Common Discernment about Common Prayer during Lockdown

Icon with worshipers in the background

By Scott MacDougall, PhD

Scott MacDougall
Scott MacDougall, PhD

I care a great deal about worship. 

Perhaps, as a person of faith, especially one formed in the Anglican tradition, that should go without saying. I do say it, though.

I say it as a theologian who focuses on ecclesiology, the study of the vocation, nature, and character of church, the ecclesia. I cannot think of an act more central to the formation and maintenance of Christian identity, both individual and corporate, than the regular glorification of the triune God in liturgical worship. 

Anglicans have long held the ancient Christian view that how we pray massively shapes what we say about God, sometimes expressed as the principle, lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, “the order of prayer [shapes] the order of belief.” Of course, what we say about God—that is, our theology (the lex credendi)—also massively shapes how we pray (the lex orandi).

The relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi is therefore not linear and determinative but rather spiratic and iterative. This is exemplified in Anglicanism by the fact that how we worship is largely structured by our books of common prayer. Each of these books is itself the product of a tremendous body of theology, old and new. Anglicanism understands that worship and belief are intimately connected.

Another crucial element of our Anglican heritage is that our tradition’s practices of worship and the theological imagination that, in the spiral pattern just described, gives rise to and flows from it are both firmly rooted in common prayer.

Common, here, does not mean “everyday” or “not especially noteworthy.” It means “done together.” The Anglican way understands and enacts its worship (part of its lex orandi) and its mode of being church (part of its lex credendi) by gathering together as the congregation, the corporate body.

This is precisely what we have not been able to do during these shelter-in-place times.

Instead, we have had to find creative means for worshipping together while apart. Often, this has meant using digital technology. Because I care so much about worship as it relates to how it shapes us as Christian community, our ad hoc digital worship practices have raised several ecclesiological concerns for me. 

Now, my own participation in remote worship during the crisis showed me the value this might have for staying connected to one’s community while, say, sick or traveling. I worry, though, that it might also someday provide an occasion for travelers to avoid worshipping with fellow Anglicans in a new locale, which provides important connective tissue within the Anglican Communion and the larger body of Christ, and contributes to the formation of the worshipper’s own religious identity.

I also worry that those who move might continue to worship digitally with their former church instead of building relational ties with a church in their new home community. I worry, too, that to view a church service, as if through a one-way mirror, turns worship into yet another commodity to be consumed alongside other “programs” available for on-demand streaming in the media marketplace. 

Livestreaming the Liturgy of the Table creates particularly pressing ecclesiological questions. To make the Liturgy of the Word available at a remove—our praising God, confessing sin, hearing the word in the scriptures and the sermon, singing hymns, and offering intercessory prayer—raises no urgent question for me. Neither does streaming the Daily Offices.

Holy Communion, however, is quite different. It is not meant to be watched. It is meant to be ingested.

I fear it is a major ecclesiological mistake to forget the liturgical reforms that ended the medieval practice of ocular communion because it disempowers the laity and insults the priesthood of all believers that belongs to all Christians by virtue of their baptism.

Perhaps a livestream of worship should end with a blessing and dismissal for online observers at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, just before the Liturgy of the Table begins? This would solve the problem.

It would also mirror the ancient practice of dismissing catechumens and the unbaptized from the church at that point in the service. It would affirm that viewing eucharist rather than participating in it—standing shoulder to shoulder in bodily solidarity, eating the same bread and drinking from the same cup—contradicts its meaning and inhibits its promised relational effects.

As for the argument that weekly eucharist should be available for viewing online because it is necessary, one need only recall that weekly eucharist for Episcopalians is a practice that’s only about 50 years old. Perhaps, in conditions like these, abstaining from eucharist performed and delivered in a manner at odds with the truth it embodies may be what’s actually necessary. 

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. 

Agree or disagree as you might with some or all of it, my theological perspective will only ever be that—mine. No one person’s theological view should ever do more than make proposals for the body to debate. All disciples must participate in theological discernment, together, to the extent their skills and gifts allow.

This is why I’m calling for a church-wide discernment process for formulating the theological principles and best practices that should guide worship while sheltering in place.

At some point when we can gather again, we must reflect on what we have learned from the forced ecclesiological experiment of worshiping in quasi-quarantine. Nearly every person in the Anglican Communion will have experienced it and will therefore have insight to offer about it from their vantage point.

Here, we should gather those stories from Episcopalians and listen carefully to what emerges from that testimony. We have precedent for doing this in the assessment processes that follow the trial use of new rites. 

After gathering and attending to the wealth of stories of how various forms of worship were conducted in a spectrum of digital contexts and how people responded to them, those of us with special responsibility for the care of the Episcopal Church’s lex orandi and lex credendi should take up the task of proposing guidelines and best practices for how to do this well. They should be distributed widely—ideally across the entire Communion—for consultation and feedback.

Ultimately, appropriate TEC bodies and councils should discuss, debate, refine, and publish them. As a church that prays in common, it is our responsibility to discern together, with the gifts that each of us would bring to this work, ways to worship online that are theologically truthful and pastorally appropriate.

We must do this because we will be in this situation again. We will find ourselves once more worshipping as a church in exile. There will be other pandemics and circumstances we cannot foresee that will force us to it.

If we do the crucial theological work together now, we will be prepared then to continue worshipping God while separated physically from each other in ways that are spiritually and theologically rich, formative, and sustaining. 

Our common glorification of the triune God, our lex orandi, is too central to our lex credendi, including who we are and why we gather, not to take up this task with the speed, gravity, wide involvement, and charity it demands of us.

Scott MacDougall is assistant professor of theology at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.