Dear siblings in Christ and colleagues in ministry!
Our calling as ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America obligates those of us in congregational calls to conduct worship on the Lord’s Day in our settings each week, unless weighty considerations make that leadership—or that worship—impossible. I have announced to you and our congregations already that together you may decide to cancel public worship for this Sunday and next, and that I strongly encourage you to do so, particularly congregations in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. I have no authority to forbid worship, but I remind you of your high responsibility for your people’s welfare. I believe it certain that many of our parishioners will eventually contract the COVID-19 disease, and some of them may die. I know of one LA congregation which has had a person now diagnosed with coronavirus in worship with them on more than one recent occasion. We have no idea how widespread the virus already is.
When weighing the inconvenience (and genuine loss) of canceling worship against the public health value of keeping vulnerable people in their homes, I urge you to consider which choice in your context better lives out Luther’s explanation of the 5
Commandment: “that we neither endanger or harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” For me, this is an indication that face-to-face worship should be suspended for the time being. We will need to monitor the situation from week to week, but I think there is a possibility that this will continue through Lent and perhaps even Holy Week and Easter. I am deeply sorry for this reality, and I ardently pray that it may end soon.
I will be producing a video worship service in the Bishop’s Chapel at The Lutheran Center in Glendale tomorrow morning. It will be a simplified liturgy with simple hymns, all taken from ELW. I will preside and Pr. Brenda Bos will preach. We will try to make this video as useful as possible, and will post it on YouTube on Saturday evening for use on Sunday. I will also provide a pdf file which can serve as a bulletin people can print out and follow, and we will try (within our technological limitations and the short lead time) to put text on the screen as well. I recommend it to you for anyone who has an internet connection who is staying home from worship. My intention is to do this every week until it is no longer needed.
Some of our congregations already livestream their worship. I encourage your people to watch that; my video is intended for those who do not have that option. We will also post in the resources section of our website a list of congregations which livestream worship, with their worship times and links. Consider keeping your livestream going, even if you cancel worship: use a skeleton crew; keep the focus tight. Your people will feel almost like they are at home. Convert your worship to a Service of the Word if you prefer not to show a eucharistic celebration in which your people cannot participate directly. Let Samantha Henderson (email@example.com) in my office know if you would like your congregation’s livestream worship listed in our online directory.
A small number of you have asked if you could consecrate the elements of the Eucharist on a video feed and have your people feed themselves bread and wine at home. The answer to that is simple: no. We Lutherans understand the Eucharist as a communal action carried out in the actual presence of the assembly. We clergy have no magical power to consecrate elements over the airwaves; Holy Communion requires the physical presence of the presider, the people, and the bread and wine together. Even the bread and wine that lay eucharistic ministers carry to the sick has been blessed first in the midst of the assembly. You all know our theology: to hear the words “given for you” in faith and trust is to have communed, even if no eating and drinking occur. Your people should know this, too, and if they don’t—here is your heroic moment of teaching that our connection to God is based entirely on faith, and not our performance of external actions. Presiding Bishop Eaton has suggested that in this moment we might be called to a Lenten “fast” from the weekly Paschal feast—I’m not sure I would put it that way, but the challenges of this season of anxiety and fear are truly Lenten for all of us. Our people will long for the communion in bread and wine that our worship calls us to; help them anticipate that happy day when we will gather around the table of the Lord again, to take our places at the feast of the Lamb.
I know that many of you are gifted preachers and teachers, and challenging times like these call us to creativity and imagination. Post a daily video message to your people; invite them to a Bible study by Zoom or just by phone. Use the limitations of this time as an opportunity to try new things. Pr. Brenda Bos will host a daily synod Zoom call on weekdays for rostered ministers where you can share ideas, gain strength and encouragement, and hear each other’s concerns. This difficult time is one in which our prayerful care for one another is badly needed. Know that you are in my prayers every day; your pain at not being able to be physically with all your people is a pain I share. But they need us to be calm and careful, and they depend on us to make choices that will keep them safe.
I trust your wisdom and judgment, and your call to the proclamation of the Gospel that we share. I am with you in spirit even when I can’t be with you in the flesh. And I want you to know that we are secure in the hands of God, as we wrestle daily with how best to live out our pastoral callings. Look for more announcements in the days ahead.
Your brother in Christ,