Hannah King on Preserving Our Bodies for Worship

Hannah King is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and associate rector at Village Church in Greenville, SC.

Last summer I baptized my friend’s daughter. Though small and wiggly, the baptizand remained calm in the arms of her father as I gently poured water over her head. Her godparents and older brother crowded around the font, and another priest held the liturgy for me as I prayed and blessed this newest member of the church.

In my Anglican tradition, the congregation participates in this blessing and vows to help raise the newly baptized as a member of God’s family. That morning they proclaimed, “We receive you into the fellowship of the Church. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in the royal priesthood of all his people.” As I heard the voices beside, behind, and before me, I was struck by how many bodies necessarily participate in the baptism of one person.

The rite of baptism is corporeal and communal. It is the initiation of a physical body, a human being, into the social and spiritual body of Christ, the church. Baptism signifies the nature and shape of the whole Christian life: to follow Jesus is to be bodily assumed into his body (1 Cor. 12:12). As Christians, we submit our individual bodies to God as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:12–13). We humbly offer our individual strengths to other members of God’s family, for we are members of one another (Rom. 12:3–5).

Corporate worship demonstrates this reality weekly. We gather as bodies, presenting our whole selves to God in praise and thanksgiving. We sing and lift our hands, we kneel to confess and to pray, we take the bread in our hands and eat. But we also gather as a body of bodies, embedding our individual faith within a larger, corporate reality. Christianity is never merely personal and private, but interpersonal and familial. Our communion with God is the fellowship of a family.

The pandemic has obscured these realities from our view. Foregoing public worship forced necessary isolation as an expression of love for neighbor, but as time goes on, our acclimation to digital connection—or, in some cases, no connection with the gathered church—risks our forgetting who we are. Streaming or podcasting church services seduces us into believing we are souls on a stick, our worship merely a matter of downloading Christian content. We lose touch (pun intended) with our bodily participation in worship as we “catch church” on our headphones, or while driving, or while folding laundry on the sofa.

Such individualized, on-demand worship also puts us in danger of forgetting the larger body of worship, the church. We don’t see the other members of our congregation or hear their voices when we sing. We aren’t confronted with their tearsor reminded of their particular struggles. Due to the widespread availability of streamed services, we easily “church hop” over to a different congregation’s Zoom worship or skip worship altogether, exchanging it for other Christian media consumption.

This is not new. In 2000, Rodney Clapp wrote prophetically in his book Border Crossings about what he called the “double disembodiment” of modern Christianity:

Disciples … are separated from the social body of the church, and their faith, as belief, is separated from their own physical bodies and the social, material world they inhabit. Corporate worship is subordinated to individual worship, made an adjunct or ancillary practice of the worship private persons undertake on their own. … Such worship and spirituality is, of course, eminently agreeable to capitalism’s ethos, which favors the endless multiplication of individual choice.

American Christianity has been detrimentally influenced by consumerism. Capitalism prizes the individual and teaches us to engage everything, including church, through the lens of customer satisfaction. This makes it hard for us to embrace the church as a family to which we belong, to whom we have responsibility.

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Source: Christianity Today