Vermont diocese’s ‘Green Mountain Abbey’ online community born in early pandemic days still thrives

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 2, 2024

The Diocese of Vermont’s Green Mountain Online Abbey offers 13 online services of daily prayer each week, including this Compline service earlier this year. Photo: Screenshot by adwoa Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] A March 15, 2020, online gathering for people in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont – when the specter of COVID-19 was just appearing in Episcopal churches – has continued without a pause in the more than four years since then. That offering now known as the Green Mountain Online Abbey, provides online prayers services every day that bring together people across the diocese and beyond.

It also serves as a place of formation, where Lenten and Advent studies take place. With many small Vermont congregations, leaders say it offers opportunities for communal study that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown had been consecrated less than six months when she convened that first prayer gathering. She told Episcopal News Service that when people of faith are facing emergencies or other challenges, “we come together to pray.”

The diocese’s Zoom account, which quickly maxed out on the number of people who could participate, was upgraded, and a rhythm of daily prayer was established. Morning Prayer was at 8 a.m. Eastern and Compline at 8 p.m. every day except Sunday, when Morning Prayer soon was replaced by virtual parish visitations by MacVean-Brown that allowed people to get to know some of the diocese’s 45 congregations as they offered online services week-by-week.

For the first four months, MacVean-Brown oversaw every part of the services – from officiating and preaching to creating the worship bulletins that helped introduce participants to some of The Episcopal Church’s expansive language options.

By then it was clear that the online community would be continuing, and she needed to turn it over to someone else. It also was time to give the community a name, and based on suggestions, regular attendees chose Green Mountain Online Abbey, a nod to Vermont’s reputation  as the Green Mountain State. Two deacons served as the abbey’s leader until 2022, when the Rev. adwoa Wilson (she does not capitalize her first name) was ordained. In addition to serving the abbey, she is the diocese’s vicar of adult formation and discipleship.

After considering but declining a vocation to monastic life, Wilson told ENS that the abbey, with 13 daily services of prayer a week plus a dedicated community of about 40 people, was a perfect fit for her. She also serves as assistant priest at St. Michael’s in Brattleboro, Vermont, though remains canonically resident in the Diocese of Massachusetts, where she was ordained.

Wilson described the abbey today as a praying community, or ministry, of the Diocese of Vermont. People have been baptized and confirmed through their participation, and two regulars have died. While it offers some of the nature of a congregation, what to call it remains in flux – “whether to call it a ministry, a mission, a community or a congregation.”

Online worship services called by Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, like this one on March 24, 2020, eventually led to what today is the Green Mountain Online Abbey. Photo: Lee Crawford

But by whatever name, it is a spiritual home where many people found it by being invited by existing participants, or what Wilson said was “this strange thing for Episcopalians called evangelism.”

Mary Ann Johnson, who was raised in the Lutheran Church, was searching for a spiritual connection in July 2022 when she found the abbey through the diocese’s website. She’s now a regular and serves as a reader and worship leader. She told ENS that the services were moving and enriched her prayer life. “They’ve given me a spiritual foundation to build from.”

Megan Fitch, who is active in the diocese, told ENS that people can downplay the authenticity of online communities, but she has experienced something different with the abbey. “We’ve seen each other through some tragedies, with death, cancer and the loss of children,” she said. When she had cancer, an abbey regular sent her a quilt.

“We are a community because we pray together,” she added.

Johnson agreed. “The abbey is a true community,” she said. “There is a feeling of sacred space that has allowed members to form connections through Zoom and beyond, through emails, cards and phone calls.”

The abbey became a place of formation in 2021, after MacVean-Brown read about the diocese’s first bishop, John Henry Hopkins. She learned that he was an ardent defender of slavery, even writing his book about it. During Advent she invited the diocese to read the book along with her and discuss it through the abbey. The timing before Christmas was intentional, she said. “While people were thinking about buying and selling things, why not think about buying and selling people?” (It since has surfaced that MacVean-Brown, a Black woman, has experienced hostility and conflict in her role).

The abbey has been home to additional Lenten and Advent studies, and earlier this year the Dioceses of Vermont and Massachusetts collaborated on a book of Lenten devotions).

That collaboration is just one of the ways that Vermont is working with its New England neighbors. In May 2022, the dioceses of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine announced that their bishops all would be assisting bishops in each other’s dioceses, to increase collaboration in the region, while remaining bishop in their own dioceses.

MacVean-Brown also has tried to help congregations within the diocese stay better connected, launching in 2023 a new ministry model she calls constellations. “Stars need each other to stay in orbit, because of the energy between them,” she said, and the same is true for congregations. The new partnerships involve clergy sharing and mission collaboration.

With fewer churches having full-time or even half-time priests, the bishop said it was crucial that formation for lay people take place because of the critical role it plays in nurturing discipleship. The abbey’s online access means people in every congregation, no matter the size or location, can participate. “This is a way that we can be connected,” she said.

These days, MacVean-Brown officiates at both abbey services on Wednesdays and Sunday evening – the abbey’s Sunday mornings now are open so people can attend parish churches in person or online. She attends other times when her schedule allows.

Knowing that the birth and growth of the Green Mountain Online Abbey came because of the fear and isolation of the earliest days of the pandemic, she nonetheless prays that the lessons learned during those days aren’t forgotten. “What we learned about God, what it means to be the church and to give up the trappings that connected us to our buildings – it taught us a lot about ourselves,” she said.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.