Reflections on Worship and Decision Making in the Age of COVID-19 and Climate Change
It is inconceivable to me that early Friends could have imagined people spread over many locations using technology to interact as if they were in a shared space. However, due to COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings, meetings for worship via videoconference have become common. It’s a spiritual lifeline helping Friends remain interwoven while seeking the divine presence. For Quaker organizations, videoconferencing has become essential during this crisis to make decisions and continue the work of Friends.
With this said, how deep is online worship really? Is God there with us in the ether? Are we being guided by something larger than ourselves? As we use videoconferencing tools more and more, our shared experiences tell me that the big-picture answer to these questions is pretty good, yes, and maybe. The Presence can be experienced while gathered online and our decisions can be guided by something larger than ourselves. Whether we experience this, however, I believe has more to do with us—our preparation, our processes, our grounding, our listening, and our own individual physical and psychological needs—than it does to the technology we’re using and the physical locations of our bodies. Given this, a number of Friends have shared with me that climate change, issues of equity, and the widespread experience of grounded worship online will encourage Friends to continue the widespread usage of this technology long after the pandemic is over. To explore why this might happen, let’s take a look first at our spiritual foundations.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” — Matthew 18:20 (NIV)
When I sit with Matthew 18:20 I read a passage with multiple layers of meaning that affirms my life experience and confirms the experience of many Friends and people of other denominations and faiths. It is the experience of God as a present reality that revolutionized George Fox’s life. After much soul searching, study, argument, and travel he heard Spirit say to him, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” Through this experience, reinforced by many more, he understood experientially that Christ was a presence available to both ground and uproot our lives. Over time, and through the deep fiery faithfulness of Fox and many Friends like Margaret Fell, George’s private mystical experience grew into the shared experiences that are the foundation of Quaker worship and decision making. These powerful experiences convinced many seekers to join Friends and spread an understanding that Spirit is potentially available to everyone, everywhere, all the time. We only need to open ourselves and quiet our minds to hear the Inward Teacher. This last point is crucial to understanding how we might experience—and in some cases are experiencing—online worship and decision making.
Let’s take it as a given that Spirit is omnipresent. Friends and people of other religions scattered across vast distances pray for people in other places. We can hear regardless of our physical location. Given this experience, how can we become attuned as a group to the Presence and open ourselves to any guidance irregardless of whether we’re in the same room? How can we quiet our minds so that we might hear?
My experience so far is that the same preparations we use before gathering for in-person worship are useful before worship online. Consider Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 306 “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship.” While it was written for in-person meetings, the preparations still largely apply. There have also been Friends like Rachel Guaraldi who have touched on their own preparations for online worship.
Once online, it’s important for us to stay in a receptive state to one another and Spirit. A part of that receptivity can be established by using a check-in process at the opening of online meetings for business. The nature, depth, and purpose of these check-ins can vary greatly, but my experience is that designing a check-in that allows us to briefly share our emotional and mental state, empty our mind of concerns, become more focused, establish positive intent, and be vulnerable with one another can all help create understandings among the participants that furthers the process. Then, during the meeting, we can use many of the techniques we would normally use to stay centered, including asking the clerk for moments of silence if one of us or the group needs an opportunity to reflect on something that has been shared.
Next, we should be aware of how the technology affects the proceedings and adjust accordingly. Just as there are time-tested ways of deepening worship in person, there are ways to use online tools and clerk online meetings so that the technology becomes a way to facilitate the experience of being gathered, rather than being a barrier. While we are in the early days of online worship and decision making, there are already some good advices for clerks and participants. Clerks should be particularly aware that ways of advancing a meeting for business in person may not work as well online and vice versa. It can also make sense that the clerking team for a business meeting online might include an additional member who acts as a greeter, pays attention to the chat (if you choose to use it), and helps the clerk recognize those who seek to speak if it’s a large meeting.
Friends should also be aware that a virtual meeting for business should not seek to replicate the structure of an in-person meeting for business. For one thing, it seems many Friends lose focus after 90 minutes of videoconferencing. The medium requires a level of engagement that’s different and sometimes wearing for participants. Also, parents of young children also have limits to how long they can be on a call. Setting an agenda that breaks long meetings into multiple parts through a day—or spreads them across multiple days—may become a more common practice as participants cope with video conference fatigue. Since no one is traveling to make an online meeting there’s potentially more flexibility in how we structure it.
So the above helps us understand how to have a productive meeting, but how do we know that Spirit is with us or that the outcome was Spirit-led? As an anonymous Friend commented on the Jewels of Quakerism website:
A covered meeting is one in which the presence of the Spirit of God is palpable for all or nearly all of those present. This may come after many words or after complete silence.
You may know if Spirit was with you or the group based on the energy you feel, the depth you feel, or whether you have felt truth revealed inwardly. In terms of whether a decision is in accord with the will of Spirit (or as some might say is a godly outcome), one measure is whether there was a strong sense of unity among those gathered online. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice states that:
“Unity” for Friends is spiritual oneness and harmony sought by the group. The unity that Friends seek in meetings for business is thus the sense of being led together by God.
Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when we share in the search for Truth, when we listen faithfully for God, when we submit our wills to the guidance of Spirit, and when our love for one another is constant.
Brent Bill’s most recent work, Beauty, Truth, Life, and Love: Four Essentials for the Abundant Life has given shape and contour to experiences that I couldn’t adequately describe before. There have been times when a decision was reached that I felt a sense of awe: what transpired among us was beautiful and God was self-evidently there. Brent also describes how some experiences have the flavor of God in them because you can feel the life in them. This also rings true to me. I’ve come to a place in which unity, truth, beauty, and life are all ways of knowing if a decision reached was guided or well-led.
As Friends, we know something is Spirit-led online in ways that are similar to how we know they are Spirit-led during in-person worship. We may not have the benefit of seeing the nuances of one another’s body language, having a hug during a break, or feeling the immediacy of the whole room centering down. But we can still know if we ourselves are centered. We can know if the meeting had a certain flow. We can test or know if there was strong unity in the decision.
If it’s possible to make good decisions online, why did it take a pandemic for us to widely embrace the technology? It’s no secret that many Friends in the past have resisted online worship and especially online meetings for worship with attention for business. Some of that is probably resistance to new technology. Some of it has been the perceived loss of intimacy of in-person versus online interactions. There have been concerns about being exclusionary, as not everyone has internet access. Friends have worried about the complexity and distractions of having a number of Friends gathered in a room with others gathered online. There have also been concerns about whether Spirit can really be present with us online. An allied concern, voiced earlier, has been whether spiritually-grounded decision making can really happen during a phone call or video conference.
These concerns have been numerous and daunting enough for video conferencing to be only occasionally used among Friends. The pandemic has forced our hand. With Quaker meetings and churches closed and the need for fellowship, communion, and decision making being continuous, Friends have had to embrace the technology.
What we’re learning is instructive, perhaps even liberating in some cases. Many Friends have reported large, vibrant online worship experiences and others have shared that business meetings, in a number of instances, have felt grounded and have led to godly outcomes. If this continues, we might have a useful long-term tool—as long as we also recognize its limitations.
Online worship and business done well can be compatible with Quaker spiritual practice and can complement in-person worship and decision making. However, I don’t believe it is a panacea that can replace all in-person experiences. There are some Friends who cannot comfortably use it. Either the complexity is problematic or they feel physically unwell after extended use of video conferencing. This is real and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Other Friends, for financial reasons and sometimes as a matter of principle, reject computer and internet usage. This must also be understood and respected. It’s also worth remembering that in-person fellowship has a richness and complexity to it that cannot be fully replicated online. It can strengthen relationships in ways that can help communities weather difficult situations and decisions. Fellowship experienced together in a physical space has long-lasting psychological benefits stemming from personal contact. Pastoral care has nuances that are often best done in person. Last, but not least, we have many centuries of experience with spiritual practices in localized small group settings. We know this is transformational and we should return to this form of in-person worship when it is safer to do so.
If online worship and decision making works for many Friends yet still has limitations, why might it remain widespread even after the pandemic is over? The answers seem clear—climate change, an enlarged sense of connection, and increased equity. In terms of climate change, Friends have long been concerned by the carbon impact of travel. Traveling ministers have been a part of our culture since the beginning. However, the establishment of national and international Quaker organizations in the twentieth century greatly expanded the number of Friends who were and are traveling long distances regularly. Video conferencing was already reducing that travel somewhat, but stay-at-home orders massively accelerated that curve and demonstrated that a good percentage of our trips can be replaced with online meetings. Before the crisis, it seemed many Friends felt a conflict between being better environmental stewards and calls to minister by traveling. The semi-universal experience of online worship will lessen this perceived conflict and allow many Friends to save their travel for the fellowship events that will have the most impact.
Many people are sharing how enriching it is that they can worship with their current monthly meeting, their previous monthly meeting, and a monthly meeting they want to visit— all in the same day. There was no expectation around this in the past. With thousands of North American Friends now having this experience, it will likely become more common in the future. The pull of expanded fellowship is simply too compelling and, in so many ways, the Friends network will actually grow stronger because of this shared experience.
The issue of equity is also important to consider. While it’s true that some Friends don’t have internet access and online worship is not possible for them, it’s also true that high-speed internet is becoming much more common even for Friends of modest means. Further, online worship is facilitating deeper community for isolated Friends, Friends of Color, LGBTQIA Friends and more. By eliminating or reducing travel while expanding community, many more Friends can participate in and serve the Quaker community beyond their local meeting. This could expand the range of voices that Spirit can use to help us better understand and support one another.
In the end, the use of online worship reminds us that it’s not a question of whether God is present with us. It’s a question of whether we are present to God. So as we continue to explore online worship and decision making, let’s be mindful of its limitations while we embrace new possibilities and seek to use it in ways that complement and strengthen the in-person fellowship that has long nurtured us.