“WE ARE gathered together. . .” CRASH! “Owww. . . Mum, he hit me. . .” “ . . in the presence of God. . .” “Just trying to turn it up. . .” “Brian, are the potatoes on?. . .” “PLEASE! CAN YOU ALL MUTE YOURSELVES!”
This type of exchange will be all too familiar to those of who have tried, in these locked-down times, to hold a church service on Zoom, the video-conferencing software. It is very useful for corporate meetings and conversations between small groups of friends, but it can induce anarchy when we try to use it for worship.
Why use Zoom? There are other options which churches have tried: streaming on Facebook Live, or recording videos and posting the them on YouTube. The difference with Zoom (other videoconferencing software is available, though not so widely used) is that it provides a real meeting: all the attendees are present in real time, and, if you’re late, you’ll miss it.
With Zoom, you cannot put the Vicar on pause while you go and make a cup of coffee. You are a participant: either intentionally: reading the lesson; or unintentionally: accidentally un-muting yourself during the sermon, so that everyone hears your children squabbling, instead of the preacher.
Most importantly, Zoom provides a virtual space in which a community can gather, see, and hear each other, and interact. At St Mary’s, Stoke Newington, in London, it is that sense of gathered community that we value, even if the price is a bit of disorder (after all, even in normal times, there is still the potential for unexpected occurrences in services).
It is important to remember what Zoom was designed for: slick corporate meetings and conferences, in which everyone is well-behaved and reasonably IT literate, and in which only one person speaks at a time. So, Zoom does not cope well with more than one person talking, and it certainly cannot handle congregational singing. The sound quality is very variable: OK for speech, but not good for music.
OUR first attempt at a Zoom service, on Passion Sunday, was chaotic. The number of people who managed to connect was impressive, but many had rudimentary computer skills and clearly could not find the “mute” button.
Our Rector, trying to lead the service from her laptop in her sitting room, made several pleas for everyone to mute themselves, with limited success. So, there were frequent interruptions, most notably during the Gospel, when Maureen (names have been changed to protect the innocent) could be heard asking her husband to start putting the vegetables on for lunch.
A hymn started well: Michael, our director of music, has a flat with a beautiful sea view (yes, Stoke Newington is not on the coast, but one of the advantages of online worship is that people can attend wherever they are quarantined). We were captivated by him playing the piano and singing, until one of the less musically talented members of the congregation got loud enough to take over the sound channel, in a not-quite-so-melodious way.
One of the key lessons that we learned from that experience was this: the person who leads the service should not be the Zoom “Meeting Host”. In fact, “Meeting Host” is a bit of a misnomer, which confuses things: a better term would be “Meeting Controller”. But, for our services, I prefer the title “Zoom Verger”.
The Zoom Verger is effectively running the sound desk, lighting, and projector all at the same time, and occasionally acting as sidesperson. Therefore, they should not be doing anything else. The Zoom Verger should preferably be sitting at a desk, with a computer with a robust internet connection, and with a printout of the order of service next to them. The ideal setup has two screens — I plug a second monitor into my laptop — for reasons that will be explained later.
A note on security. There have been reports of Zoom church services being invaded by unwelcome outsiders, disrupting worship, and putting obscene images on everyone’s screens.
You should not put the details of your Zoom meeting on the church website. We send the link round to everyone on the church email list, and the message is sent on to friends and neighbours. So far, we have not had any disruption.
It is possible to set a meeting password, but that might make things more difficult for the less IT-savvy members of the congregation. We don’t use the Zoom “Waiting Room” feature, as it’s not always possible to check who is trying to get in anyway. However, as Zoom Verger (i.e. Meeting Host), you have the power, if necessary, to remove people from the meeting. It is possible to allow only the Meeting Host to “screen share”, and you should use this option (under the “Security” button on the Zoom window).
ONE of the Zoom Verger’s prime responsibilities is to control the sound. You have the power to mute everyone, and we do that at the beginning of the service. Subsequently, we un-mute only the people who are contributing to the service, except at specific times, when we unleash the joyful bedlam of everyone talking at the same time: at the Peace and at the end of the service. When you un-mute everyone, watch out for households where there are two connected devices in the same room, which can cause a loud feedback squeal until one or both are muted.
As Zoom Verger, you should bring up the list of meeting participants; this is one of your most important tools. This list behaves in an odd way: it usually lists everyone alphabetically, but then promotes the current speaker, and others who are not muted, to the top of the list. You can use this list to un-mute and mute speakers, so that only they are heard.
If you have a lot of people at your service, the list may be long; you can use the search box at the top of the list to find the person you need to un-mute next. This may be tricky: Brian Chivers, due to lead the prayers, might be using his wife’s device, so he may appear on the list of participants as “Maureen Pemberton”, or even “Mum’s iPad”. The alert Zoom Verger will have checked the order of service and noted contributors’ Zoom names as they arrive. Advanced Zoom Vergers might also use the Spotlight Video feature to focus everyone’s video feed on the current speaker. Don’t forget to cancel the Spotlight, or they will find themselves, awkwardly, the centre of attention long after their contribution is complete.
As already noted, Zoom does not handle music well. In practice, only one person can make music for everyone else. We are fortunate that Michael can play the piano and sing to lead hymns, while everyone else is muted. There are ways of bringing others in: our musicians have sent each other recordings, and then one sings or plays along with the recording of others.
A rehearsal can be very useful, if you can get your readers and musicians to meet up online on Saturday afternoon. Besides giving you all a chance to practise using Zoom, it is also an opportunity to discover other things — for example, that Barbara’s soprano is so powerful that she has to stand on the other side of the room, to avoid overloading her laptop’s microphone.
We use the “screen sharing” feature of Zoom to put up the words of hymns, and other words that the congregation need to join in with. To do this, I assemble a set of PowerPoint slides, and have the presentation running on my second monitor (this is where two screens are useful). When we need the words displayed, I share the second screen, so that everyone can see the slides. There is some scope for creativity here: for each service, we have a picture reflecting the theme of the service on each slide. On Maundy Thursday, we used a Tenebrae theme of candles on a dark background, which were extinguished, in turn, as the service progressed.
When screen sharing, it is also possible for the Zoom Verger to share his or her computer sound (there’s a check-box in the bottom left corner of the screen sharing dialog). We have used this feature to play recordings of our own musicians, which had been prepared in advance. On Easter Sunday, Michael, playing and singing alone, didn’t seem big enough for “Thine Be the Glory”; so, we played a recording of a large choir and organ, for everyone to join in with. In a corner of my screen, I keep a music player with a playlist of music cued up.
Although Zoom doesn’t handle sound well, it does enable people to see each other, and to see each other’s actions. So, where we cannot share sound, we can share actions: at the Peace, we greet each other with the namaste greeting, and we join in the Lord’s Prayer with open, raised hands. Action songs are an obvious thing to try, but we haven’t ventured there yet.
Give some thought to how you start and end your services. We start our Zoom meeting half an hour before the service starts. If people connect during that time, they see a slide which says “Welcome to St Mary’s. Our service will start at 11am”, and some reflective music plays. At the end of the service, we un-mute everyone, so that all can greet each other. People start to leave after a while, and we put up a slide which says “The service has finished. See you next Sunday at 11am”, before actually ending the Zoom meeting.
OUR Zoom services have had some unexpected results. We are putting names to faces that we weren’t sure about before (except, of course, when their Zoom name is “Mum’s iPad”). People have been joining us from afar. Former parishioners who have moved away, but are still on the email list, have connected. My mum, who in normal times often comes up to Stoke Newington for weekends, checks in from her home in Winchester.
We are getting better at Zoom services, but there are still hiccups: awkward pauses, the wrong person un-muted, contributions missed because speakers are still on mute. A sense of humour is vital.
When it goes well, it can feel as if we are discovering a shared quarantine spirituality. Clare, a member of the congregation, commented: “Seeing the Rector lead the service from her living room, with her family, is really powerful. It reinforces the spirit of us all being a community in lockdown together. If it were led and filmed from the church building, much as I value our buildings, a lot of the spirituality would be lost.”
We have come to value seeing each other more, and realise how important our community is to us. Our faith community will be strengthened by coming through this experience together.
As with so many other aspects of life at present, we can only speculate where this will leave us when things return to normal. In the meantime, Zoom is enabling us to hold on to our sense of being a gathered community that regularly meets for worship — however haphazardly.
Jonathan Gebbie (email@example.com) is a Licensed Lay Minister — and Trainee Zoom Verger — at St Mary’s Stoke Newington, in London. The Rector, the Revd Revd Dilly Baker, and Clare Lissaman contributed to this article.