A case for not returning to normal

The announcement came in the Presbyterian Outlook:

“It’s official. The 2020 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be held virtually, with plenary sessions June 19 (to elect a moderator or co-moderators) and June 26 and 27 (to consider critical business only).”

Meeting virtually was a straightforward choice, given the rapid spread of COVID-19. Far more complicated was deciding what constitutes “critical business,” or how to function without the long-standing pattern of overtures and agency reports considered by committees before going to plenary. And what of our aspiration of access and inclusion at the decision-making table? While some obstacles are lessened – time and travel required – other difficulties emerge. What of those without access to the internet or computers, or those for whom electronic gatherings are daunting?

And what will we miss by not being together, in person — breaking bread in worship, lifting a glass at the hotel bar with friends old and new, discovering interest groups? What will we lose by not experiencing the impassioned testimony of speakers on the floor as they seek to speak the truth in love?

We are all cognizant of the losses we face in this needful, radical change. I wonder: How did our forebears deal with such challenges like the influenza pandemic outbreak of 1918, in the midst of the Great War?

I sit on the board of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. At the 1919 GA, the Board of Publication and S.S. Work declared “an abnormal state of affairs with which it has been hard to cope” and reported:

“The influenza epidemic, which ravaged our country last fall closed the churches and Sabbath-schools … thus cutting off the demand for supplies which, of necessity, had been prepared months in advance and which were, in consequence, left on our hands. The increased cost of manufacture added considerably to our burden. Over $80,000 in excess of the previous year were expended in the manufacture of our periodicals.”

The toll was high. Yet we may discover new life as well, as our forebears did.

At the 1918 PCUS GA, the Stewardship Committee reported:

“The prevalence of influenza during the fall and winter resulted in a most serious and widespread interference with the regular Church activities. The multiple appeals for patriotic and relief purposes made constant demands on the generosity of the people and diverted the attention from the work of the Church. Yet … it is the unanimous testimony of the Executive Committees that the Three Million Dollar Campaign for Benevolences, conducted by the Stewardship Committee in March, 1918, saved the work of the Church from financial disaster; and as a result of this united effort all the Committees are able to report … the largest receipts in their history, there being a total gain for the Assembly’s causes alone of $271,015.27 over last year.”

And in the UPCUSA, the 1918 GA created the New Era Expansion Program to address the ramifications of the war:

“This supreme crisis in the spiritual history of mankind presents itself largely in the forms and terms of physical needs, of combat with social vices, of readjustment of social relations and economical conditions, and, in our country especially, of the necessity of achieving a higher moral and spiritual, as well as political, unity of the diverse elements of our population … .

“These conditions plainly constitute a solemn and instant call of God to His church for extraordinary service and sacrifice and for such enlargement and readjustment of its work as shall make it of the highest value to the nation and adequate to the world’s needs.”

We cannot yet know what long-term impact COVID-19 will have on the church. But I pray that we do not squander this crisis by hoping to return to normal. Instead, may we hope to move forward — closer to the vision of God’s desire for us.