Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

Resources for online worship, March 15, 2020

A link to our facebook page: You may also search for it on Facebook: @gracemadisonwi

A link to First United Methodist Church’s livestream (I’ll be joining their clergy for informal worship at 9:00 am).

our service bulletin for this Sunday.

A link to the online Book of Common Prayer.

We will begin with the Penitential Order Rite II, followed by the Eucharist

Prayers for Spiritual Communion (from Forward Movement Publications and St. Augustine’s Prayerbook), intended for use when it’s impossible to receive the sacrament. You may pray them while I’m consecrating the elements today:

National Cathedral’s streamed worship (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is preaching

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart. (source: http://blogs.bu.edu/sermons/2008/11/23/a-thanksgiving-prayer/comment-page-1/)

Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, preacher, and activist.  Author of Jesus and the Disinherited, he mentored Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other civil rights leaders.

The Future of the Diocese of Milwaukee: Looking back on strategic planning

I have been thinking a great deal about the future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and specifically in the Diocese of Milwaukee. As we begin the search for a new bishop, I am concerned that we ask the right questions and honestly assess our current situation. I hope that we can imagine a future that remains faithful to our past, recognizes our failures, and celebrates our successes, and allows us to move freely forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Having been here since 2009 and serving on the Diocesan Executive Council for the last six years, I know something of the challenges facing our diocese. But there is also a great deal I don’t know. I’ve never visited all of our congregations; I’ve not had substantive conversations with many of my fellow clergy, and the number of lay people beyond Grace Church who I recognize, is quite small. I have little idea what it’s like to be Episcopalian in Racine, Kenosha, Milwaukee, let alone Beaver Dam or Dousman. In fact, I wonder whether we really have a sense of ourselves as a single body of Christ in this area, the Diocese of Milwaukee. We come together once a year for Diocesan Convention. The last several years it’s been a single day, with Eucharist, business meeting, and lunch. There’s no time to get to know each other. Much of this assessment be unique to my situation but I wonder how a successful search can be accomplished if a diocese doesn’t know itself well. Perhaps gaining such knowledge is the important initial phase of a search process.

For some reason, I was looking back over some past pieces I’d written about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Milwaukee. In the course of that, I came across a post I had written back in 2013 in conjunction with the Strategic Planning document I had helped work on for the previous year and a half. Like so many similar projects, it’s often the case that such work is filed away and largely ignored. I don’t know whether that happened in this case. Still it’s worth reading to get a sense of the challenges we were facing in 2013, and to reflect on what has changed since then.

The document talks about decline. Between 2001 and 2011, membership in the diocese fell from 14000 to 10000; average Sunday attendance from 6000 to 4000. That decline has continued. Most recent figures show membership around 8000 and average Sunday attendance closer to 3000. Reference is made in the document to the need to think strategically about parishes and congregations–whether the congregations we have are well-positioned for future growth and sustainability, whether we might need to close a number that are unlikely to survive, and whether we have too many congregations in some places.

All is not negative. The documents reminds us of our history:

Our tendency is to interpret these trends as a narrative of decline from a glorious past. But the history of our diocese teaches a different lesson. The Episcopal Church in Wisconsin began with the heroic efforts of Bishop Kemper to plant churches on the frontier. Lay people shared his vision and sacrificed time, energy, and financial resources that built many of the churches and institutions that now make up the Diocese of Milwaukee. Along the way, many other churches and institutions (schools, mission efforts, and the like) were founded. Some thrived for a time and died; others were transformed to meet the needs of new situations and communities. Our history is a story of innovation, creativity, and mission. It is a story of success and failure.

Is it a case of a lost opportunity? I’m not sure. As we begin our search for a new bishop, I’m struck that some of those recommendations continue to be relevant, and some of the hopes we expressed in 2013, specifically for deeper relationships among the congregations, the clergy and lay people, seem not to have been realized.

You can read the whole document here: taskforcereport_revised

The Future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin

Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best. There have also been enormous changes in society and the church since 2003. The debate over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, a debate that was intensified by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. From time to time, Bishop Miller reminds us that consents to his election were voted on at the same General Convention that voted on Bishop Robinson. Since then, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and the approval by General Convention of rites for the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American achievement mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. The Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American … mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. I’m told that the Diocese of Eau Claire currently has 3 self-sustaining parishes with full-time clergy. An effort some years ago to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac failed when it was voted down by a single vote in the Diocese of Eau Claire. Its current bishop, retired from a previous diocese, and serving part-time, is facing mandatory retirement in 2021. At its convention last weekend, the diocese was unable to commit itself to a plan moving forward; instead it will continue to study its options.

With the mandatory retirement of Bishop Lambert of the Diocese of Eau Claire, and Bishop Miller’s announced retirement in 2020, it seems to me that now is the perfect time for Wisconsin Episcopalians to ask some difficult questions and move courageously and creatively into the future. Unfortunately, it seems no one is interested in addressing these questions.

I have no idea who could facilitate or even compel the conversations that we need to have across the state and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I am about to step down after six years on our Diocesan Executive Council. I am not sure whether I can offer any leadership on the diocesan level. My energies are focused locally—on building relationships with our neighboring congregations and with their clergy, and ecumenically—on helping our declining mainline denominations strategize about how we might work together toward a new future for our ministries.

Sometimes, I wish there would be someone from the denomination who could come in and compel us to have the difficult conversations. More importantly, someone to help us imagine a new future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. I feel like we are about to squander an incredible opportunity to do something quite new and something that might give us new energy and new spirit to face the future.

If I were able to shape matters, I would require conversations among the Dioceses of Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Fond du Lac before allowing the Diocese of Milwaukee to begin its search process for a successor to Bishop Miller. Such conversations might help us all to discern a vision for a future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin.

I pray that in the months to come Episcopalians in Wisconsin have the courage and faith to think boldly and to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions.

Prayers for the victims of white supremacy, islamophobia, and gun violence

Once again, we are confronted with the worst of humanity: white supremacists killing people while they gathered for worship. This time in Christchurch, New Zealand. May we pray for the victims, for peace and reconciliation, and to turn hearts of hatred to see the humanity in all people. May we all renew our efforts to overcome hatred, to build a world and nations where all residents can flourish and differences in religion, race or ethnic background, sexual orientation are seen as strengths to be celebrated, not differences to be destroyed.

Some Prayers:

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 260)

A Prayer for the Whole Human Family.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 815)

A Prayer for Social Justice.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.