So Liturgy of the Ordinary author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote a column for the NY Times titled, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.” I know I am biased, but I think it is safe to say that it hasn’t been her most popular op-ed. In it, she makes a case that she is very over online services and that everybody else should be too.
Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors.
Ms. Warren believes the pandemic is waning and the risks of Omicron are about like the flu.
We are not in 2020 anymore. Even for vulnerable groups such as those over age 65, Covid has a roughly similar risk of death as the flu for those who are fully vaccinated, and the Omicron variant seems to pose even less risk than the flu.
I don’t know where she is reading, but today’s 7-day moving average of COVID deaths is just over 2500 souls per day. There were 27 deaths from the flu last week.
While she is correct that vaccination provides protection from serious illness and death, vaccination rates among white evangelical Christians remain low. Any objective look at differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated finds that unvaccinated people are at greater risk for severe outcomes if they get COVID.
Why not have both in-person and online? Apparently, Warren doesn’t trust her people to come to church.
One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live-streamed service? Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.
In fact, people do have a choice. People can go to her church or another one. If I am disabled or in quarantine and my church rejected an easy tech solution for me to join the group, I might have to find another group.
The attitude toward people who can’t make in-person church is probably what has triggered the most pain among disability advocates on social media. Warren writes:
[N]o longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church. For centuries, churches have handled this inevitability by visiting these people at home in person. A small team of “lay eucharistic ministers” at our former church volunteered to go to the home of anyone who could not make it to church and wanted a visit.
For centuries, churches haven’t had an easy technical solution to bring church services into our homes. We have been able to get video recordings of big name preachers for a long time. However, the pandemic brought this tech to almost every local church. Now, people can look in on their church and hear their singers and preacher. Even if the sound is sketchy and the preaching isn’t polished, it is local and familiar. This has meant a lot to people. I am very surprised that Warren shrugs that off.
Furthermore, there are numerous reasons why people might need to have access to services via broadcast. Churches looking for ways to multiply their reach have had this dropped in their laps. I can’t see anything positive that will come from just giving it up. I hope Warren will rethink her stance and use her platform to modify her position.
Twitter reaction has been intense.
@Tish_H_Warren I urge you to reconsider this op-ed. Millions of disabled & high-risk ppl are not safe attending in-person church. The message from your huge platform is the church doesn’t care whether we can attend or whether we live or die. https://t.co/mXUTNCLsWy
— Anna Caudill (@AnnaCaudill4) January 30, 2022
@Tish_H_Warren I am housebound and a disability theologian. Very disappointed by your recent article. My church started streaming online with love chat and was first time I’d been able to attend a church service.
— Tanya Marlow (@Tanya_Marlow) January 31, 2022
Here’s a suggestion. Churches who drop online worship services must also drop online giving. You can only accept money that was put in an actual plate that was passed from embodied hand to embodied hand (like the church did for centuries.) After all, giving is an act or worship.
— Thomas Horrocks (@thomaslhorrocks) January 31, 2022
Tish Harrison Warren could have urged American Christians to demand better vaccine and testing access, indoor mask requirements, and 21st-century ventilation upgrades. All the stuff that done together, might make church safe for *everybody* in a pandemic.https://t.co/9aXKTZPmff
— Bradford William Davis (@BWDBWDBWD) January 31, 2022