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Challenges and Opportunities

Bishop Andrew ML Dietsche
The Rt. Rev. Andrew ML Dietsche, Bishop of New York. Photo: Kara Flannery

Some months ago, my colleague bishops and I were engaged in a Zoom conversation with the parish clergy from one of the regions of the diocese, when one of our priests commented that people in his congregation were asking him when he thought things would go back to normal. This was when we were only a couple of months into our COVID-mandated restrictions. He then exclaimed, “I don’t want to go back to normal!” And there was substantial agreement with that sentiment among the other clergy.

It might be that we are at a moment of profound opportunity in the world and in the church. For all of the losses and sacrifices and diminishment of our common life brought by COVID, it is also true that a thread has been cut by this pandemic, and we have the possibility to come back different, and to re-envision who and what we are as church. The rollout of vaccines for this virus is happening much more slowly than we had expected, and we know that it will take longer to come out of this pandemic than we had hoped, but in March 2021 it is safe to say that sometime in this year, perhaps in the fall, we will be able to fully or almost fully relax all of the restrictions on our life as a church, and to regather in full once again. It is not too soon to begin thinking about that re-opening and that regathering, and to consider what the post-COVID life of America and the Episcopal Church will look like.

One of the most common refrains of COVID time is that “nothing will ever be the same again,” but there is far less talk or agreement on what that means, or what changes our time in history requires of the church, or what COVID has taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of our Episcopal tradition of worship and community and mission. Taking this conversation to a deeper level may reveal more about the desire for change—any change—than about what sorts of changes and transformation we are called to make.

I confess to carrying some anxiety about the regathering which is coming. The great majority of people in the parishes of this diocese have not been inside their churches for a year. More urgently, the great majority of people in our diocese have not received Holy Communion since March 2020. Some of our smallest and least resourced congregations have not even been able to offer Zoom or distanced worship at all—for twelve months! There is a backlog of baptisms, weddings and funerals waiting to happen. There have been no confirmations. In most places no Sunday School. “Church,” and the worship of the church, have been overwhelmingly a remote and virtual experience for most people. This has been driven by necessity, but I worry that the sacramental life of the church has been impaired (along with questioning the necessity of the priesthood), and the expectation of the community coming physically together in one place every Sunday is no longer a given. I suspect that throwing open the doors and calling everyone to “come on back” will be more difficult than we imagine, that it will happen more slowly than we would like, and that a year of messaging that what we do at church—eating the bread and drinking the wine and singing the hymns and touching one another—is inherently dangerous, and those messages may not be easy to put back into the bottle. I assume as well that the desire or hope for deep and fundamental change in the church is going to bump up against, and find itself in tension with, the honest and deeply felt need of people to recapture and reclaim the comfortable normalcy of their pre-COVID lives.

I worry about those things, and I think that all of this presents us with enormous challenges, but it also offers us interesting opportunities: to look more intentionally at what we do and why we do it and how we do it; to do some substantive and creative teaching; to reflect on what we have learned during COVID—to name those things we discovered we cannot lose or live without, and to name those things which revealed themselves to be extraneous or unnecessary, and to examine the challenges and rewards we discovered in remote and virtual worship, and the ways in which the church has reached a much larger community than we normally see inside our churches.

Before March 2020, we did not have a pandemic plan. We were unprepared. But when COVID surged in our midst, we turned on a dime. We adapted and demonstrated a flexibility we maybe didn’t know we had. COVID changed the common life of the world, and we adapted to it, and we have prevailed.  And more often than we might have expected, we have thrived. Post-COVID will be like this. It will not be a return to old ways, but a movement into a new season and chapter unlike the one we are in, and unlike the one we have lost. The expectations and needs of people will be different. The resources of the church will be counted differently. What we mean by community, and the sacramental life, and the continuity of prayer will be defined in new ways. It would be profoundly presumptuous of us in March 2021 to define or predict what the post-COVID church will look like, so I will not do that. I am certain, though, that it will be different, and as we live into it we will discover those differences, we will learn from them, and we will adapt. And adapting, we will find our new life. Just as we did in March 2020. And I am certain that we will be brave and strong and faithful because we have been tested in the fire, and were not destroyed, but tempered and emboldened. To face the future without fear, excitedly, and to thrive in it.