Reflections on being in church again. Bishop-edition.
Yesterday, before the dawn broke, I got in my company-issued Subaru Forester and headed north. I was making my way to Trinity Pro-Cathedral to celebrate Easter with the congregation there, just two hours up-river from my home in Mechanicsburg. It was the first time in a year that I would be in church with a sizeable congregation. Oh, I’d done some services in the past year- three sad and poignant funerals for beloved priests; Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, all celebrated with a tiny altar party in front of cameras for live-streaming; and even an ordination in which, masked and socially distant, I was able- with God’s help- to “make a deacon” for the Church. (It turns out that there is no way around the laying on of hands. Sanitize. Lay on hands. Sanitize again. Take three steps back. Not ideal. Awkward, in fact.)
But this felt different. I was in my car, with my garment bag and crozier in the way-back, coffee in my Yeti, and all fueled up. In fact, the whole enterprise was so exciting that my husband had gone to the gas station the night before and topped up the gas tank!
I used to do this on the regular. In this diocese, some 250 miles tall and 150 miles wide, I was used to driving around for meetings with clergy and congregations and visiting a different church every single Sunday. Almost 50,000 miles-per-year-on-the-odometer-used-to-it. But then, Covid.
We’d tried to begin my visitations again last fall after a promising summer with dropping virus incidence rates, but it proved too difficult- and in November, we were shut down again. I spent the fall and winter doing “guest appearances” by invitation on zoom, and taping sermons and messages for congregations to “plug and play.” And then, just three weeks ago, with the numbers heading in the right direction and meeting the thresholds that we’d set (fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 and/or 5% or less positivity rate) most of our churches were able to re-gather for services with limited capacity. And so, I was “on.”
The first thing that I noticed, driving past Harrisburg and out into the country, was that I felt like I was unfolding and stretching my legs after having been bound up in a Covid-cocoon for these many months. I’m an early riser anyway, but the thrill of being in a car in the dark and seeing the first glint of sunrise over the horizon just spells “adventure” to me. And on EASTER day? That’s especially significant. I felt a kinship with Mary, Salome, Joanna and the others who made their way to the tomb on that amazing day 2,000 years ago.
As I drove, I noticed the landmarks that in the past six years have become familiar to me: The Red Rabbit Drive-In, the hulking mountain across the river from Liverpool, Weaver’s farm market, the ridge with the eagle’s nest, Skeeter’s BBQ- I greeted them like old friends. And pulling into Williamsport felt like a triumph! I had made it! I laughed to myself because a year ago, driving to Williamsport was something that I’d do at the drop of a hat- for a cup of coffee and a pastoral conversation. Yesterday, it felt like I was on the Oregon trail, riding in a covered wagon and arriving in town just in time to water my horses before they collapsed!
I participated in two services at Trinity- a sparsely attended 8:00 service where most of the congregants sat in the far reaches of the giant nave (socially distanced from each other, but so far away from us!) and at a 10:00 service with just over 50 people which, following the seating plan as marked with tape and cords, was just about at Covid-capacity. It was glorious- it was Easter, after all: the altar was resplendent with lilies, the sun shone through the stunning stained-glass windows, there was a live congregation to preach to, there were our favorite hymns, and even the Widor Toccata as a postlude! And, the services had all the discomfort of Covid-safety: no singing, a wave at the Sign of the Peace instead of the customary handshakes or hugs, communion in one kind delivered to the pew, and the awkwardness of managing mask, microphone, and miter (an unholy Trinity of obstacles for bishops). But it was glorious, nonetheless. Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia.
I’m not, yet, at the point of expressing “lessons learned” during our Covid wilderness journey, and I’m wary of embracing things the way “they used to be” for the comfort of it all. I don’t want to miss the opportunities that lie before us now as we carry the experience – wisdom grown- back into the nave. But I do know that it felt good to be in “same space” with other Christians, to hear the Word proclaimed just a few feet away from me, to be in person to see the flickering light of candles on the altar, the dancing kaleidoscope of color on the walls from the sun streaming through stained glass, to gather around the sacred table again, and share our sacred meal, welcoming the Risen Christ into our presence. Oh, it was live-streamed, too. That, I pray, will never go away. I wonder how many people watched as we gathered, and if we did a good enough job welcoming them, virtually. We will learn as we go, but Lord, help us to find the way. Teach us what we need to know. Help us to see the opportunities that lie before us now.
The job of Bishop is to “oversee.” In fact, the very word “bishop” comes from the Greek, “episkopos”, which means “overseer.” Most days, that’s what I do. But visitations are made for being-with: In same space, in a congregation’s nave, at their table, together. Yesterday, that bit of “bishoping” was made possible. And I am grateful.