Last year, the cavernous cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, with its carved wooden choir stalls and sparkling stained glass, was packed with people in pastel dresses and freshly pressed shirts. The organ swelled and the congregation— all 3,000 worshippers filling the pews— sang hymns and prayed together, celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Strangers clasped hands, turning to each side and whispering, “Peace be with you.” My family was among them.
This year, my family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy a feast of slightly burnt bacon, pancakes, fresh fruit and a live stream service from the cathedral. Instead of ties and high heels, we wore tee shirts and workout clothes. My dad set his iPad at the head of the table, and the seven of us waited for the service to buffer. With scrambled eggs and chocolate candy, we chewed thoughtfully, listening to the bishop as he spoke to us from his living room. His voice did not echo the way it did in previous years. My throat didn’t sting from clouds of incense. There was no sit-stand-sit-stand-sing shuffle. Instead of an hour and a half in a hard wooden pew, we watched a 40-minute condensed version. There was neither communion wine nor wafer; we only had coffee and pancakes.
It was strange hearing the religious leaders reading out sections of the service that usually involve a 3,000-voice chorus. The amens didn’t echo, the Nicene Creed, usually recited by the entire congregation, was, for the first time that I have heard in my life, read by a solo voice.
This year’s pre-recorded service was simple but powerful. The Episcopalian sermon focused on the current pandemic. “The apocalyptic passages we associate more with Advent seem to be happening before our eyes,” Bishop Andrew Dietsche said, speaking to us through the screen at our breakfast table. The bishop mentioned coronavirus impact and losses within the New York diocese. He addressed the tremendous hardship and strangeness of our days. “But we will also tell the stories of astonishing courage, and selfless service, and boundless generosity, and of sacrifices made for the common good,” he said. The bishop then asked us to remember the first responders and people working to keep us safe, “the saints who walked among us.”
Earlier in the week, the cathedral was set to house 200 beds for overflow COVID-19 patients, but the organizing group—the Samaritan’s Purse International Relief group—switched to other locations at the recommendation of Mount Sinai, whose doctors were set to treat patients at the make-shift field hospital, the New York Post reported.
The cathedral is still providing boxed meals for the homeless on Sundays, sub dean of the cathedral, Patrick Malloy, said in an interview Sunday afternoon.
Regardless, while other churches around the country filmed from empty altars and pastors preached to empty pews, St. John the Divine decided to film a more intimate service that didn’t disguise the fact that this is an unusual time.
Bishop Dietsche smiled out from his living room, Dean Clifton Daniel looked into the webcam from his office, and senior warden Marsha Ra led prayers from her living room. They didn’t pretend to address a full church; they talked, conversationally, to their webcams, knowing that the people who usually attend this service are in lockdown at home.
“No one is pretending that we’re in the same room,” said Malloy. The filming was a conscious choice made by the clergy. “We wanted to be honest about the fact that we’re all alone now.”
But even in isolation, they celebrated and led the Easter service together.
A montage of photos at the beginning and end of the live stream service reminded viewers of the way the service usually looked, but the live stream itself did not try to replicate the past. Malloy said he hoped the photos would remind congregants that there was a time before and there will be a time after this pandemic. And the whole point of the service, he explained, is to remind people that even if they’re isolated, they’re not alone.
“This is not business as usual and we’re not going to pretend that this is business as usual,” Malloy said.
My favorite part of the Easter service at St. John the Divine has always been the singing. The sound of thousands of voices singing together in the massive cathedral always takes my breath away. It makes me feel connected to humanity. One song in particular, the Easter Hymn, has always given me chills when we sing it each year at the New York cathedral.
This year while I hummed along to the familiar tune at our table, the iPad screen suddenly filled with the faces of the choir members, each singing with headphones on from their own homes. They weren’t wearing robes. They weren’t standing side-by-side in choir stalls. They were apart, but still sang—harmoniously, beautifully, perfectly—together.