Those of us in the business of planning liturgies, ceremonies, and rituals find ourselves in a brand new moment. Never before have we been asked to curate liturgies across time and space through digital technology at the current scale. As an Episcopal priest and a school chaplain, I have been asked by many people in many different settings how we can create meaningful liturgies in the midst of this pandemic.
What follows are the guiding questions I have used to plan and brainstorm liturgies for my communities. I hope they can be a jumping-off point as we all navigate this new world.
First, some definitions and a disclaimer.
Liturgy is often translated as “the work of the people”. This is true in one sense of the word, but in a deeper sense liturgies are rituals that “embody a way of being in the world”. (Farwell, James. The Liturgy Explained. pg. 11)
In the Christian church, liturgies often revolve around sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist. In a broader sense, our communities carry out liturgies for a wide variety of purposes. Graduation is a liturgy. School orientation is a liturgy. Family traditions around holidays and birthdays are liturgies. For the sake of this article, I am using liturgy to mean any communal event that points to or embodies a way of being in the world. Adapting the common definition of a sacrament, these community liturgies bring about the thing to which they point. For example, nothing magical happens at the graduation ceremony but through the words and actions carried out liturgically, the seniors transition from student to graduate and alumni.
So how do we plan these liturgies at this particular moment in time? First, a disclaimer. Any liturgy performed in the midst of a worldwide pandemic will be – necessarily – different from any other version of the liturgy. What’s more, any liturgy adapted to an online context will have to be different. When we start out on the road to plan an event for our communities we must give up any notion that the event will be the same (or in some cases even vaguely similar) as it has been in years past. The poet David Whyte wrote a line that has stuck with me in this time, “Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.” We would love for things to be normal but they are not. The sooner we accept that our liturgies will not be “normal” we can get to the meaningful work of curating these events.
From here I will list questions that will be helpful when planning liturgies. I have added some commentary to each one. My hope is that these can serve as jumping-off points for context-specific conversations in your own community.
What does the liturgy represent or communicate?
Why do you hold this ceremony? What purpose does it serve? What message is communicated? This is not a moment to do things because we always do them. This is a moment to only do those things that are vital in some way to the culture and being of a community.
Figuring out the core message or meaning in a liturgy first will help as you begin to plan the logistics of the event. Is this a life-cycle marker like a graduation or a coming-of-age ceremony? Is this a moment for individual recognition like an awards banquet? Is this a gathering for prayer and spiritual connection? It is fundamental at the outset to know the “why” behind your liturgy.
What is the heart of the ceremony?
What is the main thing? What is the thing people are looking forward to or the thing they will remember? For graduation, this could be the receiving of a diploma and walking across the stage. For an award banquet, it could be the speech by a trusted mentor in recognition of the student. For a family gathering, it could be seeing the faces of those you love.
Before you can plan a liturgy you need to figure out what the vital components are – what can we not do without? What is the core of this gathering? This is a moment to strip away nonessentials. A rambling hours-long event works (though does it really?) in person but will not work online. How can you bring the heart of the ceremony into sharp focus?
Can this liturgy be translated to a remote or distance context? If not, what is a new way to mark this moment?
Once you have isolated the core of the liturgy you have to ask the hard but necessary question. Can we do this online or remotely? An unflinching answer to this question will save everyone a lot of time and stress. Is it possible or advisable to do this ceremony online?
The next step is key! If it is not possible to translate the liturgy to this new context, what is a new way to mark this moment? We will have to create new ways of being community and marking communal moments in this time. We will have to come up with a whole new framework for many of our ceremonies and liturgies. The good news is that we will not be isolated forever. The better news is that the ways that we innovate right now will help us to do the work of community in the future.
I have not given you details or logistics, but my hope is that these questions can help you reframe and reimagine our communal gatherings. My liturgy professor was fond of saying that the space always when we hosting a liturgy or gathering. This is doubly true now. The space always wins and our current space is spread out around the world, across town and across time. While many things have changed, the need for connection and communal marking of time has not changed. My hope is that we can emerge from this moment with a renewed sense of the value, depth, and possibility of our liturgies and our communities.