On March 8, the Chapel community gathered for worship in the Chapel on the first Sunday of Spring Break. The ministers and musicians made some adjustments to our service that Sunday. We encouraged people to consider alternatives to passing the peace and how they would receive communion. We shook fewer hands at the door as people left.
We did not yet know what we know now about the future of our in-person gatherings. When we learned all public events on Duke’s campus were cancelled for the foreseeable future, we pivoted quickly to an exclusively online service for Sunday, March 15. And we have been online since. During this time of online worship services, our ministers and musicians have convened regularly to reflect deeply on our worship practices. We’ve asked questions about every aspect of the Sunday worship liturgy, and we’ve made decisions along the way taking into account multiple factors and some general guiding principles.
We would like to share some of what has guided our decision-making process and respond to some questions we have been asked related to our weekly services and our plans to return to the Chapel.
- God-Honoring Worship: It is worth stating what may be obvious: God is the first and primary actor and audience of worship. God is the beginning and end of our worship. We do not want to lose sight of this fact, even as we ask questions about how our services can be a blessing, an encouragement, and a means of upbuilding for the people who participate in the services online, on television, or over the radio.
- Health and Safety: We believe it is our responsibility to care faithfully for God’s people, and this involves taking seriously the health and safety of those who lead and worship at the Chapel. Our decisions to cancel in-person services until further notice and to limit the number of people present to lead our online services have been rooted in this faithful care for the physical well-being of all those involved.
- Recognizing the Unusual Times: This season of life is not normal. We have not tried to pretend that it is. We have allowed our worship to reflect the difference of life by changing the weekly worship liturgy, sometimes in significant ways and sometimes subtly. We have also sought to acknowledge, in worship and other ways, the suffering, grief, and uncertainty so many of us are experiencing, as well as the courage, kindness, and faithfulness we have seen people demonstrate.
- Recognizing the Liturgical Season: One guide for shaping our weekly services has been the changing liturgical seasons. Through Lent, we worshiped in Memorial Chapel using a modified order of worship. Having a simplified service seemed appropriate for the liturgical season and for the early days of being told to stay at home. For Holy Week, we moved our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services into the chancel of the Chapel and adapted the liturgies for those services, taking into account the reduced number of worship leaders and the lack of a physically present choir and congregation. On Easter Sunday, we moved into our typical places for worship leadership and utilized a liturgy very similar to our typical liturgy for Sunday service. We also added additional music to help mark the Easter season.
- Keeping It Live: From our first Sunday being exclusively online, we decided our services must speak to the current realities we are facing, and the way we would do that is by having our services be livestreamed rather than recorded. Because we have the tremendous blessing of service archives dating back decades, our worshiping community always has the opportunity to watch and listen to services that were recorded earlier to hear musical offerings, listen to former preachers, and see the faces of the many people who have regularly gathered to worship God.
- Music in This Period: We acknowledge the dramatic loss of choral anthems and congregational hymns from our live services due to the lack of people present at the Chapel. In light of our desire to keep Sunday morning services live, and to recognize the challenges of this season, we decided not to insert clips of previously sung anthems and hymns into the service. We have encouraged people to listen to archives of past services to hear the glorious music of former days. Additionally, our music team has been producing a “Sounds of Faith” video each week to reflect on music they believe speaks well to our current situation.
- Staying Flexible: In addition to our general principles for worship planning, we are staying flexible and incorporating new elements, especially in special services. For example, despite the comments above regarding music, on Easter Sunday we included hymns recorded in our 2018 Easter Sunday service. On graduation Sunday, we recorded graduating seniors offering prayers and used the recording as the Prayers of the People. As we look to future liturgical festivals, holidays, or Sundays that are of special significance to the Duke community, we will likely consider these and other possibilities for those services.
- Our Setting and Our Circumstances: Finally, we recognize that our situation is unlike that of many local churches. We are a university chapel that serves a broad university, as well as local and global communities. Because of this, we work within the parameters set out by the university as it considers the safety of its students, employees, and visitors on campus. Also, we continually remember those who have tuned in virtually or from afar for many years as part of the Chapel’s worshiping community. This includes those who watch from hospital beds in Duke Hospital, in rooms in retirement communities in Durham, and in the homes of alumni and friends around the world. Remembering our particular circumstances means we will make decisions differently than other churches or worshiping communities who are considering their particular circumstances. We trust those places of worship are seeking to be faithful in their decisions just as we do the same.
Frequently Asked Questions
Please note: As the situation continues to evolve, these answers are subject to change.
We love seeing and hearing the choir. Why not use songs from former services for weekly worship?
The Chapel Choir, as well as the Evensong Singers and Vespers Ensemble, are essential parts of the worship leadership at the Chapel. Yet, because of the risks associated with gathering people in large groups to sing, it is not possible at this time to have these choirs participate in our weekly services. Given this reality and our commitment to live worship services, we’ve decided that we’ll encourage people to return to former services if they want to hear a choral piece or a congregational hymn. We have been flexible with this (for example, on Easter Sunday), and we will be again in the future. Yet, our working plan is to keep our services live.
The Chapel has a long tradition of guest preachers. When will they come back?
Guest preachers are a beloved tradition of the Chapel, and one that will continue long into the future. Currently the university has travel and spending restrictions in place that limit our ability to have preachers outside of the local area come to preach at the Chapel. While some churches have had preachers record sermons from their home offices or studies and clipped them into the service, we have decided to use live preaching in our weekly services. With so many churches making their services available online, we recognize the tremendous opportunity to watch recorded sermons from preachers all over the world. We encourage everyone to take advantage of listening to these sermons as they are available. In the coming weeks and months, we will be exploring options for having guest preachers from the Duke and Durham communities come to preach in our services.
Will there be communion in the services before we meet in person?
We have been wrestling with this question. Our honest answer for now is, we don’t know. To this point, we’ve fasted from communion in our weekly worship services. We recognize there are strong theological arguments on many sides of this question. Given the interdenominational context of the Chapel’s worshiping community, there is no governing church body that would require a decision one way or another on this question. Consequently, we are still working through the implications of inviting participation in the communal consumption of Christ’s body while we are not able to gather in person.
Some churches are starting to meet in person again. Will we start gathering in person in the Chapel soon?
Public gatherings on Duke’s campus have been postponed, cancelled, or virtualized through June 30. We will not gather in any capacity within the Chapel before June 30. We are working on various scenarios and options for when and how we will gather in person again. We will make these plans public when the time is right. As we look toward reopening, we will likely start small and slowly build back to larger gatherings.
Some churches are meeting outside. Will we move our Sunday morning services outside in order to meet in person?
We are keeping our options open, even while we remember our particular circumstances. We remain committed to the vast congregation who has virtually connected to the Chapel’s worship services during this season. Because of this, livestreaming of our services continues to be a priority. This is most easily accomplished within the Chapel for our 11:00 a.m. Sunday service. We are considering options for outdoor worship services at other times of the day and week. The health and safety of our worshiping community will continue to be of highest priority as we consider these options.
Learn more about the university’s response to the coronavirus on the Duke Coronavirus Response website.