It was awkward and wonderful at the same time. For 18 months our college community had functioned at a distance – with online classes, virtual prayer times and Zoom worship services. The building had been unnaturally quiet, and the dust had settled in the chapel. But there we were, on September 8, 2021, gathered for in-person worship. It was a joyful moment that has been marked, also, by congregations across the country.
I was the preacher at that opening chapel service, and as I moved from my seat to the lectern, I noticed something; I noticed. . . my body. For so many weeks, the movement of my body hadn’t particularly mattered for worship. Sure, I had to get myself centred in front of a webcam. And for a benediction I would try to make sure my raised hand was visible. But otherwise my body felt redundant.
In those few steps from chair to lectern I became aware of two things. First, of my own joy in standing among students and faculty as we offered praise to God. It is a gift, indeed, to be together in time and space as the people of God. My joy in that moment told me that an online/digital compromise can only ever be that: a compromise.
Those steps to the lectern also reminded me just how much our bodies matter for leadership in worship. In just a few steps, I became aware again that my body communicates. What was I communicating with my movements? Was I supporting worship or detracting from it? Our embodied leadership is able (before a word is spoken) to exhibit the gospel through a posture of gracious welcome and gentle confidence. Alternatively, we sometimes exhibit a casualness bordering on the unserious or a formality that diminishes the personal nature of our faith.
Hands, posture, steps
I’ve borrowed the title of this column from a book on embodied liturgy by Frank Senn, which was written well before the pandemic sent us all scurrying home. The church has always needed to think about the fact that we are a body/bodies in worship. Our return to in-person worship is perhaps the best possible time to explore again what we are saying with our hands and by our posture and through our steps. As we inhabit worship, have our bodies been captured by the good news, or become a distraction from it?
These reflections cannot help but lead us to another set of questions that demand much more than the brief mention I will give them. During the pandemic, worship became somewhat more accessible to those who are frequently excluded due to what we call a disability – frequently excluded because we have defined their embodiment as disabling. Online worship sometimes meant a higher degree of access for those with mobility challenges or who inhabit worship in ways we think of as distracting or (too) different.
As we rush back to our chapels and sanctuaries, there is a risk that we will forget the limits built into our physical spaces and the limits of our hospitality. We may forget that one of the few, but very real gifts of our online worship was the new welcome it offered to some who are often, otherwise excluded.
If embodied worship matters, and if the joy of proximity and presence is real and to be celebrated, then more is required of us as we return to the body – to the Body of Christ and to our particular bodies. We must imagine and shape worship so that it includes bodies of all kinds, both behind the lectern (or whatever will replace it) and in the pews (or beside them or among them). It’s an invitation to finally be together, as we must be.