Episcopal churches offer a mix of in-person and online worship options for Holy Week, Easter

By Egan Millard
Posted Apr 1, 2021

Clergy from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, distribute palm fronds on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021. Photo: Dillon Gwaltney/St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] For the second year in a row, the liturgical journey of Holy Week is happening under the cloud of a pandemic. But this year is a little different. While last year’s Holy Week and Easter services were almost entirely online, many congregations are offering some form of in-person worship this year.

With diocesan guidelines for COVID-19 restrictions varying widely, Episcopal churches are taking a variety of approaches. Having services outdoors, weather permitting, is one option churches have taken throughout the pandemic. The traditional Lenten practice of the Stations of the Cross also has been easily moved outdoors by many churches.

The Church of the Holy Nativity in Weymouth, Massachusetts, began Holy Week by inviting parishioners to its outdoor Palm Sunday service. “God willing and weather cooperating,” they were invited to celebrate the Eucharist on the church lawn. “Please arrive with [a] mask and your own folding chair,” parishioners were advised.

Holy Nativity is also one of a growing number of churches that have resumed in-person worship, albeit with protocols in place to reduce the likelihood of coronavirus transmission. While Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services will be held on Zoom, the church will have three Eucharist services in the church on Easter Sunday. With the number of indoor occupants limited to facilitate social distancing, parishioners must reserve seats online. At those services, the church will offer Communion and some familiar Easter hymns “for a few [choir members] to sing and the rest to hum joyfully together.”

The Maundy Thursday service, which traditionally includes a foot-washing ritual that commemorates Jesus’ actions on the night before his crucifixion, is a little trickier to host in person. At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Maundy Thursday Eucharist will be celebrated via a prerecorded video, and parishioners may come to the church afterward to receive the consecrated bread and pray in the pews. The traditional stripping and washing of the altar will also be done on video.

Many churches are taking the hybrid approach and offering a mix of in-person and online services. At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, Easter Sunday services will be held via Zoom, with the option to come to the church and receive the Eucharist afterward. But the Easter Vigil service will be held in person – reservations required – and will not be livestreamed. The service will begin in the church courtyard and move into the building about halfway through.

This Easter comes after a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic and its toll on physical and mental health; widespread economic hardship; and the societal crises of police brutality, racism and a violent insurrection. The widening availability of COVID-19 vaccines has offered some hope that the nation will return to a semblance of normality by this summer, but infection rates indicate the pandemic is far from over. Reported coronavirus cases in the United States have risen 13% over the past week, and deaths have risen 9%.

Clergy from St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City record a virtual Palm Sunday service on March 28, 2021. Photo: St. Bartholomew’s Church

In New York City, where the exposure risk remains “extremely high,” churches have not yet resumed in-person worship. One element of the Maundy Thursday service, the all-night vigil over the Reserved Sacrament that recalls the hours Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane, has been brought online by churches like St. Bartholomew’s in Manhattan. The church has decorated one of its chapels to look like a garden, and the sacrament will be kept there overnight, which parishioners can keep watch of via livestream. Half-hour sign-ups throughout the night are offered in the hope “that at least two people will keep watch at all times through the night.”

Episcopalians can still attend virtual services specifically designed for online worship, like the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter service or Washington National Cathedral’s virtual Holy Week services, which even include “private online Zoom chapels” for confession and reconciliation.

The creativity and innovation in worship formats, both virtual and in person, reflects a total transformation in the life of the church and society to adapt to the pandemic. In his Easter address, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry noted the “hardship and toil” of the past year but also the simultaneous joy of the resurrection. Suffering, he said, does not require the cessation of praise and worship.

“In spite of injustice and bigotry, hallelujah anyhow,” he said. “In spite of war and violence, hallelujah anyhow. In spite of the fact that this Easter is the anniversary of the assassination and the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr., hallelujah anyhow. In spite of the fact that these are hard times, hallelujah anyhow.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect descriptions of the Maundy Thursday services planned for St. Stephen’s in Richmond, Virginia.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.