracy J. Sukraw

Find diocesan updates and links to resources for COVID-19 response here.