I was speaking with a liturgist colleague recently, sharing our experiences and perceptions of the return to worship. She has found the reopening with limits to be very much wanting. I shared the same.
Certainly I understand intellectually the limits on music, numbers in the pews, and the free movement of people. Perhaps most of my parishioners understand as well. But they are also not showing up to fill every possible seat, at least in my parish.
We are approved for assemblies of up to fifty, and they told me there were only seventeen signed up for the early Mass this past Sunday. It looked it. Numbers at our three Masses have all dropped since Father’s Day weekend. We’ve had our struggles with the combo of new procedures and older clergy. Our pastor emeritus has made the new tricks, old dog remark once or twice. I think I mentioned here my boss suggested I play a festive instrumental to alert the deacons for the Gospel Procession. First weekend back we had an extra long pause after the reading from Romans.
The other day I actually entertained the thought of getting up and walking out as we headed to the Gospel. I certainly wouldn’t be missed, it seemed.
A parishioner commented to me that she missed the livestream experience if for no other reason that we got to do a full set of music and she appreciated that part of the at-home experience. She may have a point. Maybe we’ve done a better job with congregational singing to pianos and guitars than the reform2 naysayers would suggest. Alas, we are not coming back anytime soon. Cheer away, trads.
You’ve mentioned that your congregation tilts older. Most places that I am aware of are still encouraging people who are in heightened risk categories to continue to reduce social mixing as much as possible, as it were. I would, therefore, not expect every available seat in your church to be filled. For the foreseeable future. Besides, I get the sense many of us perceive increased risks around us from relaxation of discipline, and that means not making anything into a habit but making conscious decisions every time with an eye to risk in real time. And that taxes the human psyche.
I would largely agree. My boss has been surprised by the light attendance. Myself, less so. Overall, the premise that people would be storming the doors to get back has been dashed, and for my older friends, it reflects good sense. Long term, I have my worry. Neither faint nor exaggerated: people may well opt out for a longer time. Especially if they perceive we have little to offer them.
Your boss should be prepared to see this dynamic at work through Christmastide and quite possibly most of Paschaltide next year (I am a realist; it’s why I have to rely upon Hope rather than optimism).
One thing that may go unnoticed: I believe this underscores how more disparate active worshippers have become from each other in real life as more people have left active worship practice in preceding years/decades. Many active worshippers may be single/widowed/divorced and not have anyone else in their pandemic-reduced daily circle of contacts who are active worshippers (at all or in the same community). So even “home church” as a nifty concept is not realistic other than in first-degree kindred living together that all (or mostly) share active practice. What might have been in other contexts a great exception to this – college-ruddered communities – are in way deep trouble. Small church buildings are problematic; in terms of risk in purely material dimensions, I am looking for very large spaces with excellent ventilation/HVAC and good means of separated movement and entrance/egress, easy-to-clean hard surfaces (wood pews, no upholstery or carpeting). I know I am hardly alone in considering those things. Plus the perennial good preaching, liturgy and music, even if it pains me so not to sing (if I am going to have to merely listen to sacred music, well, my aspirations in terms of quality go higher than normal, shall we say).
And, given the last generation or two, we should be thinking in terms of pandemics being a realistic possibility twice in every decade, and think of ourselves as lucky, all things considered. COVID-19 is not the only major human disease going on; it’s just the one that’s most globally visible and sensible to most of us. There’s lots of epidemic disease in many less privileged parts of the world that has been going on and will continue to go on. It’s an opportunity for solidarity with them who endure that.