by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford
I’ve found a new way of entertaining my mother, for whom I am also her carer, during the lockdown: discovering what the various churches she has attended over the years are doing in the way of online services.
Last Sunday we visited several, finding a wide range of approaches, including:
- one priest doing the whole thing from their home, including unaccompanied singing (worked well, mainly due to the warmth of their personality which came over strongly)
- one priest doing it all from what appeared to be the church hall, kitted out with an enormous altar/table and masses of candles (useful to have the camera person doing the responses; looked ‘like church’)
- a family in their living room with children wandering around, cutting to another family home where the children sang a song accompanied by their dad on guitar (relaxed, not ‘churchy’, lots of enthusiasm).
Such variety, with everyone doing their best.
While some of us stay with our own church’s services, others are exploring their diocesan service, the weekly Church of England national service or even the Anglican communion service. Beyond services, there are also excellent contemplative online resources like Rumours of Hope; one clergyperson who used this said it was the first Easter in a while that he’d been able to keep the vigil, as he didn’t need to worry about getting up the next morning.
My church has a typical age profile for our diocese. For us, familiarity is what is needed.
Every Sunday now, there’s a short, formal Zoom communion service, led by the vicar who gives the sermon, with members of the congregation doing readings and responses, making it more of a communal effort. Last week, I was one of those members. It was a very odd experience. I’d imagined that we all did our bits and then they were woven together, but in fact we recorded the whole service, other than the hymns, from our homes. A technical problem meant we had to record the middle bit again the following evening (which meant the computer wasn’t in quite the same place, and also I’d started experimenting with my lockdown haircut, but nobody seems to have noticed!).
I find that a pre-recorded service released at a fixed time doesn’t feel like ‘church’. It confuses me; what is ‘performance’ and what is ‘really’ the service, if you’ve done it twice already and then watch it when it goes ‘live’? Maybe something genuinely live would feel better. Father Peter Anthony recently argued that no broadcast is really ‘live’ – there’s always a lag, even of a fraction of a second. Maybe, but in this context I don’t find that helps.
It makes me think of National Theatre Live, and the difference between being at the theatre, watching on the night when it is being streamed, or watching a catch-up recorded from that live version. To me, it’s the Zoom coffee-time that feels more like ‘church’, as people can see each other – the importance of the face as the self – and ask about those who aren’t present and share information on how to make scrubs for the NHS. ‘Church’ exists in the many acts of service which people – church and non-church – provide to their neighbours and communities.
My fellow Christians who watch the service on Sunday don’t seem bothered by these fine distinctions. They are simply grateful. They all thank the person who puts the service together and the assorted contributors, in a way that reminds me of the national representatives at Eurovision who start with ‘Thank you so much, host nation, for a wonderful show’. It is clearly reassuring to hear familiar voices and see familiar faces, suggesting that is part of what ‘church’ is for many people. There’s plenty of theological discussion out there about what ‘spiritual communion’ is, and on whether people should have some bread and wine with them as they watch the video, but our congregation just do what feels right to them.
There are bigger issues to online services than my personal unease.
Accessibility: they are available to a group which is both smaller and bigger than the usual congregation. Smaller, of course, because services exclude those without computer access: but bigger because those who can’t make it to church, for whatever reason, are now included.
Tone: upbeat? Reflective? Mournful? And let’s be honest here: some of us are finding this very, very difficult. I share lots of jolly COVID-19 spoof songs and enjoy free online theatre and lectures, but I also have vivid nightmares and moments of total panic. Single friends remember with longing the last time they ate with another human being for company. Those working in the caring sector, or worried about family and friends, are under great stress. Yet some services respond to lockdown with – great phrase – ‘toxic positivity’, challenging any expression of fear or loneliness with exhortations to be cheerful, to look at the beautiful spring flowers.
It just isn’t that easy for everyone.
Online church also finds it difficult to acknowledge that the economic divisions between us haven’t gone away: we’re not ‘all in this together’. While lockdown alone and lockdown with others both have their problems, lockdown in a 3-bedroom house with a garden is very different from lockdown in a bedsit. I was at a Zoom conference last week where one person was in her camper van because the house was too cramped. At least she had one. Lockdown for someone who can perform their job remotely – and this correlates with those with higher incomes – is very different from lockdown when you are unable to work. Those working normal hours, but doing so by back-to-back video conferencing, find it exhausting.
So what happens next? Having discovered the possibilities of the online world, will we change how we do ‘church’, or return to the old normal?
The thirst for real face-to-face contact, handshakes, hugs, feels very real. For many, for the ‘shielded’, that thirst won’t be quenched any time soon. Mandy Ford pointed out that the return of the activities – both social and ‘church’ – that are currently not available will mean that the pendulum may swing away from online worship and more neighbourliness, just as our currently quiet roads may become even busier than ever before as people avoid public transport and – if they have them – use their cars even more.
There are so many other important issues in our world to which this crisis draws our attention: inclusion, security, personal freedom and the role of the state. While the different ways of doing church in lockdown may reflect what we think church really is, I think we need to work harder to move beyond our internal concerns and join in the debate on the wider issues.
While escorting my mother around various churches made for an interesting morning, I don’t think any of us should be trying to move towards some image of “the perfect service”. Investing our energies in getting our online ‘product’ just right seems to me to completely miss the point that, in the words of a much-quoted article on the virus:
‘Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic.’
So how do we welcome both those who are excluded from the online world, and those who are excluded from normal church? How do we offer a place that can acknowledge both despair as well as hope, and pain as well as joy?