Church to reach congregants with virtual Mass

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GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Christ Episcopal Church of Bloomfield and Glen Ridge has temporarily closed its doors to the public for the next two weeks and will celebrate its first virtual Mass this Sunday, March 22. As directed by its presiding bishop, Michael Curry, the church took the extraordinary step March 14 because of concern with the coronavirus. In a recent video message on the church website by the Rev. Diana Wilcox, the pastor of Christ Episcopal, congregants were informed that in-church Mass would be canceled March 22 and 29. She had suggested in the video that for Sunday, March 15, her church members view a virtual Mass from Washington National Cathedral.

The Mass from Washington, D.C., was followed by another first for the local church — a virtual coffee hour. Church members were able to communicate with each other through live feeds of themselves that were displayed on the church webpage. 

Although modern technology has made it possible to have coffee klatches, Mass is different with the church doors closed, especially right now.

“We will not be back by Holy Week,” Wilcox said on March 17, in a telephone interview. 

“How do we celebrate the Resurrection virtually? It’s the most important week of the year.”

Holy week this year is from April 5, Palm Sunday, to April 12, Easter Sunday. And Sunday is not the only time of spiritual disruption. After being directed to close the church doors, Wilcox had a funeral scheduled and had to request special permission to celebrate a requiem Mass. 

“If there is a funeral, it will have to be private,” she said. “That is very painful.”

Pastoral visits have also been suspended. If Wilcox is to meet with a church member, it will be by telephone.

“These are the things that are difficult,” she said. “Social distancing is antithetical to everything the church is. We’re about bringing people together. My concern is that distancing doesn’t become isolation. I’ve been saying and saying, ‘Fear breeds in darkness.’”

She says the church must now respond by showing Christ’s love in new and different ways, and she believes the church will remain closed beyond Holy Week. But for right now, her biggest concern is making sure Easter Mass works in a virtual setting.

“The liturgy, the way we worship, is an embodied experience,” she said. “It engages all the senses. How do we do this virtually?”

She acknowledged that the virtual experience will convey only a part of Mass.

“I’ve not done this before,” she said. “This coming Sunday will be my first experience.”

She figures, for the virtual Mass, there will be a two-camera setup: one for Facebook and the other for a platform called Zoom, which is used in video conferencing and webinars. 

“Zoom will give you the faces and a feeling of being in a congregation,” Wilcox said. “That’s why I like Zoom. It creates a virtual environment. On Sunday morning, people will be able to see all the other people logging in.”

A third camera may be set up. There will be recorded music and images for private meditations. Wilcox said the virtual experience may even encourage older congregants to use technology more readily. At the virtual Mass, there will be fewer than 10 people and, on Easter Sunday, as many as 10, including a few choir members. 

For Holy Communion, the Eucarist will be served only to the priest. But Wilcox said there is a prayer that can be recited for those who will not be present but who wish to receive the sacrament: “My Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the blessed sacrament of the altar. I love you above all things, and long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”

“We’re all trying to figure this out together,” Wilcox said. “It’s not easy. On the news, the virus is a running target. You’re always getting new directives. Now you can’t be out after 8 p.m. It wasn’t like this a few days ago.”

But Wilcox and others are working hard to keep the church doors open, even virtually.

“This is the time the church is most needed,” she said. “The best thing the church is good at is bringing people together, and now we’re told not to do it.

“It’s ironic,” she continued. “This is a moment when people flock to church, like after 9/11, but our doors are closed. We, the clergy, have a responsibility to figure this out, but we can’t do everything.”

Wilcox offered solace by reminding congregants that their fears and troubles can be rested on God, even the coronavirus, “and this too shall pass.”

Photos Courtesy of Christ Episcopal Church