April 5, 2020
Beeswax pillar candles set on a kitchen counter. A handmade ceramic pitcher made by her father when he was in high school. These simple items from Rev. Michele Ward’s kitchen serve to locate her weekly ritual when she pours water into a “baptismal font” (aka a small mixing bowl) to offer the “assurance of grace” to her congregants at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church who are watching on Zoom.
Ward is one of many clergy who are asking: In what ways can we help people find ritual and meaning in their homes at a time that feels a bit like an exile experience?
“We are trying to figure out how to make the spaces that we are in every day feel holy,” she said.
Ward was speaking to fellow clergy from many religious traditions and denominations at the ICJS’ virtual event, “Congregational Creativity in a Time of Crisis.” ICJS hosts the event each week on Zoom.
In normal times, rituals are how we mark time and life events, said Matt Taylor, ICJS Protestant Scholar. He invited the group assembled on Zoom to share how they have adapted the important rituals of their religious tradition to this new reality.
Rev. Dr. Mark Johnson, pastor at the Towson United Methodist Church, said that his church is now fasting from Communion, in obedience to the directive of the United Methodist Church. “But in its place, we are using a ritual called the Love Feast, which comes from the Moravians,” he said. “It was often practiced by Methodists when the circuit rider was not able to be there.”
Fr. Joe Muth, pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church, also is relying on an ancient tradition in these contemporary times. “We have what’s referred to as ‘spiritual communion,’ which is a prayer we say when people in any situation over the centuries have been distant from communion or communion was not available,” Muth said.
He explained that even though Catholics fast from communion right now, they can know that they can still spiritually commune with God through prayer.
Melissa Zieve, past president at Bolton Street Synagogue, said that congregants are enjoying Zoom more than Live Streaming because seeing the faces of each other gives them a sense of being together. The congregation has actually seen an increase in participation through online services.
“For example, there’s a tradition in Judaism to have a weekday morning service, called morning Minyan,” Zieve said. “We’ve actually been doing that now because people are willing to join by Zoom at 8 am, when they wouldn’t be able or willing to drive to the synagogue in the morning.”
The virtual morning check-in and meditation service includes chanting, prayers of healing, meditation, and time to reflect as the day begins.
Fatimah Fanusie, program director at the ICJS, said that while she usually attends Friday Jum’ah prayers locally, she is using online streams from mosques in Washington, D.C. or Atlanta. However, the Muslim Family Center in Columbia is hosting morning prayer, children’s story time, and other gatherings virtually.
She said that she knows of one Qur’an study group that previously had 100 students now has 1100 students participating online.
This current adoption of technology by congregations should give us pause to remember both the possibilities and perils that come from technology, said Brent Laytham, ICJS Trustee and Dean at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute.
“One of the things that we face with technology is always the question of ‘better than nothing’ vs. ‘better,’ ” he said. We are all using technology to sustain rituals now in a way that’s better than nothing at all, but our challenge will come later if congregants begin to say that this is actually better because they can stay home in their pajamas, he said.
“That to me is one of the perils of technology,” he said. “The other is that the ritual by definition is bounded in space and time—with a beginning point and an endpoint. But part of the danger of the way technology functions is that this arrival and departure is far more fluid, and so it can be tricky for ritual. We need to find ways to demarcate when the ritual begins and ends online,” he said.
The next ICJS-hosted clergy call will be Friday, April 17th at 11 am. The group will discuss ideas for conducting funerals, memorial services, and providing other end-of-life pastoral care when one is not able to be physically present with the dying or the family.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation to join the conversation.