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Canon Stephanie Speller, top row left, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, top row right, were presenters at the first-ever digital Diocese of Los Angeles Clergy Conference, conducted May 4 – 5 via Zoom.

More than 220 active and retired clergy attended the May 4 – 5 annual diocesan clergy conference held — in the age of COVID-19 — via Zoom instead of in person at Riverside’s Mission Inn as originally planned. It included tributes to the Rev. Canon Joanna Satorius, retiring formation and vocations officer, as well as a conversation led by Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and Canon Stephanie Spellers.

As Diocesan Bishop John Harvey Taylor convened the historic gathering, themed “Servants of the Spirit: Imagining a New Church into Being,” participants enjoyed a virtual reunion, scrolling through a dozen or more computer screens, acknowledging colleagues in chat box greetings.

Taylor said the theme was chosen to emphasize the reality that “we are getting ready … to see and be the church that is coming.”

Much of the conference discussion focused on the church post-COVID-19 and Curry’s signature Way of Love as a lens through which to explore the opportunities and challenges created by coronavirus.

The Way of Love is a sevenfold rule of life that embraces the ancient spiritual practices of disciples — Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest— amid the power of gathering with others for love and support in living those commitments.

The clergy conversation included the church’s new reality once the stay-at-home order is lifted in terms of worship, evangelism, discipleship, reconciliation, grace, creation care and outreach. When congregations will be allowed to return to in-person worship will depend strictly upon state policy, Taylor told the gathering.

Turning and Learning; embracing Spirit, new life

Curry and Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Care of Creation, invited clergy to examine the grief created by coronavirus and to explore gifts revealed by the pandemic.

For example, the church’s ability to stay connected and to offer worship via social media has revealed gifts of incredible flexibility, creativity, and resilience, Spellers said.

“You’re seeing it in your congregation, in the way folk are saying yes to Zoom worship, to Zoom meetings, to Zoom pastoral care, even when things are messy,” Spellers said. “Even when something happens that we might have said is a failure, there’s this grace surrounding it all. Don’t leave that behind. Hold onto that and to what the Spirit is revealing about grace among us and our ability to be gracious and to fail and get back up and keep going.”

In a time of great grief and loss for many, supporting others “may be one of the most powerful ministries of blessing we can do right now, to hold that grief, to give it to God and to help others do it, too,” Spellers said.

“To do what we can to help people embrace whatever that new life is, to discern whatever that new life is, and not feel betrayed by life on the other side if it is not what they had before, to not feel somehow God has failed us because it’s not the same body we knew.”

Prayer, Worship, Blessing, Going — nurturing an evangelism moment

An “evangelism moment” exists in the huge spike many congregations have experienced in virtual worship views versus pre-COVID-19 in-person Sunday attendance, Curry said.

But the moment transcends merely attempting to boost Episcopal Church rolls. “It is not about us, but really, it is about Jesus, about God. Evangelism is about joining others on that deeper journey into God,” he said.

As congregations have grown adept at digital worship, they have been led into “online relationship with many people who might never pass through the doors of our physical building,” Curry said. “And the reason we have is because we were where they are. They noticed us even if they’d never heard of The Episcopal Church because of that deep spiritual hunger for a relationship with God.”

The increased attendance — 1 million viewers tuned in to Easter Day services at the Washington National Cathedral — creates an opportunity to share the faith and to help heal a hurting and grieving world — the Blessing and Go components of the Way of Love, Curry said.

“Little churches doing Morning Prayer are getting numbers higher than the people in their congregations,” Curry said. “So how do we nurture that?’

Spellers cited other opportunities. “Jesus is saying I want you for the whole discipleship journey — including worship, but not only worship. Are we providing bible study that gets people to the core [of faith]? Are we helping people to learn to pray, and not just corporate prayer? Are people learning a way of placing their lives in the hands of God because they need to?

“The reason they’re showing up in droves online is Jesus, God, and love and hope and prayer,” she said. “They want to know how to pray for those they love who are dying.”

She said witnessing “essential” workers leave and return daily on public transportation in her Harlem neighborhood inspires her to bless and to stand in solidarity with them. “Every one of those essential workers — God love them — is risking their lives. Are we blessing them and calling what they do a blessing?”

She suggested that clergy investigate advocacy opportunities through The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations. People can contact the U.S. Congress to say, “You don’t crucify these folks on my watch, because that’s Jesus you’re doing that to,” she said.

Although stay-at-home orders are still in effect, “conversations about who’s being left out can still be held,” Curry added. “Are there ways we can be supportive in prayer? Digital advocacy is another option, lobbying Congress to make sure needs of poor are considered in relief packages.”

“I am concerned about the ugliness of unenlightened self-centeredness, that could easily raise its head again,” Curry said. “Then we start casting some aside and throwing some overboard. And some become expendable people, for the economy or for whatever. That’s the downside of something like this, especially the longer it goes on.”

He announced that the Los Angeles diocese will be participating in The Episcopal Church’s racial justice audit, which aims to get a true count of the racial makeup of the church.

Spellers suggested adapting time-tested ministries as a way to deepen relationships with virtual visitors: for example, developing a digital equivalent of ushers and greeters.

“If they were to come to church on Sunday morning, there’d be somebody at the door ready to greet them,” she said. “Is there someone who’s been designated on Sunday to scroll through the chat thread to catch when people have questions? Is there some way you are providing them with an email address so they can do follow-up? There should be a note in that area — ‘if you’d like to know more about this congregation and our life together, email us.’”

She also suggested announcements, letting visitors know about upcoming bible studies and other church Zoom events. Other opportunities include Zoom small group ministries, forming house churches. “We hear people saying they need an anchor.”

Rest: self-care, deepening relationships

Lastly, Curry and Spellers said, especially in the midst of serving others and leading worship during the pandemic, clergy need dedicated time for restoration and renewal, for rest.

“Are we working ourselves ragged as if we’re the only ones who can make church real?” Spellers asked. “Do we allow God to work out what we cannot? Are we trusting God’s grace?”

Because, she added: “God is somehow working something out in the midst of it. God doesn’t cause it, but God is working something out and empowering and leading us to work something out.”

Taylor to clergy: returning to a livelier, stronger church

When Southland congregations resume in-person worship, the focus likely will be “fellowship first” with the Daily Office and not the Holy Eucharist, Taylor told clergy on May 4.

Additionally, a return to physical church gatherings will probably include observing social distancing, and possibly wearing masks, in the interest of public safety and in conformity with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s policies, he said.

Referencing a pastoral letter he issued earlier in the day, Taylor cited four principles for worship, subject to continuing discernment by the bishops, the Council of Advice, clergy and congregations once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

The Council of Advice consists the deans of the ten deaneries, which are geographic areas of the Diocese of Los Angeles. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, they have served in an advisory capacity to Bishop Taylor and Bishop Suffragan Diane M. Jardine Bruce about resuming practical worship.

Taylor said he felt it was important in the pastoral letter to affirm a “yearn to return” to the way church was done pre-COVID-19, yet to also claim all that has been learned through the pandemic experience.

The church’s calling will be “to gather what we’re learning and to match it to what we already know and find some way to ensure that Christ’s church is livelier and stronger,” he said. As for virtual worship, he said, “It’s wonderful and it’s vital, but we need our churches back. We need our opportunity to be together in common worship.”

According to the pastoral letter, congregations should observe the same timeline for returning to in-person gatherings, regardless of size, population density or geographic location.

“Our pilgrim work is to live faithfully and abundantly between the public health imperative of separation and the theological imperative of return,” Taylor said. “We must not try to shout down the hunger to get back to what we have lost. At the same time, we have to honor our obligation to make Christ-like decisions for the sake of public health while gathering what is unique and special for what we’re learning today.”

He added; “We have been uniquely prepared for this moment by everything we’ve experienced.”

Additionally, he said, the Episcopal Church charisms of justice, deep sacramental mystery and the ultimate unity of inclusion uniquely position it to address the disparities revealed by the crisis.

In response to questions, he said guidelines for pastoral rites such as weddings, funerals, baptisms, as well as food distribution and groups using church facilities, must conform to state safety guidelines.

However, plans are moving forward for the June 13 ordinations of transitional deacons, whatever the form might be, he said. The Commission on Ministry plans to continue its work, conducting Zoom interviews for those seeking ordination.

And while drive-through worship is permissible under the current state guidelines, he said the Council of Advice does not recommend it.

Taylor also told the gathering that the diocese’s One Body & One Spirit Emergency Appeal has raised about $63,000. His said he is hoping to reach $100,000  to help aid those who are food-insecure.

–The Rev. Canon Pat McCaughan is senior correspondent for The Episcopal News.