by Benjamin Durheim
This week, many churches are opening up for various kinds of in-person devotion and prayer. Here in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the churches will be able to open for up to eight hours a day, for “individual prayer and adoration.” Such opening, cautiously practiced, is perhaps a good idea for ministry and church life, but I worry that pious Christians may take this as a wholesale invitation back to the church buildings.
Even with the exhortation to continue social distancing, to practice person limits in the church, and to continue vigorous cleaning and sanitizing, the move to incrementally open church buildings moves the body of Christ toward its encounter with the next set of (liturgical) temptations as the pandemic progresses: (1) the temptation to insist on the urgency of one’s own access to in-person liturgical and/or devotional practice, (2) the temptation to slip too quickly away from social distancing in church buildings, and (3) the temptation to mischaracterize social distancing precautions as evidence of fear rather than protection of vulnerable persons.
To be sure, each of these temptations has been gnawing its way into churches differently in different places, but as bodies begin to slowly return to the church buildings, these temptations will take on flesh in ways that social media posts and Zoom interactions simply don’t. In this light, I’d like to offer the following brief considerations as Christians weigh whether and when to move their bodies into church buildings:
First, our fast from in-person liturgy is not over, nor should it be. Rather than a tentative step toward full re-opening of church buildings, it may be more helpful to think of this slow re-opening as emergency ministry to those who need it. Just as in other fasts that Christians practice, not everyone can (or should) fast in the same ways for the same lengths of time. Some persons need sustenance more quickly than others, and ministering to such persons should be born neither of pity nor resentment, but of genuine love. The fast does not end for everyone just because someone needs a day of exemption from it. For everyone else, the fast continues. Love is, among other things, patient and kind (1 Cor 13:4).
Second, as this fast from in-person liturgy continues, it is understandable to become frustrated because we do not know exactly when or in what manner the fast will come to an end. The Lenten fast transitions to the celebration of Easter, and the Advent fast (Nativity fast) transitions to Christmas, but this pandemic fast for Christians has no easily-calculable endpoint. This great unknown can hurt, but for Christians, such unknowing is the context where love can be most precious and most necessary. Even when others may ignore social distancing precautions, Christians need not (must not) be envious. Even when some Christians will take the opportunity to participate in prayer and adoration at their church buildings, this is not cause to gloat. Love is neither jealous nor boastful (1 Cor 13:4).
Finally, social distancing is not simply for one’s own protection; it is for the protection of others, and most especially those who are vulnerable. Christians must see this, and practice it even as their societies slowly reopen. As specifically called to care for vulnerable persons (Mt 25), Christians’ concern should not be for their own liturgical or devotional desires, but instead for liturgical and devotional practice that safeguards vulnerable persons. Practicing social distancing, or wearing masks, or limiting numbers of persons in a church building, or any number of other precautions, are not products of fear; the are embodied practices of care for vulnerable persons, and solidarity with those whose lives and work require in-person contact. If one finds these precautions arduous, it may be helpful to recall the practice of discipleship is not ultimately about oneself. Love does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:7).
I do pray that we are able to return to in-person liturgy soon, but this prayer of mine I find embedded in my prayers for the end of the pandemic. The two are intertwined, and while I am comforted by the fact that some Christians may have more of their spiritual needs met in private prayer and adoration in their churches, I pray also that Christians as a whole are granted the hope and endurance (1 Cor 13:7) necessary for the practice of love in this time. Love may require a (much?) longer fast from in-person liturgy and devotional practice, but unlike this pandemic, love never ends (1 Cor 13:8).
Benjamin Durheim, PhD is visiting assistant professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, and Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary. He earned his PhD in systematic theology from Boston College. Ben has published articles on sacramental theology, ethics, and ecumenism, and his book Christ’s Gift, Our Response,was published by Liturgical Press. He lives in Avon, MN, with his wife and daughter.