The message of canceled church services
UPDATE in 2020: I see this 2013 post getting some attention today, in June 2020. This blog post was written in 2013 in response to issues with winter storms in New England. For those who may wonder, the situation in a time of pandemic is different, and the issues for whether or not churches should close are entirely different. Please do not misread this post as having to do with times of pandemic. Suffice it to say, during a pandemic churches should be open only when the risk of spreading disease are minimal.
Today lots of my friends in New England are grappling with the aftermath of a giant snowstorm. As an aside, it was named “Nemo” by the Weather Channel, not the National Weather Service, which does not name winter storms. But if you’re going to hype people into a fear-filled panic, you need to name your storms, so the commercial weather channels and websites have begun to do so. Now, this storm was massive (and killed people), and I don’t want to make light of that in any way. That said, I also want to call out the weather channels and local news, who profit when people tune into their media for days before every weather event. But, as I often do, I have digressed.
Anyway, on a couple of Facebook pages, there was vigorous discussion about whether or not to cancel church this morning. One of my friends said he wasn’t canceling church and never would. On this one, I agree whole-heartedly. Some others were biting in their criticism. For my part, I suspect there is a strong inverse correlation between congregational vitality/growth and the ease with which they cancel Sunday services.
When we cancel, what messages do we send? What we hold services in adversity, what are we saying? Are there times it’s right to cancel services on the Lord’s Day?
When I was a rector, I used to tell the congregation that only a state-declared emergency order would cause us to cancel services. Otherwise, Sunday in and Sunday out, we’d be there at our usual service times. (In this blog post I will not go down the rabbit hole into my thoughts about changing service times for the summer or annual meeting or whatever. Don’t like it.) Anyway, we had several snowstorms at the church I served. When it looked like a big one, I would go over to the church on Saturday so I could spend the night there. On Sunday morning, I’d wake up, grab a shovel, and make a path to the sidewalk or street. Usually our sexton would be there too (he was already in the habit of staying the night of major storms before I arrived). And in the morning some others would show up to help get the church ready and then to offer our thanks and praise.
On Sunday morning, I’d email the parish advising them of the condition of the parking lot and entry ways, and suggesting that people should come to church only if they could do it safely. I’d include a link to some places to join in worship online. Trinity Wall Street and Washington National Cathedral live stream every Sunday, which is great when you can’t get to church. In every case, we had an inspiring gathering for those who could safely make it. These are some of my treasured memories of church. We managed with whoever was there — usually gathering in the chancel.
Offering worship on the Lord’s Day is something I take very seriously as a priest. In fact, I can’t think of anything more important for a parish priest. In the wake of a storm, if the mall is open and the church is closed, I think it sends a terrible message. Why should the temple of commerce open up when God’s house is closed? What are we proclaiming about our values? For me, I will stand with the message that church goes on (almost no matter what).
There are other views. Some denominations don’t hold worship at the center of their tradition the way Anglicans do. When they cancel it means something different. One common objection to holding services in adverse conditions is that people will somehow risk life and limb to come to church if it’s open. This astounds me. It didn’t take me very long in parish ministry to learn that people don’t make life decisions around my preferences as their priest. Heck, if I had that kind of influence, I’d start by getting everyone to tithe. Just because church is offered doesn’t mean people will feel obligated to come, and it’s easy enough to communicate that before and during a weather or other event.
I’ve heard priests talk about what a hardship it is to hold services. This is one that I struggle with. Speaking for myself, I didn’t enter the vocation of priestly ministry for my own preferences or convenience. Sleeping in the church and picking up a shovel isn’t that hard. The message it sends is invaluable, not because the priest is seen as someone with a martyr-complex, but because the priest models someone who believes that there is nothing in this earthly life more important than the worship of Almighty God.
When congregations are led by clergy with health problems or other challenges, I would encourage them to have someone ready to lead Morning Prayer. That way, prayers can be offered even without the priest present. Here’s another opportunity for a great message to be sent. It’s not all about the priest, after all.
Lastly, some will offer the “hard case” in which lives are threatened by hurricane force winds or other danger. In these cases, the authorities will usually have declared a travel ban or evacuation, in which case it simply isn’t legally possible to hold services. This is a good reason to cancel church.
Another rule of thumb is this: if the mall is open, the church should be open too. If we have to make some sacrifices to make that happen, so be it. When people drive past an empty church to a full parking lot at the store, I think it suggests that we Christians are not very committed to what we do. And, sadly, I think that’s probably right. For now, I don’t have to worry about this problem, but if I ever go back to parish ministry, I’l have my sleeping bag and shovel ready. Church must go on. We should burn brightly as a symbol of Christ’s presence in the world, much like the lamp that burns in our churches. That is a good message, a Gospel message.
Oh, and my friend who decided to hold services today — despite a bit of criticism — welcomed 90 people. Good thing he didn’t cancel.