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Like it or not, online services are here to stay

17 April 2020

Once the lockdown has ended, it will be necessary to find ways of combining the physical and the virtual, says Mark Collinson

WHEN the Reformers grasped the implications of the printing press for distributing Bibles, they crossed a Rubicon from which there was no return. In the same way, over the past few weeks, churches have used technology and launched themselves into the online world as never before.

It is not as if churches haven’t had a presence online: websites have long been a shop window for church-shopping Christians who move to a new area looking for a place to land and a community to belong. Social media have also provided a great connection for, and between, church communities.

But what has happened since the closure of church buildings (News, 27 March) is the wholesale broadcasting of content. In a desperate scramble of upskilling in Zoom, Skype, and Facebook Live, the offerings of bread and wine on kitchen tables with a cross balanced on the radiator, guitar sing-alongs, and chatting prayer requests have turned Sunday gatherings that are normally hidden in buildings into easily accessible church sample packs. Once this coronavirus pandemic is over, I suggest, there will be no going back: once online, always online.

Church just got a thousand times more competitive. In a few taps of the finger, I can find myself not just in the homes of neighbouring clergy whom I know, but I can wander up the A34 into the diocese of Oxford, or visit members of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter or people from Holy Trinity, Brompton.

And why stop there? Why not check into Melbourne, Seattle, or the Vatican on a Sunday morning? These online broadcasts provide a spectrum of connection and content, of relational engagement, and of familiar liturgical practice. They are an attempt at being normal — in denial, possibly, that church will never be the same again.


THE problem is that, depending on how long the lockdown lasts, tuning into church in your pyjamas becomes a changed behaviour that changes a culture. There may well be a joyous return to parish churches for the first communion in a post-social-distancing euphoric eucharist; but we need to ensure that the bounce-back lasts.

Those who have found God in digital church may want to keep God there rather than discover transforming participation in the Body of Christ.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of inherited patterns, we will need to find creative new ways of combining physical gathering with the virtual. A new appreciation for the tactile, physical, and the local might be the result. We will from now on be including in our liturgy “. . . and for those of you at home. . .”.

This crisis has changed the Church in an instant, and I suspect, for ever. The Archbishops’ lead in calling C of E priests to set an example for the nation to stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives has emphasised a moral stance alongside our traditional understanding of Anglicanism as a Church of word, sacrament, and pastoral care.

Is it enough if the sacraments are visible in 1920 x 1080 pixels depending on bandwidth? I don’t think so. Is it enough for pastoral care to be devoid of touch, of reading those visible signs in the creases of a face which say more than a thousand words? Again, I think not. The Word, at least, remains the same. If this is a new reformation of the Church, let us hope that it is only temporary.

Who would have thought that loving your neighbour at the cost of personal liberty would become a government policy? Community support and mutual aid have created an intensity of community that a newly installed incumbent could only dream of. The shift that is happening is a gift for Renewal and Reform. Now the Church has re-imagined itself in the 21st century, and really can serve the common good by joining what God is already doing in society at large in a mass movement of volunteerism.


WHAT about discipleship? While it is flattering to see more people attending morning prayer than just you and the churchwarden, it is deflating to see the number of participants drop 30 seconds after you start preaching. Online presence gives instant feedback, and chat columns exercise no restraint when there is no direct eye contact. A prize for the doctorates that have already discovered how online presence is converted into participation and discipleship.

Meanwhile, for some, the crisis really has set God’s people free: from rotas, from cleaning the brass, from washing up the coffee cups, and locking up. The House of Bishops’ report Growing Faith has encouraged us to develop spirituality in the home.

Now we are learning to be family, sometimes in non-family units, to cook and eat around a table, to pray, to talk and laugh, to care for one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. Where two or three are gathered, there is Christ in the midst of them.


Canon Mark Collinson is Principal of the School of Mission in Winchester diocese and Residentiary Canon of Winchester Cathedral.

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