Covid-19 and the Consecration of Bishops for the Episcopal Church: The First Two

Some of my Episcopalian friends have referred to this current season of the human experience as “Coronatide.” Part of me doesn’t like the term because liturgical “-tides,” like Eastertide and Christmastide, return annually,. No one wants this season of death, suffering, quarantine, and social distancing to return. Yet, in terms the present being a distinct period in the history of Christian worship, Coronatide seems entirely appropriate. I’ve seen pictures of various ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood online and imagine there are now circulating many documents that might be entitled A Customary for Ordinations in Coronatide.

This spring’s ordinations and consecrations of five bishops in the Episcopal Church had been scheduled to begin on April 18. As is typical, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church was to be be the chief consecrator at all of them. On March 17, however, it was announced that none would take place earlier than May 30 and that all would be revised to minimize in-person attendance and utilize live-streaming technology. The consecration of a bishop in the Episcopal Church is often held in an arena so as to accommodate over a thousand attendees. A dozen or more bishops huddle around the bishop-elect for the laying on of hands. Clearly this would not be possible in Coronatide.

Bishops surround and lay hands on Susan Haynes at her ordination to be Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, February 1, 2020. The official consecrators who will sign her certificate are in albs and copes. Others attending (with their backs to the camera) are wearing rochet and chimere. Screen shot from YouTube video.

Georgia and Oklahoma

Furthermore on May 5, Curry announced that he would not attend at least the first three consecrations and appointed the president or vice-president of the relevant province to preside in his stead. The first two consecrations were held in Savannah, Georgia, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Saturday, May 30. In both dioceses, Episcopal churches have not yet been permitted to resume public worship.

Both had services minimal attendees, basically just the necessary clergy, witnesses, and members of bishop-elect’s immediate family plus a one or more musicians. Yet the services were contrasting.

Some of the differences probably reflected the different histories of the two bishops elect. Logue’s entire priestly career has been within the Diocese of Georgia and for the past ten years he has served as canon to the ordinary (essentially the bishop’s right-hand man). He already has a deep connection to the diocese and he became Bishop of Georgia immediately upon consecration. His predecessor (and up to his consecration, his boss), the Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase was the chief consecrator at the service. It took place in the bright white interior of Christ Church in Savannah, erected in 1838.

The congregation at the ordination of Frank Logue to the Order of Bishops during the presentation, May 30, 2020. Screenshot from YouTube.

The Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed was consecrated to be bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Oklahoma in the darker Gothic interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1904. He was elected from outside the diocese and has not ministered in Oklahoma before. He will become Bishop of Oklahoma at the end of the year when the current bishop retires. His ordination was originally scheduled for April 18, so it was cancelled with only a month’s advance notice. No doubt the people of Oklahoma expect that the strictures of Coronatide will be able to be relaxed by then and a more traditional in-person celebration can be held at that time. (I live in the Diocese of Alabama and that is exactly the hope for our very similar situation.)

The congregation at the Ordination of Poulson Reed to the Order of Bishops before the reading of the Gospel, May 30, 2020. Screenshot from YouTube.

Other differences reflected different diocesan cultures and personalities that had nothing to do with the pandemic. In Oklahoma, the gospel was proclaimed in English and Spanish by a deacon vested in an alb and stole. In Georgia the deacon also wore a dalmatic and the gospel was read in English. In Oklahoma, bishop-elect Reed knelt at a prayer desk for the litany, in Georgia bishop-elect Logue prostrated. In Oklahoma City, the bishops removed their miters for the prayer of consecration. In Savannah, they wore them.

Different Responses to Precautions

But the most striking differences had to do with Coronatide alterations and the use of video technology. In Savannah, everyone except the chief consecrator and the bishop elect wore a mask for most of the service. The small congregation sat at some distance from each other. Witnesses individually approached a desk to sign the testimonial. While the litany for ordinations and the Veni Creator were sung in person by solo cantors, there was no congregational singing in the church. Instead the hymns were sung by pre-recorded virtual choirs. The sermon was also offered in a virtual pre-recording by the Rev. J. Sierra Reyes, a former priest in the diocese of Georgia who is now rector of St. Luke’s in Denver, Colorado.

At Reed’s ordination anti-viral precautions appeared more relaxed. No one wore a mask. The testimonial was carried around to each witness to sign. A quartet choir led the congregational hymns from a rear gallery and sang offertory and communion anthems. While the psalm, Sanctus, and fraction anthem were said in Georgia, they were sung in Oklahoma. The sermon was offered in person by the Rev. Tim Baer vicar of Grace Church in Yukon, Oklahoma. Perhaps due to the more relaxed setting, there were five consecrations, not the minimal three. This included a bishop from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in recognition of the full communion agreement between the two denominations.

On the other hand, in Oklahoma, Reed led a prayer for spiritual communion after the communion anthem, and was the only person to be shown receiving communion on the webcast. In Georgia, communion was offered to everyone, though in deference to the virus, it was only the bread. The inclusion of a prayer for spiritual communion was an effective recognition of the fact that most Episcopalians, including the congregation watching from home, are experiencing what many have called an “involuntary eucharistic fast” due to suspension of public worship.

Georgia’s Virtual Choirs

As a live-streamed liturgy the Georgia ordination was to my mind much more effective. I found the pieces by the virtual choirs to be very effective and moving. They were in varied musical styles and by various groups reflecting something of the breadth of the diocese’s liturgical traditions. Some of the effectiveness of the hymns came from the video components, such as the banners of the parishes of the diocese being processed down the aisles of each church in the opening hymn. But it was also because of the engaged and varied faces of the singers. There was more of a sense of the virtual congregation. Also the varied camera angles in the church were very effective in Savannah, Particularly important was the fact that for much of the time the viewer was seeing the liturgy from the floor of the church, not an elevated angle looking down.

Yet it was also clear that the Oklahoma liturgy played a role that the Savannah liturgy did not, welcoming a family to its new home. Bishop Reed’s wife and their three young sons joined in presenting the vestments and in being greeted by the congregation. Aside from a few audio problems, the service was beautiful and accessible. Each service was carefully crafted and served its purpose in an unexpected situations.

Links to service leaflets and videos follow below. The upcoming Episcopal bishop ordinations are set for June 6 in Minnesota, June 13 in Missouri, and June 27 in Alabama.

Service Leaflet: Ordination & Consecration of Frank Sullivan Logue (Once you open the video below, you will need to click a link to watch it directly on YouTube.)

Service Leaflet: Ordination & Consecration of Poulson C. Reed

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