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Returning to the Body

Published: Oct. 29, 2021


Returning to the Body:
Is Hybrid Worship Corporate Worship?

by Anna Fritz

I serve on the committee at Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon that is grappling with the question of how we will worship in this age of pandemic. After more than a year of our meetings for worship being forced online as the only safe option, we have been experimenting with outdoor in-person worship and our first experiences of coming back to worship together in our meeting house with safety precautions in place. In our Meeting’s discernment of the way forward, I keep hearing declarations that we live in a new time, that there’s no going back to how we were before and that whatever we do has to be different than it was. Quick on the heels of these statements comes the assumption that however we worship in the future, it will need to involve connecting worshipping Friends across distance using the internet.

I have been trying to keep an open heart and mind as I seek the voice of Spirit in these deliberations. I’ve tried to keep my personal prejudices and opinions out of the conversation and instead focus on hearing what our community needs in this time. But every time I ask God for guidance, every time I pray on this question of how we are being led to worship, there is an unshakable clarity in my being that says we must return to the simple power of in-person worship, unhindered by technology.

Friends have long described what we do together as corporate worship. That word, related to corporeal, comes from the Latin corporare, “to make into a body.” Embedded in the very language we use to talk about our worship is the fact that it is an embodied experience. To confuse the disembodied experience of virtual worship with embodied corporate worship is to lose touch with the fundamental substance of our practice as Friends. I am deeply grateful that when I was quarantined alone in my home during the pandemic, virtual worship allowed me to maintain a connection to my spiritual community. But if any Friend’s worship experience becomes permanently limited to virtually beaming in, we will be failing them and abandoning the most powerful tool we have for connection and guidance from the Divine. With this headlong dive into hybrid worship I see happening across the Religious Society of Friends, I see us risking profound miscommunication and disconnection—from each other and from the movement of Spirit among us. I see us risking the degradation of our quality of worship into something drained of the power and truth for which we are reaching.

Broadcasting our corporate worship over the internet both degrades the experience for the worshippers, creating a leak in the sacred container of our worship circle, and fails to actually connect those online to a true worship experience. Offering vocal ministry, attempting to be a channel for the Divine, is a tender, vulnerable, and often searingly painful thing. It requires focused and loving holding by other worshippers. To not know who one is ministering to, to have the container holding the minister be unknown and inconstant, including people in an entirely different space and potentially distracted by the activities of their various surroundings – all serve to undermine the minister’s attempt at faithful delivery of their message. How can one’s ministry possibly land as needed when people hearing it online have no access to the felt sense of the meeting, of what is happening among us that is unspoken, which is most of what’s going on? And how can a virtual worshipper possibly be expected to offer relevant ministry arising from the movement of Spirit in the corporate body of those gathered when they are not even there?

I hear the truth spoken by Friends on our Evolution of Worship Committee of our changed-ness as a people. But I do not see how this justifies the intrusion of the internet into our worship. I do not see how it justifies changing the very substance of what Friends have been doing together for three-hundred seventy years. In a time when most of our work and play has been

forced onto screens, we are even more in need of the visceral, physical experience of corporate worship. We need an antidote to this disembodied life where eye contact is impossible and nervous systems cannot entrain. We need the holy container of in-person worship.

As I test this conviction in my own prayer and by holding it in God’s light with other Friends, my doubts arise saying “God is everywhere. God is with us all. God can communicate across all space and time. Can’t God connect people through the internet?”

But I see so much hubris in this—equating the misuse of human tools with God’s will. We fail to see that we have already strayed so dangerously far from the tools Spirit has given us to worship, to live in unity and harmony. We were given bodies that are portals to the Divine, that contain so many sophisticated ways of sensing and knowing, and we have abandoned, forgotten, or demonized all of them but the intellect. We have crowned the intellect superior and from it has sprung many brilliant inventions. But it has also spawned a complex network of systems of domination that have disconnected us from Spirit, the Living World, and each other and that are bent on utter annihilation.

This denial of the holiness of our creature selves and the tyrannical rule of the intellect is the lynchpin of empire. It is only by returning to the wisdoms of our bodies and their connection to all life that we can hear Spirit’s song of collective liberation—the leadings that, if faithfully followed, can halt climate change, dismantle racism, crumble patriarchy, and set us on a path to right relationship with creation.

It is the intellect telling us that we can craft clever ways to have everything, to be in two places at once: in our living rooms AND in meeting for worship across town or across an ocean. And the body screams “NO! I am actually alone in this room.”

My body does not trust these solutions. My body remembers what it is to feel the breath and heartbeat of other holy beings beside me, to gather all our senses, all our knowings, all our Light together and allow the great ineffable mystery to work on us and through us. This is what it is to worship, Friends. May we never forget or give up what is possible when we actually gather together.

I do not mean to say that there aren’t ways to use technological tools like the internet to support and nourish Quaker communities. There have been many happy surprises born of our necessary time online together. Some of us experience benefit from virtual worship and there have been many opportunities to connect with isolated Friends and to know better those in our own Meetings. I have met virtually many times with my own Anchor Committee that supports my music ministry, and though our time together was not nearly as rich with clear direction from Spirit as it has been in person, it helped me feel loved and supported in my discernment.

If this time has shone a light on the need to better meet the worship needs of Friends in our meetings—great! Let us seek ways to do that, by providing transportation to worship or organizing small groups to worship with Friends in their homes. Or when true isolation is necessary, creating fully virtual worship or fellowship opportunities that do not profess to be true corporate worship but an emergency lifeline to maintain connection through a difficult time.

The danger I see for us as a Society lies in the lack of acknowledgement in our Meetings that there is something we can access in corporate worship that is not possible online. If we can see and feel and know this, if we can name the fundamental importance of embodied corporate worship as the central practice of our faith, then perhaps we can use the tool of the internet with the abundance of caution, intention, and limitation that it requires.

September 2021

Click here for a downloadable PDF version of this essay.