[Episcopal News Service] For the second year in a row, the liturgical journey of Holy Week is happening under the cloud of a pandemic. But this year is a little different. While last year’s Holy Week and Easter services were almost entirely online, many congregations are offering some form of in-person worship this year.
With diocesan guidelines for COVID-19 restrictions varying widely, Episcopal churches are taking a variety of approaches. Having services outdoors, weather permitting, is one option churches have taken throughout the pandemic. The traditional Lenten practice of the Stations of the Cross also has been easily moved outdoors by many churches.
The Church of the Holy Nativity in Weymouth, Massachusetts, began Holy Week by inviting parishioners to its outdoor Palm Sunday service. “God willing and weather cooperating,” they were invited to celebrate the Eucharist on the church lawn. “Please arrive with [a] mask and your own folding chair,” parishioners were advised.
Holy Nativity is also one of a growing number of churches that have resumed in-person worship, albeit with protocols in place to reduce the likelihood of coronavirus transmission. While Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services will be held on Zoom, the church will have three Eucharist services in the church on Easter Sunday. With the number of indoor occupants limited to facilitate social distancing, parishioners must reserve seats online. At those services, the church will offer Communion and some familiar Easter hymns “for a few [choir members] to sing and the rest to hum joyfully together.”
The Maundy Thursday service, which traditionally includes a foot-washing ritual that commemorates Jesus’ actions on the night before his crucifixion, is a little trickier to host in person. At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Maundy Thursday Eucharist will be celebrated via a prerecorded video, and parishioners may come to the church afterward to receive the consecrated bread and pray in the pews. The traditional stripping and washing of the altar will also be done on video.
Many churches are taking the hybrid approach and offering a mix of in-person and online services. At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, Easter Sunday services will be held via Zoom, with the option to come to the church and receive the Eucharist afterward. But the Easter Vigil service will be held in person – reservations required – and will not be livestreamed. The service will begin in the church courtyard and move into the building about halfway through.
This Easter comes after a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic and its toll on physical and mental health; widespread economic hardship; and the societal crises of police brutality, racism and a violent insurrection. The widening availability of COVID-19 vaccines has offered some hope that the nation will return to a semblance of normality by this summer, but infection rates indicate the pandemic is far from over. Reported coronavirus cases in the United States have risen 13% over the past week, and deaths have risen 9%.
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