Reflections on church online
by Paul Burden, 23 March 2020
This Mothering Sunday, 22 March 2020, was a dramatic change in the life of the church as physical worship together stopped due to the restrictions concerning Covid-19. Despite the circumstances, I know I was not alone in finding that engaging in the online services broadcast was prayerful, helpful and uplifting. Not having parochial responsibilities myself, my wife and I joined with the service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury from Lambeth Palace. We also attended our local church online, and additionally I was able to visit the services of other churches that I have various connections with. I confess to becoming a bit of a ‘church tourist’ through the latter part of the morning!
There had clearly been a lot of hard work and preparation behind these online services, as evidenced by good sound quality and lighting. Some broadcast live through Facebook or Youtube. Others pre-recorded services and uploaded them to their websites. The Church of England have helpful advice for how to broadcast online on their website (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/church-resources/digital-labs/labs-learning-blog/beginners-guide-going-live-your-service-or accessed 23 March 2020).
For most this was clearly a learning experience and there will be developments in the coming weeks. I’ve found it interesting to reflect on the experience as a Church of England minister, particularly over what features make services relatable for those of us attending online.
A sense of place
Interestingly, considering being online might be thought to be independent of place, most of the broadcasts that I attended made reference to place. This was mainly through using the church building itself for the broadcast. However, in one online service where the leader was in his study there was a photograph of the church on the screen. The Archbishop of Canterbury in his service was careful to mention but he was broadcasting from the Crypt Chapel in Lambeth Palace. The Vicar of Beverly Minster, in a video recorded a few days before, sits in the Anglo-Saxon Frith Chair to emphasise the history of the place (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0mXRbbqnyI&feature=youtu.be accessed 21 March 2020). Work done by Tim Hutchings on digital church (Hutchings, T. (2017). Creating Church Online. Abingdon: Routledge) points to people preferring online worship that is related to a physical church community rather than communities gathered entirely online without a physical rootedness. Even online, place is important in the church identity.
A sense of occasion
I noticed that in all the services I attended, it was taken seriously. This is not a given – the strangeness of the situation for those leading might easily have led to more informality. Those leading the services dressed according to their tradition, even if leading from their study. A clergy colleague summed it up for me. He didn’t broadcast online but said prayers in his church on Sunday morning on behalf of the parish, and he said that he had a powerful sense of occasion, robing according to his tradition despite the fact that others weren’t physically present. That sense of occasion for leaders comes over to those attending online as well, and draws us in to a sacred space.
The involvement of the community
The question is: how to bring in a sense of community and involvement? One way is to supply the service sheet online, as the Church of England did as a pdf for the service from Lambeth Palace (https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/Mothering%20Sunday%20online%20service%20as%20at%2021%20March.pdf accessed 22 March 2020). We found it quite natural to join in with the hymns, responses and prayers given a service sheet.
For those on Facebook live there is the ability to comment as the service proceeded, and a chat stream shows who wants to declare their presence, as well as deeper engagement. I saw that in intercessions where space was left for people to contribute, and there were some simple but profound calls for specific prayers from the congregation. There’s a downside to the chat as well – in one instance people had to be asked not to chat during the sermon except on topic! It can be imagined that long term chat streams will need to be moderated.
In another service live streamed on Youtube with no chat function, the leader invited people to text in and then read their texts at the end of the service. These were greetings, thanks for the service, and prayer requests which produced a very strong sense of community and connection.
There are also ways of involving the community in practical expressions. Churches online used times when they encouraged people to be still – a communal act whilst physically separated. There was a strong response to the Churches Together in England call to light a candle at 7:00pm on Sunday evening, as noted in the Daily Telegraph (23 March 2020). And for some churches, ringing the church bell at the beginning of the online broadcast or where prayers were being said by an individual also gave a strong community presence. A clergy colleague has been told by one person in his parish that she will pray when she hears the bell, now she knows it means people are praying in the church building.
But can I put in a plea for the simplest aspect of helping the online congregation to be involved – a few churches said they would be online but didn’t say when! Please make the times for services clear.
The dilemma for the preacher
For many people this was the first Sunday of doing a service online, and it raises some questions about how to do the sermon. Is it business as usual, or does it need to be different?
Crucial to this is the posture adopted and the distance from the camera. If the preacher is shown at a distance from the camera, standing at a lectern and addressing an absent congregation, then for the viewer it seems far more natural for the sermon to be preached as to a congregation in the normal way. However, if the preacher is nearer the camera, and certainly if they are sitting at the computer, then the viewer sees this as the preacher talking to them as an individual. This means that the tone and style of the preacher needs to be more like a one to one conversation than an address to a congregation. That can have its strengths, but it is a different approach.
There is also the question of length of the sermon. Viewing online can require that bit more concentration, particularly if the camera angle remains static which will be the case in all but the most professionally produced online services. Preachers will need to work just that bit harder to maintain interest, including by using a variety of pitch and speed of voice. But keeping the sermon shorter online will be helpful in getting a message across.
And there is opportunity of course, of exploring ways that the sermon might be interactive, both during the preaching and in discussion afterwards over a virtual coffee.
We try to say that numbers are not everything, but the numbers attending online services on Sunday were very encouraging. The Guardian reported St Martin-in-the-Fields having more than 1,000 people joining the online daily service of morning prayer, echoed by large numbers online for other churches (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/22/archbishop-delivers-covid-19-warning-dont-pull-up-the-drawbridge accessed 23 March 2020). The churches I attended had smaller numbers but still significant. There were doubtless people like me attending more than one service, and it was noticeable that numbers fluctuated as people came and went – another feature of the online environment. But I have already heard of people who are not usually churchgoers who have said how helpful they found being able to access worship, most notably the service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So, in this difficult time, there is both the opportunity and the ingenuity within the church to create worship online that is communal, helpful to usual attenders and accessible to those who might not otherwise attend. It will be interesting to see developing good practice and ideas as the church learns how to worship in this way.
Paul Burden is Coordinator of the Centre for Formation in Ministry and Director of Contextual Learning at Sarum College.