by Pastor Doug Kings

ish Harrison Warren is a relatively new columnist for The New York Times. She is also an author and a priest of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The ACNA was formed in 2009 as a break away from The Episcopal Church in protest over its alleged liberal teachings, especially ordaining and marrying GLTBQ people. Oddly for Warren, some of its dioceses also do not accept women’s ordination, so she is not able to serve in all the denomination’s congregations.

I’ve found her columns to be unremarkable but not objectionable either—until last week. Warren’s newest essay is “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.” Warren writes that she has been an ardent supporter of online worship as a response to the pandemic, but now she believes they need to end.

In explaining her view, Warren dives into some heavy theological and even anthropological language. These passages summarize her thinking.

For all of us — even those who aren’t churchgoers — bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization. They are humble (and humbling) gifts to be embraced. Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness….

Throughout the past two years, we have sought to balance the risk of disease with the good of being present, in person, with one another. And the cost of being apart from one another is steep. People need physical touch and interaction. We need to connect with other human beings through our bodies, through the ordinary vulnerability of looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, sharing their space, their smells, their presence.

To the obvious response, “Why not offer both in-person and online worship?” Warren says,

Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.

Whew. You’ll need a while to digest all that. And I could write pages in rebuttal, but it would largely miss the point: the world and the church have changed. Get over it.

Rev. Warren is part of a long tradition of church authorities telling people what to do because “it’s what’s good for them.” I certainly got indoctrinated into that somewhat in seminary and practiced it in my early ministry. Then I came to my senses and realized it had nothing to do with the gospel.

I certainly don’t need to be sold on the value of communal worship. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But as so often happens in the church, people take hold of one dimension of its life and decided THAT’S what it’s all about. And churches and denominations often cycle through these over the years. For a while church life needs to be all about worship, then Bible study, then social justice, then building community, then prayer, then youth and young adults, then…. You get the picture.

I don’t dispute the value Warren sees in embodied worship. I do dispute, however, the notion that something’s value, however obvious, then requires the church to enforce it on everyone. Like exercise, eating spinach, reading poetry, and countless other worthy activities, the best way to ruin them is to force people to do them.

There is another issue, however, which I alluded to at the start. Our world and the church are changing. The worship experience Warren describes is an ideal, but often woefully missed in practice. Many have had experiences that make their presence in a church painful. Spiritual experiences and community are being found by many in places other than congregational worship.

Early in the pandemic I realized that online worship would be a permanent part of congregational life. Countless people have expressed to me their sincere appreciation of our online services, often for reasons having nothing to do with the pandemic. The church has stumbled across a need it was unaware of before. It would only be uncaring and selfish to now deny the need for such a ministry because it doesn’t fit with the ideal image of church of some of its leaders.

While Warren believes the pandemic is waning, we don’t know that for sure. This virus has surprised us before and we are not yet able to say confidently what its future course will be. So the reason online worship was first offered still holds for many: health and safety. We also need to recognize, however, that for various reasons some are going to continue to find this the best way for them to experience the church’s celebration of the gospel and hearing what the Spirit has to tell it.

Blessings in your life and ministry.