As a congregational minister who has been creating worship online and/or outdoors for two years, and will soon, I hope, be resuming indoor services, I read with interest a recent New York Times opinion piece by Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the conservative Anglican Church in North America. She ends with the reminder, “A chief thing that the church has to offer the world now is to remind us all how to be human creatures, with all the embodiment and physical limits that implies.” However, the rest of the article did not offer much to those human creatures whose physical limits keep them from getting to the church building.

Warren argues that being in one another’s physical presence is irreplaceable, and with that I wholeheartedly agree. However, she takes that as a reason not to offer any other way to gather. The heart of her complaint is that “offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective,” which suggests that the only form of human embodiment worth the name is the kind that can attend church in person. Need it be said that that is not the case? Whether we are capable of getting out of bed, traveling with manageable pain, and being in a public space for an hour is not a matter of “consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors.” It’s something that some of the congregants with whom I serve simply can’t do, no matter how much they may wish to.

In fact, for us at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, one of the boons of these hard, isolating two years has been that we reached people in this situation whom we had previously excluded despite our best intentions. It has opened my eyes to the ways in which our outreach to members with disabilities was simply inadequate. For many years, we have offered rides to anyone who needs one, but some people didn’t take us up on it, saying that they couldn’t predict until Sunday morning whether they would be up for leaving their apartments. I would assure them that that was fine, that the person offering them a ride understood and could change plans on short notice, yet few people accepted this arrangement, and I thought we had done all we could. Once we began offering online services, I realized that this was the “more” that we could do, because some–not a lot, but a few–people attended that way who had not left home for church services in some years. (We also have attendees from far away, which is a lovely new development, but that raises different issues and I’ll set them aside for now.)

Warren offers, as a solution, visits to homebound members, bringing them the worship experience where they are:

A small team of “lay eucharistic ministers” at our former church volunteered to go to the home of anyone who could not make it to church and wanted a visit. They would meet one-on-one with people, caring for them, reciting a short liturgy together, serving communion and catching up.

That’s a great thing to do. We visit folks, of course; we also have a pastoral singing group that goes to people’s homes. We could, and should, do much more of that. But I can’t see myself departing from the church on Sunday afternoon, personally renewed by our experience of corporate worship, and then visiting someone to whom I have effectively said, “Never mind corporate worship. A personal visit is enough.” Many of the members of my congregation may feel–as hundreds have since March 2020–that while attending via the internet is second best, it is far, far better than missing out entirely.

Homebound folks may feel less inclined to attend online church when most other people are there in person. On the other hand, they may feel more eager to turn on their computers: “Everything’s happening at church! I want to be a part of it.”

Perhaps my and Warren’s different liturgical traditions create different circumstances. If the most important element of one’s worship is the eucharist, perhaps a visit centered on communion is enough to make the congregant feel that they have partaken of worship. However, our Unitarian Universalist worship revolves around making music together, the spoken word, silence, and the living knowledge that one is moving along the path in the company of dozens or hundreds of people. Naturally, one can bring some elements of even this worship to a one-on-one visit. When I spent a couple of days in the hospital years ago, it meant a great deal to me when someone visited me, lit an electric version of our ceremonial chalice (hospitals, like other places where pure oxygen flows, forbid open flames), and shared a reading from our hymnal. I absolutely felt ministered to, and as if I had been to worship. However, as a substitute for corporate worship every week of my life, it would be thin gruel.

Furthermore, those few who are endangered by close contact and thus unable to attend corporate worship in person are often reluctant to admit visitors for the same reason. What about, for example, a member who has a very weak immune system and must curtail visits to their home? I’ve had wonderful conversations with such members of my community via phone or Zoom. Due to their health risks, they may never come to in-person services. So if we cease our online services, they will cease to have a service to go to, period.

It may be that once COVID fades, internet worship no longer attracts more than a handful of people. But we have yet to find out. I hope we’ll find out by offering it (alongside indoor and, probably, outdoor services), and seeing who still attends, not by yanking the plug.

So we will most certainly offer both. It’s not about embodiment being elective. It’s about some people simply not having bodies that can get to the building easily, or at all.

If, as Warren fears and as probably is the case, some people who are capable of attending in person opt to attend online rather than engage with the complexities of physical presence, we’ll deal with that when it arises, compassionately and without judgment. And I’ll be glad that while they are hesitating about whether to attend in person or just stay away from everything to do with church, we will be offering them a third option.

Edited to add: Five minutes after I posted this, I happened to get a phone call from an elderly woman in my congregation who attended almost every Sunday before COVID, and has done so online since. She said that as much as she misses gathering in-person, she may keep attending via the internet. (We already have in-person, outdoor services, thanks to our climate.) The 20-minute drive is just too much for her sometimes. I rest my case.