Outdoor Liturgy: Covid Option or Natural Setting?

For close to two years worshiping communities have had to adapt, cancel, or shift their central act of gathering as the Body of Christ to worship the living God. The collective groans over the most recent round of omicron-inspired restrictions have been met with resignation and exhaustion in many parishes, as well as reports of reduced numbers at liturgies and other gatherings – are people simply giving up?

One end-run around the usual virtual events, depending on the levels of desperation and climate tolerance, has been the outside liturgy – either on the grounds of the parish, in nearby parks, or rituals on the move such as pilgrimage paths or forest stational liturgies. There were already many invitations and suggestions on how to do this for the spring of 2020 – one of the most prolific series of comments (in frequency and detail) came from the RC Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which maintained encouragement for outdoor events in the midst of constantly changing civil directives.

“Outdoor Masses and other liturgical services such as adoration and prayer services are allowed and encouraged. Parishes may continue to celebrate Confessions, First Communions, Confirmations, Funerals, and Weddings outdoors on the parish grounds.” (July 2020)

The state of Michigan seems to be the winner in sheer numbers of winter “outdoor chapels” (giving new meaning to “there’s never the wrong weather, just the wrong clothing”) as noted in this photo from Holy Child Parish in Dearborn, MI.

Perhaps even more interesting were the guidelines produced from the Church of England for outdoor liturgies, cautioning that simply moving the arrangement of the inside to the outside might not be the best approach, but rather the natural beauty of an outdoor liturgy, along with a direct connection to God’s creation, needed to be highlighted in new and different ways.

Government guidance is clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones. This can be an opportunity to notice and be thankful for God’s creation; noticing the trees, plants, birds, and insects around you, and feeling the sunshine and wind (or refreshing rain!) on your face.

Churchyards are also often full of fascinating monuments which tell the story of your community over the centuries. Sometimes they contain imagery and poetry and express joy and faith, as well as sadness, even perhaps unease, for example monuments of people related to the Slave Trade. These can offer opportunities for reflections on life, remind people of their shared past, and encourage discussion about our place in the world, and how we might prayerfully work towards creating a better one.

But beyond these comments there were a number of additional suggestions for first using the parish grounds (as above) and then moving beyond the parish grounds.

Keep it manageable. Think carefully about the group size that you can manage safely. The current COVID guidance will help you work out the maximum group size, but you should also think about what will work well with worship. You should not be shouting, so amplification may be needed to communicate effectively outside while practising physical distancing. The context is important too – you need to think about road noise, neighbours and other users of the outdoor space, such as those tending graves for example.

Be in the space, don’t try and make it like ‘normal’ church. It isn’t. Attentiveness to place is fundamental to outdoor worship. Worship can be shorter, more informal and more inclusive.” (and elsewhere the instructions noted to “be in the round, try different arrangements, don’t just move the inside outside”)

What was not immediately apparent was that the lengthy series of examples and suggestions in the CofE comments above were primarily about non-eucharistic gatherings – there were additional concerns for holding a eucharistic liturgy outside, beginning with explicit permission from the bishop (in addition to the covid concerns about how to do that with regard to giving communion to those gathered around). For several ecclesial communities moving a eucharistic liturgy outside was more problematic – not just because of the covid challenges – but because of the altar being used, the elements being consecrated, and the porous nature of outside liturgies.

So, what is the spatial heart of eucharistic liturgy redefined in a time of pandemic?

(CNS photo/Valaurian Waller, Detroit Catholic)

Christianity has a long tradition of outdoor eucharistic worship (for example in the Syriac ‘summer chapel’ used in hot summer months), but particularly in the use of portable altars or appropriate altar equivalents in Eastern Christianity. Although not exactly the same items, the antimension (“instead of the table”) of various Byzantine traditions (the consecrated cloth required to celebrate the Divine Liturgy), the tâbot of Ethiopian tradition, or the gorbura and tablîtho of Armenian and older Syriac traditions all come to mind. While the direct parallel in Western Christian traditions might be the required use of a corporal, the mensa, or portable altar stone is probably a truer counterpart. Originally stone (and even wood) slabs carried and placed on other tables or stones, these small squares eventually were consecrated with relics placed in them and then placed on permanent stone altar tops. While the temporary arrangement of outdoor altars to accommodate pandemic eucharists may be using consecrated mensae or other portable altars, it is apparent that many communities have simply brought a suitable table out from the church building and/or constructed one out of ice or other natural material.

In continuity with this long history, the consecrated nature of the altar (or something on the altar) or the care in constructing and dressing an altar table is still evident. The focal and ritual centre of outdoor eucharistic liturgies is still evident, as is often a place for the word, the leader of the gathering, and the music during outdoor pandemic eucharistic or non-eucharistic liturgies. But what of the boundaries of the community? Without the walls of the church or chapel, without the defining of space within space (such as side chapels in cathedrals), where does the liturgical space begin and end? The Church of England began its instructions for outdoor pandemic liturgies by presuming that parish communities were using the parish grounds, including the adjacent cemetery, which were often enclosed by a garden wall and accessed through the lychgate – clearly an enclosed garden including both consecrated graveyard and church building.

But many urban (and other) contemporary parishes do not have that arrangement – how do we know where the border is? While the question is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it is apparently important to a number of pandemic-worshipers. Creating the ‘sacred space” of outdoor worship has been more of a pastoral concern than many might suspect. In conversations with different communities, I have been informed that the ice chapel necessarily defines the space of liturgy, or the stone patio is the limit (on it you’re in – on the grass, you’re not!), or the space noted by the planters arranged around the side yard, or the outside walls of buildings, or a particular row of trees, or the limits of the parking lot, or only to the back row of chairs, or other. To move outside to worship within God’s creation, created good, is apparently still a place in need of definition, even with the negotiable space of a grassy narthex or doorway of a parish hall, or people standing on the sidewalk (do we count them in the number of attendees?) It raises a number of interesting theological and ritual questions – from our long history of imagining heaven as an enclosed garden (think St. Perpetua) to our continuing need to know where we are with regard to space, place, and proximity.

The pastoral concerns about defining place for outside liturgies seems a bit at odds with the official rhetoric of many churches to be churches without walls – imagining the work of the church beyond the walls of the church (or the potential irrelevance of church buildings at all). What interesting things we are still learning about ourselves as worshiping communities in this ongoing pandemic!

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