Redefining worship during a pandemic
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – In the Big Sky Branch of the Church of Latter-day Saints, under a spire intended to point toward heaven, four masked men prepare to distribute the sacrament—bread and water that is consumed as a symbol of the blood and flesh of Christ.
“If you guys haven’t washed your hands, could you please do that now?” First Councilor Brandon Wier asks the men joining him in blessing and passing out the sacrament. After breaking two slices of bread into silver dishes and distributing them with individual cups of water, Wier’s daughter opens the service with a prayer.
“Please bless everyone that has COVID, that they can get better,” she said with her eyes closed and head bowed.
Though states, including Montana, have as of late tightened the reins on COVID-induced restrictions on large gatherings, “houses of worship,” as they are generally described in health rules, are often subject to exemptions.
On Nov. 26, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States barred restrictions formerly imposed by New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, limiting attendance at religious services. The Court majority found the restrictions to be an infringement on the constitutional freedom of religion, endowed by the First Amendment. Since then, similar challenges to health rules have arisen in courts across the country, with most decisions favoring religious freedom.
In Gallatin County, where gatherings are currently limited to 25 people or fewer, houses of worship also enjoy an exception. In the Phase Two health rules ordered by the health officer on May 28, it is stated that certain events such as concerts and weddings are not conducive to social distancing and therefore should be subject to the 50 or fewer people guidline (the guideline has since been amended to 25 or fewer).
There is an expressed exception, however, for events where “the inherent nature of the event allows predictable and manageable social interactions through a structured social layout, identified seating arrangements, and controls for ingress and egress,” according to the rule. Religious services are held up as an example of such an event.
Despite these allowances, congregations in the Big Sky community have all adopted different approaches to integrating pandemic reality into worship practice. On Christmas Eve in 2020, the Big Sky Chapel, which normally hosts a few hundred guests for Christmas Eve service, entertained reservation-based Catholic masses only this year. St. Joseph’s Catholic Mission of Big Sky was not available for comment for this story.
The Big Sky LDS branch meets in the Ramshorn neighborhood off U.S. Highway 191 but requires masks, provides sanitization and has put in place measures for social distancing, like spacing out regulars with new visitors.
All Saints Big Sky, a shared ministry of Episcopal and Lutheran services, has been conducting strictly online Sunday services since the Episcopal Bishop of the Montana Diocese gave instruction in mid-November for congregations to do so for at least a few weeks. Due to uncertainty about how the holidays would play out in Big Sky and worsening COVID-19 conditions, All Saint’s joint council decided to extend virtual services through the end of the year.
Pastor Miriam Schmidt of All Saints said a challenge for her congregation throughout the pandemic has been considering how to balance the desire for connection. Schmidt said that while it’s great that online services are a possibility, there’s been something lost.
“A part of Christian self-understanding or identity is you don’t do religion on your own, you do religion with the community,” she said. “And I feel pretty strongly that even though online forums and online communal opportunities can approximate something like community, I believe in in-person bodied connection.”
Schmidt says that while she does not want to mimic some of the churches that are disregarding the virus at all costs, she does empathize with the longing for church community.
“It’s a hard time to figure out what it means to be a church,” she said.
Big Sky Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational Christian congregation that also meets in the Big Sky Chapel, has chosen to continue to meet in person, but they’ve also made amendments to their practice. The service, which is normally at 11 a.m. following the All Saint’s and St. Joseph’s services, is now at 4:30 p.m. The service schedule was changed at the chapel with the intention of giving the indoor space time to air out and for the interior to be cleaned between services.
The Fellowship has also put measures in place to keep attendance low like spacing out attendees every other pew—a contradiction to many church’s mission to get as many people in the door as possible. Big Sky Christian Fellowship did not host their annual well-attended Christmas Eve service this year but instead recorded it at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and posted it online.
Pastor Scott Larson of Big Sky Christian Fellowship, who moved to Big Sky in the midst of the pandemic, said changes to communion, which is similar to the LDS sacrament, has been one of the strangest adjustments. Because the tribute requires passing items to be consumed from one’s hand to another’s mouth and eating in close proximity to others, the Fellowship prepared individually wrapped communion portions and gave them to people as they left the church.
It’s ironic, Larson said, that the bread and drink that so many churches share is a symbol of unity that has been pared down to an isolated individual experience. The pastor said this image of people walking out the chapel doors and collecting their wrapped blessed bite is a demonstration of what strange times these are, but nonetheless he says people are just happy to find ways, albeit ironic, that they can continue their worship.
Brad Lartigue, a minister with Big Sky Resort Ministries, has been holding Sunday services in perhaps one of the most spacious churches that exist—at an outdoor cross positioned beneath The Bowl ski run at Big Sky Resort. The resort asked that Lartigue require his attendees to wear masks at the service and the minister feels fortunate to be able to hold a service so apt for distancing measures.
In a piece published in the New Yorker days before Christmas, “An Advent Lament in the Pandemic,” author Michael Luo wrote that while many churches in the U.S. have seized the opportunity to selflessly serve their communities during the pandemic, others have subscribed to a devout opposition to public health warnings and rules, flouting mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.
“In the end, the lasting image of the Church in the pandemic may very well be that of an unmasked choir at First Baptist Church, in Dallas, led by the pastor Robert Jeffress…” Luo wrote.
In Gallatin County, though, the paradigm of religion’s interaction with the pandemic takes a different tone, according to a health expert.
“[Houses of worship] haven’t been a major source of disease transmission that we’ve detected,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley.
Larson said giving up certain traditions and normality has been a sacrifice, but one that churches should see as a means of service.
“It really is a huge irony, because traditionally in a hard time churches can serve their community,” Larson said. “But probably the best way that a church could serve their community, over the course of the last six months, has just been by being respectfully compliant to all the rules that have come down.”