Future of Us: After the pandemic took worship online, a Rochester church takes stock

A person poses for a portrait
As the pandemic tested hospital workers, so too did it test houses of worship. But Rev. Beth Royalty, rector for the 163-year-old Calvary Episcopal Church that stands next door to the Mayo Clinic, says her congregation has come out the other side with a fresh perspective. “We can let go of the past. We have to let go of the past.”
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

This story is part of a series called “Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

As the pandemic tested Mayo Clinic staff in Rochester, Minn., so too did it test the 163-year-old church next door. Like many houses of worship, Calvary Episcopal Church had to learn to make do online.

Rev. Beth Royalty recalled becoming her own audio-visual team overnight, hastily moving things around her basement to create a churchly background for her first sermon on Facebook Live.

“It wasn't just a technical change,” Royalty said. “It really was a theological change.”

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To explain that, Royalty draws on the writings of Phyllis Tickle. The author theorized that Christianity goes through a significant reformation every 500 years, and that we’re in the midst of one right now. Royalty said the pandemic hastened that change, forcing an institution steeped in tradition to, in some ways, go against its very nature and let go of the old.

“[Tickle] called it a huge garage sale. It's like having a huge garage sale, as far as talking about what we’re letting go of and what we’re not putting out for sale,” Royalty said. “And I would say at Calvary, there's been a freedom to understand that we can let go of the past. We have to let go of the past.”

Perhaps the best illustration of that mindset is an ongoing conversation about what to do with the red-brick church itself.

The pandemic laid bare that people are prioritizing faith in their lives differently; the number of people regularly attending services has dropped over the years, and precipitously so during the pandemic. While in-person services are settling into a new normal, Royalty said it’s clear that online services are here to stay.

“So one of the bigger questions is, what do we do with a building that is full and busy on a Sunday but not so much during the week?” she said. “It's beautiful, and we love it, but it's just like an old house. It's expensive to keep up. The pandemic has asked us to really look at how much of our time, talent and resources God is calling us to put into this building versus putting into people and relationships and fellowship. That is a hot, hot conversation going on in the church world right now.”

While the question of where people will gather to worship is up for debate, Royalty said whether they will is not.

“To sit with each other and talk about important things, see each other's eyes and the new babies and the elders, to laugh together, to wonder together, to pray together is a basic human desire. That has not gone away.”  

That, she knows. For the rest, she turns to Genesis.

“Out of chaos, God creates.”

To hear the full conversation with Calvary Episcopal Church Rev. Beth Royalty, click play on the audio player above.