Moving to Morning Prayer until September 6th

Following the best experts on liturgy and worship in the Episcopal Church (such as my friend Matthew Olver, the liturgics professor at Nashotah House seminary), I took the side of those who felt it important to keep celebrating the Eucharist even while social distancing. There were several reasons for this. In the first place, our bishop’s invitation took place at a time when he was projecting a May 1 return to in-person public worship. Already at that early point in our time sheltering in place, I felt he was underestimating the length of time our normal rhythms would be disrupted. And, while it was one thing to ask people to fast from the Eucharist for four or five weeks (as he was at the time), I wondered whether he really intended to ask people to enter a fast that could last for months? A year? More?

Moreover, it is not clear to me that replacing the Eucharist with Morning Prayer for regular use is permitted by the “rubrics” (or the “rules”) of our liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer is clear that the Eucharist and Morning Prayer are distinct kinds of public worship that are not interchangeable. While it has long been common for churches to say Morning Prayer at Sunday morning worship, it is so only because Morning Prayer is supposed to be said every day. Morning Prayer is not an “alternative” to the Eucharist, especially if by “alternative” we mean something that can serve as an adequate replacement. Eucharistic worship is unique, and irreplaceable.

I believe this, most of all, because I believe with most Christians throughout history and the world today that what we do when we celebrate the Eucharist is not just an act of devotion and worship––not something we do just to feel close to God, or even something we do to honor and give thanks to God. I believe that the Eucharist is a miracle––a miracle in which God mysteriously acts to draw us into God’s life, and into the lives of one another. The Eucharist is not just something we do because we like it, or because God likes it. We celebrate the Eucharist because it does something––namely, binds us to God, and binds us to each other.

I say all that because I don’t want us to be confused by this change. By moving to the use of Morning Prayer for our principle Sunday morning worship, we are accepting a great loss. We are, in a very literal sense, letting loose of each other, and letting go of a tie that binds us.

This raises the question: If that’s the case, why change now?
A few things have happened since then which have to an extent changed my thinking here. The first was hearing from many of you. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from many in our church who have experienced watching the Eucharist on a livestream as hardship, since they have not been able to partake of it physically themselves. Despite my personal convictions, hearing these voices has moved me as a pastor. The last thing in the world I want is for somebody to experience the Eucharist as a wound, rather than as the lifegiving gift that it is.
In addition to this, we are also at a different moment in the pandemic than we were five months ago. Thus, while it is still not clear to me that replacing the Eucharist with Morning Prayer for “regular” use is permitted by the rubrics, there may be some occasion in this moment for an “irregular” use of Morning Prayer––especially given the bishop’s invitation.

This brought me back to the language of a “fast.” To be clear, I am not––and will not ever––ask you to fast from the Eucharist in perpetuity. However, irregular times of fasting from the Eucharist have occasionally occurred throughout Christian history––especially in periods of repentance and renewal––and one of these occurs every year, in the fast we take from Maundy Thursday to Easter. Given this, the question more simply is: Is there something about this moment––for right now––that might make an irregular fast, not just a pastoral accommodation, but the right thing for our congregation as we seek God’s will for us in this season?

In my prayers on this matter, the answer I came to was: yes. Here’s why.

 There are several reasons given for fasting in Scripture. But a few reasons stand out as being especially important in this moment––right now. In the broadest sense, Scripture calls us to fast in order to express our grief (1 Samuel 31.13). Most of the earliest references to fasting in Scripture are of this kind. Note, this is a very different idea than fasting as a way of causing ourselves more grief. Fasting is not a kind of self-punishment. Rather, it is a kind of lament. It is a physical, whole body, almost visceral (e.g. think about times when you were so heartbroken you could not eat) way of being honest about the pain and hurt and anguish we feel.

Second, Scripture calls us to fasting as a way of strengthening our prayers for deliverance. A relevant example of this comes in Ezra 8.21-23. Here, Ezra proclaims a fast as the Israelites began their return from exile in Babylon, in order to pray that God would act on their behalf and bring them safely through the trials they would face on their journey. In a similar fashion, many Christian thinkers have referred to this pandemic as a kind of exile. And, while we are still a long way from home, we are also no longer at the beginning. So, we too pray that God would act, that God would deliver us, that God would bring us to the end of this sojourn to a foreign land. In this sense, to quote the Christian author Richard Foster, fasting “is a physical exclamation point at the end of our pleas to God.”

Finally, Scripture calls us to fast as a way to fuel longing. This is the picture of fasting we get from Jesus, especially in Matthew 9:14-15. Here, Jesus says that though his disciples do not fast while he as “the bridegroom” is present, the disciples will fast when “the bridegroom is taken away from them.” In other words, Jesus is describing fasting as a way of longing for all the ways the kingdom of God––that final wedding feast of “the Lamb”––is not yet realized. To put this in terms of the decision we’re making now, setting aside the Eucharist for a short time will create an absence. We will (and should) experience this as a loss. But it is a loss that directs our hearts forward, and drives us toward the future that God has in store for us on the road ahead. As another Christian author put it: “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

Those of you who were in worship on Sunday will remember this is essentially what I said when I announced this intention on Sunday. Since then, I have received questions from some of you about this decision. I want you to know that I’ve heard these questions, and take them seriously. On receiving your questions, I realized that I made a number of mistakes in how I communicated this news. I apologize for this, and hope you can forgive any unnecessary stress this caused. Let me also try to correct those mistakes now.

First, the way I spoke about the change may have suggested an indefiniteness to the duration of our using Morning Prayer for Sunday worship. That would not only be unwise, but untrue. As I said above, I will never ask you to fast from the Eucharist in perpetuity. Our plan is to say Morning Prayer until the end of the summer, or the next four weeks. During that time, we will also host a series of conversations to help deepen our understanding and appreciation, both for worship in the Anglican tradition generally, and Morning Prayer in particular. Through these discussions, we also hope to hear from many of you about your hopes for worship at All Angels as we launch into the new program year on September 13.

Second, in holding up the unique importance of the Eucharist, I may have unintentionally cast a negative light on the service of Morning Prayer. If so, that was a mistake. Though not of the same importance as the Eucharist, the service of Morning Prayer is profoundly beautiful, among the most rich and substantial orders for worship in all the Christian church. Moreover, Morning Prayer focuses us on aspects of our tradition that may be especially important for us to in the midst of a pandemic––the sacramentality of the scriptures, the efficacy of prayer itself, the household as a “domestic church,” and above all, the absolute assurance that all baptized Christians are marked as Christ’s own forever. If a short fast from the Eucharist could teach us to drink more fully from those deep wells, I would count it worth it.

Finally, in wanting to acknowledge the loss and the pain associated with any fast, I may have undersold the hopeful aspects of it. Another reason for fasting given in Scripture is that it opens up space for God’s Spirit to do a new creative work…especially in works of justice and mercy on behalf of the most vulnerable amongst us (Isaiah 58.3-7). Far from being a time of self-flagellation, we fast in the hope that God will bring about new life; that God will make whole that which has been broken; that God will make the crooked ways straight, and the rough places smooth; and that all flesh will see the salvation of God (Luke 3.5).
For months, you’ve been hearing me say that I truly believe God is using this difficult time in our lives to do an adaptive work that will bring about lasting change in our community. We enter into this “irregular” season now, looking for God to do that work in us.
In Christ,

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