New clergy on being ordained during the pandemic
Entering the priesthood was said to be fraught with uncertainty by some recently ordained Anglicans even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since mid-March, however, Anglicans seeking ordination have faced a new set of challenges: moving worship online while struggling with delivering pastoral care and other forms of ministry traditionally done in person, all amidst economic turbulence—not to mention difficulties of performing the ordination ceremony without violating distancing and hygiene protocols. This summer, as Canadians braced for a continuation of the pandemic, the Journal spoke with three recently ordained Canadians about their ordination services, and how they see the prospects for themselves and the church in this uncertain time.
‘The pandemic has shaped our minds about what it means to live in community’
On July 25, the Rev. Tyson Røsberg, who first came to Anglicanism as a member of Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, B.C., entered into his new life as a priest in the diocese of Montreal. But the day didn’t start out feeling holy.
For one thing, St. James the Apostle Anglican Church, in Stanbridge East, Que., doesn’t have an internet connection. For about two hours before the ordination service, he and other participants busied themselves with technical feats: running 200 feet of internet cable up the church driveway and into the church, doing traffic control, climbing on ladders, adjusting cameras and taking care of all the other details needed to livestream a service. It was only a few minutes before the service was about to start, Røsberg says, that all the glitches were finally resolved.
“It felt more like being on a movie scene or TV set than it did anything kind of prayerful, to be honest,” he says.
And yet the service itself proved otherwise. Including Røsberg himself and his bishop, Mary Irwin-Gibson, there were only five people in attendance—but it didn’t feel lonely. Loved ones from across Canada and the world tuned in, or viewed the service afterward on YouTube. A friend living in Paris preached the sermon, standing on a bridge in front of the Eiffel Tower.
“It was very strange and surreal, and on one level a bit of a disappointment … but at the same time it was kind of special and beautiful in its own simple way,” Røsberg says.
The pandemic also required a different kind of ministry from what he anticipated.
“If someone had said to me five years ago that priesthood would mean sitting in front of the computer, I probably would have said I didn’t want that kind of job—I wanted to be with the people in the community,” he says. “So I struggle a bit with that…. It seems a very strange thing to be ordained a priest and then not actually be able to gather the community, not actually be able to celebrate Eucharist.”
And yet the changes aren’t all bad. By cutting out the need for transportation, moving services online has resulted in much larger congregations. It’s also served as a great encouragement to many parishioners.
“A number of the churchgoers have said to me that they really appreciate Zoom, because it’s managed to keep the community cohesive and together at a time when we might otherwise just disappear off the face of the earth to each other,” he says.
As for the prospects of the church, Røsberg says that, at least on the parish level, things don’t currently seem as dire as they were in April, when finances seemed especially uncertain. But circumstances beyond this initial stage of the pandemic feel harder to predict, he says.
“The major concern for me is what happens afterwards,” he says. “I suspect that even when things go back to the ‘new normal’ there will be some people who don’t feel comfortable going back to church for whatever reason. The pandemic has shaped our minds about what it means to live in community, and there will be people who say, ‘I don’t want to do crowds, I would rather stay at home and have my groceries sent to me and not do church, especially if church is served to me on a computer screen.’
“I suspect we’ll have to have some sort of hybrid worship in which, I don’t know, from our chancels we’re livestreaming a lot more to those [who] couldn’t otherwise join us, or so that those who no longer feel safe to can still participate in the community.”
‘Still a sense of community and joy’
The Rev. Brennan McCurry grew up in the diocese of Brandon, in western Manitoba. He completed his M.Div at Huron University College in London, Ont., in May, and is now working toward an M.A. in biblical studies there—studying remotely, like many other post-secondary students. McCurry was ordained a priest in St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, on July 22, in a ceremony limited to 50 people, spaced among the pews in their family groups.
“It was a really good service,” McCurry says. “It had a nice monastic tone to it that worked really well with the reduced amount of people…. You could feel the distance, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“People were still coming and gathering, and excited, but respectfully distant for safety. There was still a sense of community and joy in the room.”
Protocols didn’t require masks to be worn throughout the service—only when people were unable to socially distance (during the procession, communion and the recession, for example). It meant a certain amount of putting on and removal of masks among those present, but this, McCurry says, ended up coinciding well with the transitional music. For the laying on of hands, Bishop of Brandon William Cliff and all the other clergy put on masks and one at a time laid their hands on McCurry, sanitized them and returned to their places.
McCurry had been serving as a transitional deacon at St. George’s Anglican Church in London and was hoping to continue doing ministry there as this article was being written. It’s hard to say, McCurry says, whether his ministry in the near term will be mostly online, although as of this writing, he notes, the diocese of Huron is moving toward re-opening for live worship.
To be entering the priesthood now, he says, feels daunting—but also like an interesting challenge. The changes set in motion for the church by the pandemic have been all-encompassing, and that has been stressful, he says—yet these changes could be for the better. Keeping online ministry going even after the pandemic, McCurry says, could be one important way for the church to continue to reach disabled people and others for whom getting to a church is difficult.
“Very quickly when the closures started, churches and dioceses had to immediately reconsider everything,” he says. “That’s daunting—the sheer amount of change and the different areas that had to change so quickly. But it’s a positive challenge in that it’s opening up discussion for growth, and to reconsider what has worked in the past…. How can we make it better, not only while we’re closed but after? How can we consider online and in-person ministry work in a blended format, that can reach more people?”
‘As day by day things are changing, we’re moving with the Spirit’
June 20 saw three ordinations in Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral—including the ordination to the transitional diaconate of the Rev. Amanda Ruston, an M.Div student at the Vancouver School of Theology and member of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Langley, B.C.
Ruston says she’d been missing the Eucharist during the months of suspension of in-person worship, and felt sad to know it wouldn’t be part of her ordination service either. And yet the service ended up being far from disappointing, she says. There was something about its pared-down nature, Ruston says, that seemed to make it all the holier, and the small size of the gathering—50 people—lent it intimacy.
“Being able to see only people that I knew and that cared for me that were there as my guests—there was something kind of special about that,” she says. “Being a bit introverted, I found actually that having less people there was a little bit comforting in a way, and it was very sacred and very holy.”
The pandemic necessitated certain precautions—sanitizing and
masks, a two-metre distance between participants, and pre-determined spots for everyone—which felt awkward at times, but they also brought “nuggets of joy and humour” to the event as well, she says.
Ruston says she’s found much of church life can be adapted to the internet—but the difficulty of integrating music into online worship has been a special challenge. Preaching online is also different from in-person, she says, because it’s harder to gauge the congregation’s reaction to your words. And she hopes she will soon be able to resume doing in-person pastoral care. The need for this seems especially urgent now, she says, when many people—especially those who lack internet connections or are uncomfortable with technology—are feeling unusually isolated and cut off from their church. She also says she feels much uncertainty about the future—yet hopeful, and happy, at the same time.
“I’m very proud to be ordained in this church that is respectful of other human life and of being as safe as possible, and respecting governments and health authorities—but is also finding new and creative ways to continue to be church in times that are changing,” she says.
“I think that really speaks to the way that the spirit is moving in the Anglican church—how we continue to be present, we continue to be church, we continue to worship, we continue to love God and love each other. As day by day things are changing, we’re moving with the Spirit and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.
“I’m hopeful, and I’m very proud.”