THE challenge of online worship is to make people feel that they are not watching a performance, but making something creative, “something beautiful for God”, the Revd Mark Earey, director of Anglican formation and tutor in liturgy and worship at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, told 250 participants in a webinar on Monday.
“Creativity out of Crisis”, a webinar held by the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) in association with the Church Times, explored how hymns and worship had been transformed, owing to the pandemic. The crisis had offered opportunities as well as challenges, Canon Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford, who chairs the trustees of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the proprietors of the Church Times, and who introduced the webinar, said. This was a view borne out by all the panellists.
Lay people joining in worship was essential to moving it forwards, Mr Earey said. He reflected on the 20th-century Liturgical Movement, which had had its greatest expression, perhaps, in the Second Vatican Council. He noted that the Black Majority churches, in particular, were used to an improvised response, not a scripted one.
Of the two forms of online church — one in which the church was entirely digitally rooted, and the other a physical offline existence translated to digital media — most had done the latter, he said, building on what had existed and trying to replicate offline practices. Moving online fundamentally changed how people participated, and, for some, this had made access to worship possible for the first time.
In the pre-recorded approach, the only option for participation was the facility to chat, an entertainment approach in which you could join or not, “like a Mamma Mia singalong”, he suggested. In a live service, in real time, via Zoom, “people can interact, but the limitations mean that most of us are usually on mute. There is a question of who has control and who has power.
“Where singing is concerned, in theory, live worship makes it easier to join in at home. But, in practice, it is a lot more mixed. It can feel awkward singing along on Zoom. You can join in, but it is not the same: it is not a full multi-sensory experience.”
Churches could look for visual and physical ways of joining together, such as using British Sign Language, or Makaton, he suggested. “Now, we speak back to the leader; in liturgical worship, it used to be a two-way response. It is no longer a mutual experience.”
But, through the chat facility, congregations had a greater opportunity to interact with sermons, for instance, and the chat was also full of appreciation and gratitude. While banter was always going to be a distraction and a risk, chat was public and corporate. There must be a sense, he said, “that my contribution matters; a sense of how the leader needs my affirmation if it is to be part of corporate worship”.
The deputy director of the RSCM, Canon Sally-Anne McDougall, and the education officer, Sarah King, reflected on the issue of finding support and resources during the continuing pandemic. Ms King thought that people’s ability to adapt had been “stronger than we thought, with a lot of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. We found literally overnight that everything on our RSCM to-do list almost vanished. We have to rethink how we support churches when we are now scattered individuals.”
Many churches had discovered untapped IT skills, Canon McDougall said, and, although making music together in one room could not be replicated online, there had been reminders from the start of the lockdown how powerful hymns and songs were.
“They so often express what it is to be a human being in relationship with God,” Ms King said, whose experience of curating the RSCM’s daily Hymn for the Day had been the greater attention paid to the words. “It aims to offer those stuck at home something to reflect on, and feel part of singing something together with others,” she said.
Often, it was familiar hymns; but sometimes new ones, such as “We will meet”, from the Iona Community, were able to express “the [particular] things we were missing. We have used hymns to mark festivals and seasons, too, because it felt important to show that the liturgical cycle continued unaffected by the virus.”
Canon McDougall reflected: “It has given rise almost to a spirit of defiance: that even though the pandemic had taken away so much, it could not take away our voice even if we were sitting alone on the sofa.” In some churches, the words were being said rather than sung. There had been increased use, too, of a single cantor, and more instruments, and recorded music could also be used creatively.
An “unexpected silver lining” had been the international collaboration and participation that had resulted in a sharing with brothers and sisters worldwide, Canon McDougall said. “There is a sense of being part of a wider community of faith across the globe. We are united as one Church with one faith worshipping one Lord.”
The Revd Chris Thorpe, Vicar of Shifnal, Sheriffhales and Tong, in Lichfield diocese, has written liturgies for the whole of the Church’s year, and spoke of how to craft liturgies to connect with the wider community. Experience during the pandemic had shown that many people wanted to connect with something bigger, he said, and worship was a key tool for mission.
Churches should ask themselves, Were they reaching people? Were they talking about the things that mattered? Were they using the right language? What were the big issues in their communities? Where was God already at work? “Our job is to reconnect with all sorts of people,” Mr Thorpe said. “I often use a simple Songs-of-Praise structure that always begins with inviting a local group or business to help.
“The word ‘priest’ comes from pontifex, which means ‘bridge-builder’. We need to find a language that reassures in the face of fear, isolation, separation, and loneliness, and craft liturgies to respond. It is less about the 16th Sunday after Trinity [and more] about listening where people are engaged already. Creationtide in the midst of the climate emergency, for instance; what is God calling us to do?”
The Church’s calendar and its own liturgy could be a little elite, and religious language could be a barrier to entry, Mr Thorpe suggested. “Common Worship, while being in contemporary language, is very heavily doctrinal: it tries to say everything, every time.
“Sometimes, there are just too many words. Sometimes, people need more silence, more poetry. We need to test our language with people who were not part of the Church. Start with the language of the heart: loss, betrayal, loneliness, fear, poverty. Start with these, and allow the Bible to speak. I often use the Psalms because they are so raw, so honest.”
And language, he said, needed to “reflect insights beyond our own. How can we allow the language of science to inform our language? If we can listen to people first, involve them in crafting our worship, use the language of the heart, we may begin to connect again with the people in our communities.”
Dr Noël Tredinnick, formerly Director of Music at All Souls’, Langham Place, and David Price, the Organist and Master of the Choristers of Portsmouth Cathedral, considered creative solutions in playing music in worship under restrictions. Daily choral worship had resumed at Portsmouth, albeit “a rather strange hybrid at present”, Mr Price said. “Our choir is singing hymns to the congregation, which is entirely wrong in one sense, but it has made us re-engage with the texts as we communicate them.”
The great joy of music was that it built communities, and people had typically in their own homes been able to sing along in services online, Dr Tredinnick said. The Evangelical Church had a lot to offer in terms of its creativity, and the RSCM had always sat comfortably with the Evangelical tradition. “To sing hymns in public is a way of building the body of Christ. At the moment, it’s singing to us — you long to join in,” he said.
“It means that the specialists have had to sing, and we have had to internalise songs and hymns. Suddenly, those hymns have come under the microscope.” Marrying new texts to old tunes and to orchestral tunes — at Langham Place, the hymn-writer Christopher Idle had put the words of Psalm 24 to the tune of the “Trumpet Voluntary”, for example — enabled people to sing instantly because they had the tune.
There was “communion with God himself” in hymnsinging, he said later in a plenary. Music was “a God-given channel of emotional and cerebral intention, as I worship God directly”.
Mr Price said that he was very moved, knowing that as many people were virtually present as were physically present at the cathedral worship. “They sing in the privacy of their home, and are getting the physicality of singing. You can participate through someone else’s performance. But we also miss the tangible thing of joining our voices together. There is a gap in our lives, and there will be a gap at Christmas if we have not got through this by then.”
The Priest-in-Charge of Bickleigh Roborough and Shaugh Prior, in Exeter diocese, the Revd Simon Rundell, gained his MBA in digital theology just before the lockdown. In his presentation, “Pushing Pixels and Sacraments”, he spoke about creating digital rituals — which were not “merely a substantial copy of something real”.
In the mad scramble to go online, many churches had put aside the sacraments, which always involved interaction and were “a dialogue, an interaction between the soul and God. We need to embrace the sacramental in online expression of church life,” Fr Rundell said. “Flickering pixels can reach into the soul.”
In offering a full mass each Sunday, he was creating a sacred encounter. The Church was not yet fully immersed in digital space, he said. “A better kind of spiritual communion is needed. . . We are at present in a hybrid context of digital and analogue.”
The renewed use of formal Offices was an evangelistic tool, he suggested in the plenary session that ended the conference. “God is not limited by any of our actions. He is present both in the digital space and in the physical space.”
The question was asked how a meaningfully good Christmas might be made. “Consider having a quieter, more reflective feel to it,” Ms King suggested. “We all love singing the exciting carols in a full church, but we could perhaps use our resources to reflect a little more the quieter aspect.”
The hymns that punctuated the conference included “There is a hope that burns”, “Jesus calls us! — o’er the tumult”, and “We have a gospel to proclaim”, all recorded individually at home by the choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.