Responding to the coronavirus pandemic has created many challenges, particularly in the area of worship. Not just the technical aspects of moving almost everything from in-person to virtual worship, but questions that arise about what is “decent and orderly” about certain acts of worship. Do they translate well into the virtual world?
Perhaps the first question in this area was about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Is it proper to celebrate the sacrament where people are providing their own elements instead of receiving what was prepared (and blessed) within the church? Perhaps this is an area where our Reformed understanding of the Sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace aids us. The outward signs may be coming from multiple and diverse sources, but the inward significance is the same as the elements are blessed virtually by prayer and the Holy Spirit speaks to our souls as we commune together while separate.
Subsequently, I received a question about baptism. Could that be done virtually? The one being baptized would need to be present with the minister in order to receive the application of water, and perhaps a witness or two as in-person stand-ins for the congregation (as is advised when a baptism is done outside of regular worship, such as at a hospital). The congregation as a whole can participate virtually and respond as called for to promise to do its part to support the baptized to learn to obey all that Christ has commended (See Matthew 28:19-20).
During this past week’s pastor’s check-in Zoom meeting, a question was asked about ordaining a ruling elder or deacon in a virtual service. Here the issue is the laying on of hands, which is a traditional part of an ordination service and is viewed as necessary by some of our ecumenical partners. Interestingly, the recent revision to the Directory for Worship mentions laying on of hands in the ordination section (W-4.0403), but in a descriptive way. It lists the steps that take place in the order of service, but uses the word “will” instead of “shall” in connection to kneeling for the laying on of hands. Constitutionally, “shall: means something is mandated, while “will” is merely descriptive and is not a mandate.
Can the laying on of hands be done virtually, where session members and other ordained persons raise their hands towards the computer’s camera to symbolize actually laying on the hands? (Maybe one or two session members can be present to actually lay on hands as stand-ins for the entire session?) In other words, can the virtual hands be an outward sign of the inward significance that is occurring in this part of the ordination service (the prayer)? This seems logical to me, and in the spirit of what is taking place during the service.
The Presbytery of Milwaukee has advised its congregations of two options that may be taken in regards to ordinations: · Delay ordination and/or installations but elect your officers with this language as part of the motion and placed in the minutes: Elders & Deacons are authorized to begin their term of service effective (date), with the service of Ordination and Installation to be scheduled as soon as possible. · Hold ordinations and installations on-line with the understanding that from an ecumenical perspective it will be important to have prayer with the laying on of hands for those ordained at some future time when it is appropriate to do so.
If you really want to get down into the weeds on this, Christina Greenawalt shared an article in her email digest of the May 28 check-in Zoom meeting by Matthew Van Maastricht on a Reformed understanding of ordination and laying on of hands, which addresses the ecumenical concerns mentioned above: https://churchandorder.org/2020/05/27/social-distancing-and-ordination/
These concerns caused me to think about a section of the Book of Order that I consider to be both one of the more important as well as often overlooked sections in our polity, F-3.0209, on the general authority of councils: Councils possess whatever administrative authority is necessary to give effect to duties and powers assigned by the Constitution of the church. The jurisdiction of each council is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries. It is the first sentence that I want to focus upon. The direction of our polity in the recent revisions to the Foundations, Form of Government, and Directory for Worship (and the Discipline section, now postponed to the 2022 General Assembly) has been towards maximized flexibility for councils, describing powers and responsibilities without mandating procedures and personnel. The Book lists the “what” items for Councils, without mandating the “how” or the “who.”
If your session is stuck on an issue, keep this section in mind. Your session possesses “whatever administrative authority is necessary” to implement the mission you are trying to accomplish. As long as the “what” is kept firmly in view – various acts of worship in the virtual world, virtual congregational meetings, ordaining ruling elders and deacons, etc. – you have the flexibility to creatively determine how you are going to accomplish these tasks.
If you need any guidance along the way, you know how to get in touch with us in the Presbytery Office!