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Worship Wars.Churches have battled over how often to serve Holy Communion.What kind of music should be played.Which way to dress — and not to dress.
Whether to ordain women.How to deal with the LGBTQ community.And these are just in the last century.It’s as if whenever two or more are gathered in the name of their faith, Worship Wars will follow.
Now COVID-19 brings a new Worship War: whether to obey state restrictions against holding indoor religious services and large outside gatherings. As one side pleads for cooperation and “sacred distancing,” the other rails about how this is a fight against good and evil — and have defiantly held indoor services and large outdoor gatherings.These are not waters I wish to wade into. So I went looking for someone who knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t have a dog in the fight in San Diego — or in California.That search led me to Ed Phillips, who has spent his academic life studying Christian worship — its practices and its history. Phillips, an associate professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, is a Protestant who got his doctorate at one of our top Catholic schools, the University of Notre Dame. He’s also an ordained United Methodist minister who has spearheaded a national guidebook on how churches could reopen safely.On Zoom, I read him what the Rev. Art Hodges III, senior pastor of South Bay United Pentecostal Church, said at a protest in downtown San Diego against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandates: “It’s time to let all God’s children go. It’s time to let all God’s children go back to church.”
And this: “America was founded so we could worship the God we want without persecution, without interference from our government.”Phillips has studied Pentecostalism a good deal. It’s one of the forms of worship he outlines in a book coming out in October —“The Purpose, Pattern and Character of Worship.”He cautions: Let’s listen to the minister with understanding.“Pentecostalism is an extremely embodied form of worship, in which the proximity of people together and the energy that it creates among themselves as they have the sort of group experience of the Holy Spirit is a vital part of their worship,” says Phillips.
Think of the last rock concert you went to, he suggests, where everybody in the audience is standing and singing and clapping. “Whereas in a lot of mainline Protestant churches worship is more like listening to a classical concert, in which you listen with appreciation, but you are not embodied in a visceral participation in the same sort of way.”I ask him if that means officials should make an exception for such groups right now.“No,” he says. “ I’m saying this because I understand the urge. Let’s be sympathetic to the desire.”First, some history
Christian worship took centuries to organize what we would call congregations today. At first, Phillips says, they gathered mostly in small clusters in homes. In the region where early Christians lived, Sunday was just another workday.
“So they would have had to gather after everyone was finished with their work in the evening or early in the morning before it began. And probably the worship services were rather short. There was no music program. There was no big choir. It was get together and get the business done.“Stand-alone churches didn’t start to develop until about the 4th century. “They built larger buildings because they had more of approval (from the ruling bodies),” he says. With the blessing of these sympathetic emperors, the development of churches was rather quick. As the faith multiplied around the world, so did the number of expressions of worship — giving birth to thousands of denominations, each with their own rules, rituals and rites.Let’s jump to the 20th century, which saw an explosion of the megachurch movement, houses of worship that are like stadiums, holding thousands of people (Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston seats 16,800).The 21st century has witnessed another explosion, this one brought not by desire for size but by the dread of disease: the era of virtual worship.
Our new reality
For months now, followers of multiple faiths here have had to worship online, forgoing the pews and the altars for Zoom and YouTube. The weariness is palpable.Phillips says one of his brothers told him that watching online worship is like watching a video of a fireplace. “You can visualize it, but you don’t feel the heat. You don’t smell the smoke. You don’t see it changing, literally, because it’s sort of on a loop or something.”He wonders how long people will be able to “live off the fumes” of their memories. Phillips, whose wife pastors a church in Atlanta, misses in-person gathering — a lot. “In my daily prayers, it’s like, ‘Lord let us come back so we can have the Eucharist together.’ “Here comes the but, which the other side isn’t going to like. While the professor listens sympathetically to that other side, he comes down on the side of patience and perspective.
“This is not a martyrdom situation,” he explains.Faith isn’t being outlawed. Bibles aren’t being burned. People aren’t being persecuted.“The way we witness to Christ in this event is to say we want to support the wholesomeness of the community, the health of the community, and for God so loved the world so much that even though we feel that this is an essential thing to us, we’re having to fast from it for a while. Because if we worship together in this way, we could endanger our neighbors. For the sake of our neighbors, for the love of others, now we are going to do the vital thing of fasting from in-person worship.”He uses the language of fasting, which is a language recognizable in many other traditions as well — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, among others. A spiritual concept of how intentionally going without, temporarily, can be good for you.
This past spring, as some states began reopening, Phillips was bothered by the lack of a coordinated national strategy for resuming in-person worship. So he assembled an ecumenical team to do just that.The group included religious leaders, scholars, public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The result: “Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic,” a detailed guide of protocols available in English and Spanish (Google the report’s title to access it).Under these protocols, worship would look a lot different. Clergy would only speak in low volumes aided by microphones, to help prevent the spread of oral spray. There would be no out-loud singing, no woodwind instruments, no hugging and scrupulous compliance to physical distancing and wearing face coverings.I ask Phillips what Jesus would do during this new normal. “Jesus was a healer,” he begins. “So he would be on the side of health and wholeness.”
He points out that in Greek, the phrase “to save” is the same as “to heal” — “and so salvation is a kind of wholeness for the world that God intends for the world.”Despite the void he feels, he’s sacrificing the temptation to congregate “in order to be on the side of healing and wholeness and health.”Moments of truce
This Worship War, too, shall pass. Until then, here are some moments of truce.Google this: NPR and humming and church. You’ll be rewarded with the story of Amy Dickinson, a columnist and frequent panelist on the radio show, ”Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” about her small church, which has returned for worship with physical distancing, masks and no singing. One Sunday, the people began spontaneously humming a hymn behind their masks. It was, she told a colleague, “the most heartbreaking and beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
Then Google this: Episcopal priest and Hamilton parody. You’ll be entertained with the Rev. Lonnie Lacy’s delightful — and inspirational — rewrite of “You’ll Be Back” from “Hamilton,” complete with dancing and vestments. The keep-the-faith video has gone viral with lines like these: “You’ll be back. Wait and see. Just remember how it used to be. You’ll be back. Time will tell, when we kick this virus back to hell.”That’s a battle cry perhaps all sides can get behind.Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religion News Association, where she continues to serve as a contest judge.
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