COVID-19 rules are “sanitizing” worship too – Vancouver Sun


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This guest post by a B.C. churchgoer offers a brilliant and witty perspective on the ways disoriented Christians are worshipping during the pandemic.

Author of the article:

Douglas Todd

The mood during COVID-19 worship can easily turn to one of isolation, emptiness or solitude, says B.C. churchgoer Lance Weisser, author of this evocative, often-funny essay. (Photo: Fragment of painting by Lance Weisser titled 'Sacred Heart Noel.')
The mood during COVID-19 worship can easily turn to one of isolation, emptiness or solitude, says B.C. churchgoer Lance Weisser, author of this evocative, often-funny essay. (Photo: Fragment of painting by Lance Weisser titled 'Sacred Heart Noel.') Photo by handout /jpg

This guest post by Lance Weisser offers brilliant, witty personal reflections on the strange ways that disoriented Christians are trying to worship during the recent few months of this pandemic. Weisser captures what happened when the government’s changing restrictions went from allowing small in-person gatherings to permitting only online services.


Weisser is a professional painter, retired clergyman and resident of Kamloops.

‘Worshipping in the New Normal, a Parishioner’s Response’

By Lance Weisser

Park the car, run back to grab the mask, don it while staying two respectful meters behind the parishioner ahead. “Who is that? Nancy? Elaine Musgrave? No, it must be Judy.” Then, entering the nave, greeted by a greeter wearing so real a flesh-coloured mask, for a freakish moment I wonder if she was born without a face, ‘Blessings’, she muffles, a bony finger with scarlet nail polish indicating an ornately carved table populated by a quartet of hand-sanitizing pump bottles smelling (to quote Neil Simon) like very new cheese or very old meat.

Once sanitized and moving along, another, this time a balding greeter is possibly smiling, possibly not, asking my name while holding a clipboard–’Frank, it’s me’, I hear myself say. ‘Oh!’ So it is!’ Forgetting himself he reaches out to grab my hand at which we both recoil, with Frank then gathering himself, clearing his throat, and ticking my name off a list. It’s a list created online early in the week using an app called ‘Eventbrite’, requiring parishioners to reserve a ‘ticket’.  That way, after I’ve infected everyone present, they can track me down.


‘You can sit anywhere there’s a sign’, Frank says through a mask with a Rotary Club logo, ‘Here’s the liturgy’, pointing at another little table with a pile of stapled paper.  ‘Deposit it in the blue bin when you leave’.

I quickly peruse the 8 a.m. Morning Prayer service only to be approached by an aging Ninja, a black-masked usher in a black skirt and top, leading me like the third of Scrooge’s ghosts to an appropriately-marked, socially-distanced and remote spot to ensure I’m nowhere near another human.  The sign on the farthest end of my pew is one of those mass-printed types with a giant arrow pointing down and reading in capital letters: ‘SIT HERE.’

Glancing about, I see others like it interspersed across the sanctuary, along with a smattering of mask-laden parishioners, some of whom I think I know, and some I’d have to pointedly stare at before taking a guess.  It is only akin to my having attended sparsely-attended funerals, where church friends of the deceased are few, sitting in isolation, wondering who everyone else is, the only connection being the one in the box at the front.


It’s the absence of any spiritually-centering organ music which is most off-putting, lending the space an atmosphere not all that different from an oversized waiting room, or an antiseptically clean bus depot.  The choir stall is empty.  There’s no holy water in the font at the entrance.  The hanging liturgical banners have been removed and the ceiling fans cranked to Piper Cub speed.  Adding to the aridness, there are no hymnals, no prayer books, the pews have a medicinal smell to them–like a freshly-opened band-aid – and up at the front, the altar has no flowers.

Eucharist has been changed to exclude the wine.

Why do we need masks in the church when we’re a soccer’s pitch apart?

Enter now the presiders, both so thoroughly masked, their liturgical robes look ludicrous by dint of the incongruity–there’s something immediately off-putting about the optics, like having a familiar and beloved relative greet you in a bee-keeper’s outfit.  Their muffled intonations of ancient liturgy only worsens the effect, making one wonder why on earth, with each of us a soccer pitch apart, masks are even a thing.


I mean, do germs travel through microphone systems — is the anciently diminutive Mrs. Crowley so bacteria-laden, she’ll infect an entire sanctuary from the last pew near the fire exit?

This watercolour by Lance Weisser evokes the kind of stark isolation he feels during a COVID-19 church service.
This watercolour by Lance Weisser evokes the kind of stark isolation he feels during a COVID-19 church service.

By now, I internally recognize I’m no longer participating, regardless of how obediently I read the liturgical responses, my voice sounding like a gauzy, counterfeit clone of itself.

I listen to the readings and the homily, yet can’t seem to intellectually digest the physical superfluity of it all–the sheer over-obedience to suggested protocols: how effortlessly an institution as historically hardy as the Church, caves over a televised government announcement.  No need for church/state consultations here–obeying secular societal guidelines is obviously de rigueur.  The worship we knew now feels a pastiche, so willingly eviscerated it’s antiseptic facsimile is soulless, inert.


Our priest, now using an altar-appropriate sanitizer to yet again douse away presumed, nefarious bacteria gingerly counts out the dozen or so hosts required, completes the task and walks down the steps, bows to the altar, and searches each of us out, kneeling in our pew, delicately dropping the host into uplifted palms, intoning the familiar salvific words, making his way through the whole cavernous space to find where we’re all concealed.

And then it’s over, each of us remaining a limo’s length apart as we head into the centre aisle,  speaking our smothered thanks to our appropriately-removed officiants and dropping our spoiled liturgies into a waiting blue bin, finally able to breathe fresh air and remove our masks.  No one lingers on the sidewalk to chat.  Cars are already heading out.


Sunday morning worship is finished, quite possibly in more ways than one.

Watching a ‘Xeroxed knockoff’ of the body of Christ via Facebook

The Sunday after All Saints we were–for the second time since March–once again disallowed from worshipping, and compelled to just stay home.

The ceiling-vaulted, cavernous space was deemed too dangerous a place for a dozen, multiple-metered-apart worshipers–masked and Lysol-laden–to be allowed into.  We were then instructed by our hierarchy to view what would have been public worship, on Facebook. On Facebook? We’re instructed to watch a xeroxed knockoff of what should be the gathered body of Christ for Sabbath observances on Facebook?

Writing this, I am not exactly siezed with, but still struck by the gathering emotional forces inside me, those long-forgotten cob-webby signals that I’m getting fervently stoked in that 70’s anti-war sort of way – like there’s a  cause  afoot, a position to be taken.  For God’s sake, Joy Sinclair told me over the phone that she and Frank almost prefer the Facebook experience because they can sit together with coffee and donuts and watch it in bathrobes and slippers, skipping over a few of the drawn-out parts, focusing on the sermon, singing along to all the old hymns, repeating out loud the responsive psalm.  I stopped myself from asking whether she’d also prefer donuts as a pandemic-created liturgical substitute for the host, and coffee for the wine, and then at the appropriate moment, be invited to dunk and drink: “In likewise manner He took the donut and dipped it into His Timmies and said, ‘do this in remembrance of Me.’”


Vasily Surikov’s famous painting, ‘Boyarynya Morozova’ (1887), is a dramatically graphic depiction by the Old Russian Master of a defiant Feodosia Morozova being hauled away by horse-drawn sledge into permanent exile for refusing to go along with recent, government-sanctioned modernizations of Eastern Orthodox practices.

Weisser sometimes feels like the woman in this painting, Feodosia Morozova, who is being hauled away by horse-drawn sledge into permanent exile for refusing to go along with recent modernizations of Christian practices.
Weisser sometimes feels like the woman in this painting, Feodosia Morozova, who is being hauled away by horse-drawn sledge into permanent exile for refusing to go along with recent modernizations of Christian practices.

Labelled and scorned as an ‘old believer’, Feodosia became a champion of those cherishing the old rites. Dressed in black, her wrists shackled in chains, she lies on straw, grasping the sledge’s railing with one hand, with the other – as well as her face – thrust theatrically up, her index and middle fingers raised, she defiantly refuses to change to the ‘new’ way of making the sign of the cross using three fingers.


She is surrounded by her townspeople witnessing her exile, some dropping to the snow to make the sign of the cross with two fingers, others jeering at her fanatical stubbornness to not get with the times.

My church grapevine is relating to me how easily the Christian Education Committee meetings have become now that they’re all conducted through Zoom.  Instead of the usual/occasional tensions created by certain members interrupting and hogging meeting time, Zoom ensures everyone gets listened to in a more equal and egalitarian manner, all via the comfort of not even having to leave one’s house.  Shirley Townsend says the most inconvenient part is having to put on her face and earrings, tidy up what lies in view of the camera, while then also naughtily being able to get away with wearing pyjama-bottoms and going barefoot.


Advent in olden times was deemed a penitential season whose liturgical colour was purple, as during Lent.  There was ritual fasting leading up to Christmas, with parishioners preparing themselves to be spiritually in tune to receive anew the birth of Our Saviour. Advent, then, was a period full of the attitude of sacrifice and waiting, a period of darkness exemplified by the anemic sun itself.  The Lessons during Advent are even still heavy with the words ‘watch’ and ‘wait’ and ‘prepare’ and ‘repent’.  We were to make ready during Advent, with me mentally even these days half-expecting to see–as I did in my childhood–some impassioned soul standing on a street corner declaring ‘The End Is Nigh’, a 21st century St. Paul, believing Our Lord’s return could occur momentarily.  And in Europe the ritual to mark the end of Advent’s darkness and welcome the Light of The World, was to light a huge bonfire after celebrating midnight Christmas Mass on December 25th.


No longer. Such religion-smited folk are no longer that smitten.

Lance Weisser
Lance Weisser

Advent is no longer purple, either, with blue the preferred liturgical hue, symbolizing hope rather than preparation and sacrifice and penance. Gone, also, are entreaties to make ready to receive again Our Lord’s return in glory.  Not waiting for that–I guess it has just been too long, as it was too long in Moses’ day for his flock to get into the land of milk and honey–nor anything else, except I suppose the opening of gifts, Advent’s blue is instead offering up hope, assuming it would appear, that what we all now are is pathologically depressed.

As much as we do, indeed, live in times vulnerable to psychological pathologies, especially during a virally-dangerous period where precautions are warranted and necessary–where death is indeed dangerously lurking–so also do we then need more than ever, a courageous Church where folk are offered some means of obedient, in-person worship–where we are entreated to search our hearts, make room, sacrifice, and prepare to receive again Our King and look for Him to come again in glory.


Have us stand outside in the park in a circle with the priestly presence in the centre, blessing the bread and wine we’ve each brought–I don’t know, but at the very least I pray for a Church demonstratively holding its nose in protest while reluctantly observing secular restrictions which reduce worship to a videotaped mirage offered up on the impersonalizing platform known commercially as Facebook, a worship we once knew as a physically experienced, viscerally-present celebration of God made flesh Who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

Until then, I’ll follow Feodosia’s lead and make the sign of the cross with two fingers instead of three.

More On This Topic

  1. Lance Weisser's website

  2. Rev. Gwen Dreger oversees 70 related evangelical congregations. She started a petition against the order banning in-person religious services that has almost 15,000 signatures.

    Douglas Todd: Should places of worship be barred from small in-person gatherings?

  3. Vancouver Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller, whose archdiocese contains more than 400,000 Catholics of mixed ethnicities, has also been working on ways to shine a light during the moroseness some feel this winter. He’s launched a “Blue Light Campaign.”

    Douglas Todd: Finding the light in our COVID-19 Christmas

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