In its 1898 annual report to the diocese, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Ark. — an African American church founded about a decade earlier — explained the parish’s relatively modest number of baptisms and confirmations that year: Just one each, because the “usual day for such services” was Easter, and the church had held no service that Easter Sunday, “on account of smallpox anticipation.”
Over the last few weeks, Christians have adapted to the Sunday shutterings of churches — this time on account of coronavirus anticipation. But being barred from church on Easter feels like another matter altogether. As an Episcopal priest who’s also an American historian, I take some comfort in precedent. This will not be the first Easter when churches have closed because of epidemics. Smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever: They’ve all closed churches on Easter Sundays past.
Of course, Eastertide is not the only time of year in which churches have been shut by outbreaks of illness, either. During the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, many churches were forbidden to hold worship in the fall. Churches did not always adapt kindly: When the moneymaking Southeastern Fair was allowed to go forward (patrons were required to wear masks), churches near Atlanta complained that they were forced to close while the fair’s swine sales and band concerts went on.
Some Christians protested church closures on other grounds — not only that fairs were allowed to make money when tithes were down, nor that secular amusements were still on offer while pious activities weren’t, but because meddling boards of health offended against some clergy’s political theology. On Easter Monday 1883, Charles P. Rodefer, the rector of St. Luke's Church in Cleveland, Tenn., wrote to the Churchman, an Episcopal weekly, noting that for 11 weeks, “no religious services of any sort, save the burial of one man from the ‘Methodist Church South,’ have been permitted to be held” in Cleveland, because of the outbreak of “a disease said to be smallpox.” “Under pressure of the panic caused by the announcement of the demoralizing visitant,” wrote Rodefer, “the authorities of the town, consisting of the mayor, six aldermen and an advisory board of health” passed a resolution forbidding assembly at churches. Fifteen “bona-fide” deaths later, the rector judged this all excessive. The game was not worth the candle, Rodefer seemed to be implying, holding up the number of deaths against the “3,000 inhabitants” who had been “debarred the right of worshiping God” for two months. “[T]his unprecedented interference on the part of ‘the powers that be’ with the freedom of public worship” might even be contraindicated, insofar it meant that people could not “meet together in their respective houses of prayer to entreat His protection from the disease.”
Rodefer was charging government overreach. And lurking in Rodefer’s diction — a disease “said to be” smallpox — is a familiar suspicion of scientific authorities. Similar battles are raging today. On Wednesday, for example, state legislators in Kansas blocked an order by Gov. Laura Kelly (D) that would limit church gatherings, prompting Kelly to sue to get the order reinstated in time to block Sunday services.
Rodefer’s critique notwithstanding, in the early twentieth century, many churches creatively accommodated themselves to church closures. During the Lenten seasons of 1907, scarlet fever came to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill. In response to a request by the Board of Health, the churches closed, but the Christians of Oak Park kept up ecclesial routines. The newspaper published extracts of a sermon by Oak Park’s Congregationalist pastor, William Barton. Barton took as his text Romans 16:3-5, a passage that shows the apostle Paul and his friends praying together in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Just like Paul and his friends, the Congregationalist pastor in Oak Park said, we will be “The Church in the House.” At First Presbyterian, two men who’d not missed a service for years and were determined not to let any illness mar their record met at church Sunday morning and held a service a deux. (One of the two was the church organist, and he had a key.) Twelve of the town’s pastors sent their congregants a letter directing them to hold Sunday worship at home at 10:30 a.m. — they were to start by singing “Safely Through Another Week,” then pray the Lord’s Prayer and the 27th psalm; then the “heads of families” were to read a sermon entitled “The Seven Kinds of Love that Bind a Home Together.”
I can understand the impulse. I currently serve as a priest to two communities: a small Episcopal church in Franklin County, N.C., where I’ve been vicar for six years, and an all-girls Episcopal high school in Raleigh, where for several months I’ve been leading twice-weekly chapel services while the school is between chaplains. Covid-19 has, of course, dispersed both communities — the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina has closed its churches through May 17, and Saint Mary’s School has moved to “virtual learning.” No one, I think, wants to sit on Zoom while I lead prayers from my sofa, so, much like the clergy of Oak Park, I’ve been emailing out short orders of worship and sermons. (So much like the clergy of Oak Park, in fact, that I felt a little chagrined when I read Barton’s sermon extract: Just the week before, I’d written and circulated a sermon about Mary’s housechurch in Acts 12. Now I realize that sermons about New Testament house churches are, for good reason, a social distancing cliche.)
This will be the first Easter since I was baptized 22 years ago that I’ve not gathered with people to sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” and partake of the Eucharist. The church has often spoken of the sacraments as medicine. Now, in pursuit of a different kind of health measure, we deprive ourselves of that “Cordiall Blood,” to borrow a phrase from John Donne. Being absent from church on Easter feels strange, and sad, and disorienting.
But there have been some compensations in all this distant churching. One of the Christian theological ideas that I find most difficult and most profound is the idea of “felix culpa,” or “happy fall.” The teaching of felix culpa is lodged in the classic Easter prayer known as the exsultet, and it includes the idea that even tragic situations can and do give rise to good things that otherwise would not have come about. It’s a difficult teaching because, if misapprehended, it can seem to evade lament. But the concept of felix culpa doesn’t mean to interfere with mourning. It shows us that, in grievous situations, there is not only grief — there are also good things that would not have come about without the circumstances we grieve.
The idea of “felix culpa” helps me navigate the ambiguities of this pandemic. I wish I were gathering in the flesh with my church this Easter. But small, good things will come out of the distance, out of these emailed prayers and homilies, out of widows praying prayers alone at home and families gathered at the kitchen table with a liturgy adapted for domestic use.
Earlier this week, I sent out a modified service for Tenebrae, a mid-Holy Week service of psalms, candles and shadows. Then, on the morning of Good Friday, I emailed woodcuts of the crucifixion and of Mary holding Jesus’ corpse, and I suggested that people read the story of the death of Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of John. Jennifer Moran, the music teacher at Saint Mary’s School, replied that her family would read the Scriptures at dinner while listening to the St. John’s Passion. “I have to say,” she wrote, “there is no way that I could get my children TO this much church, but having church brought home to us has been a surprising and welcome adventure.” That is a pandemic Easter felix culpa.
Most striking to me, when I peruse early-twentieth-century discussions of Easter church closure, is that churches are doing this weekend just what churches did in 1903 and 1907 and 1912 — innovating, to maintain religious practice. The Harrisburg Star-Independent declared 1915 an “Easterless year” in Montrose, Pa.; the churches were closed due to an outbreak of scarlet fever. But in the next sentence, the newspaper contradicted itself. The year wasn’t Easterless at all. As Oak Park clergy had done some years before, “[t]he pastors” of Montrose “prepared a circular Easter sermon for distribution among their parishioners to remind them of the day.” When my own parishioners open their email on Easter morning and read aloud the short homily I’ve sent them, it turns out they’ll be participating in a long-established Easter tradition.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
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