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Virtual worship in a time of pandemic

18 April 2020

The widespread streaming of Anglican liturgy for the first time has coincided with Holy Week and Easter. Gillean Craig casts a critical but sympathetic eye over the results

Youtube/St James the Greater, Leicester

The scattered choir of St James the Greater, Leicester, sing over Zoom, during a virtual Easter Day choral evensong

The scattered choir of St James the Greater, Leicester, sing over Zoom, during a virtual Easter Day choral evensong

WE ARE locked out of our churches and forbidden to gather together — and yet, paradoxically, the nation has never been more awash with Christian worship. Confined to their parsonages, clergy have spent the past few weeks either (a) delighted that, finally, the time has come for their geekish enthusiasm for all things IT to be celebrated as the desperate situation demands; or else (b) feverishly attempting to learn skills and techniques that they have hitherto disdained.

Let us put to one side the sad truth that, for some priests, having an excuse to spend all day in their studies devising services and being forbidden to go out and visit anyone is the ministry that they have always dreamed of. Everywhere, acts of worship are streaming live from vicarage studies and gardens, or being lovingly stitched together from myriad contributions of housebound choristers, Readers, and intercessors.

In Holy Week, especially, the liturgical heart of the Christian year was available in a wide range of styles and traditions, presented across the spectrum from professional technical expertise to homely amateurism. The fullest journey through Lent and from Passiontide to resurrection was suddenly available to everyone — even if, in normal circumstances, our congregation is a handful of elderly faithful, we have no choir or organist, and the vicar refuses to countenance anything that his grandfather would have found unfamiliar. I have cast my TV reviewer’s eye over the tiniest proportion of these offerings: I apologise for, no doubt, missing out your favourites (i.e. the ones you produced).

The crisis has brought together groups whose combined productions have been so rich and imaginative that they will surely continue once the crisis subsides. Rumours Of Hope is a “grassroots collective drawn from across the Church of England” which put together a marvellous all-night vigil for Easter Eve: a fantastic range of styles and contributors, images, music, poetry, theology, and reflection (News, 3 April).

This was not an esoteric treat for aficionados: its broad artistic creativity was earthed in Christian service and international concern for the poor and marginalised. Cathedrals have fulfilled their calling as our mother churches and centres of liturgical excellence, drawing on their concentration of skills and resources. Our own Canterbury Cathedral has drawn viewers from far beyond east Kent to share its remarkable Holy Week sequence of worship, reflections, and devotions — and managed to enlist, as Easter Day lesson-readers, Joanna Lumley and the Prince of Wales (although I wonder how long Dean Willis wrestled with HRH trying fruitlessly to persuade him to read a modern translation rather than the Authorised Version?).

Some of our London churches have professional resources hardly inferior to those of cathedrals, especially delighting those who cherish the unrivalled Western tradition of church music. St Bride’s, Fleet Street, drew on its backlist to create a rich audio banquet — and is, I understand, paying its musicians as though they were performing live (note that fee-paid church musicians are one of the groups whose income has suddenly vanished (News, 9 April)).

St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, had, before the lockdown, already commissioned a series of films showing the liturgy in all its fullness; All Saints’, Margaret Street, exploited, I’m delighted to report, its indivisible church and residential community’s status as a single household to produce pared-down but complete liturgies. St Mary Abbots, Kensington, offered a wall-to-wall Holy Week experience, creatively reimagined, including a fully sung Good Friday Passion Gospel, children’s Passion play, and a powerful Easter Day dawn vigil from the vicarage garden.

It’s not just London-based churches that impress: St James the Greater, Leicester, to pick one example at random, mixed its scattered choir to produce a full Easter Day choral evensong. And the RSCM is encouraging and inspiring church music everywhere, its own worship drawing on a marvellous range of choirs from all ages and backgrounds.

I realise that that I have focused mainly on traditional and Catholic expressions: those drawn to, for example, Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the Charismatic sector will have been downloading streamed and recorded services for years; so none of this is news to them. I am the one who has come late to the feast.


WHAT principles and hints can I glean from all this viewing — and, indeed, from my own poor attempts in this area?

First, think hard about what subliminal message you wish to convey. A wide range is entirely legitimate, but needs to be thought through and deliberate. Seamless and professional can be very powerful — but not if it falls to bits halfway though. For some of us, homely and informal is more effective, working to our strengths and speaking directly to our community.

What does the setting, the background, convey? The impressive Greek tomes of the vicarage bookcase speak volumes (ho ho) about our learning and scholarship, but could reinforce the suspicion that our values are entirely different from those of our congregations. Do we want to show how down-to-earth, ordinary, we are in jeans and (I believe it’s called) T-shirt, or are our people entirely comfortable with seeing us less personally and more objectively in our usual cassock and collar?

Our houses and gardens might, to some, suggest off-putting sophistication and privilege. Many Good Friday reflections were presented, beautifully, in blossom-filled gardens. They might have communicated even more powerfully (if only the lockdown had permitted) delivered from the local landfill site: remember how effective the Songs of Praise broadcast was from the Calais refugees’ encampment.

I particularly relished the addresses by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd Robert Willis, when they were accompanied not just by birdsong that was making more noise than he was, but by loud traffic noise and emergency sirens from the ring road just behind the medieval wall of this garden. This was rooted in the “real world”.

Check that there is nothing unfortunate on the shelves or wall behind. The vulgar postcard from Father Cedric does not help your message. The camera is entirely unforgiving, and gives equal prominence to what you want people to see and what you hadn’t noticed, such as the telegraph pole sticking out of your beloved’s head in all those holiday photos.

And it’s not just the background or setting; who takes part sends a powerful signal. I was moved by the videos from households where young children and students who had been forced home from college participated. Homes where both partners are ordained, or are professional musicians, artists, or actors, have extra resources to draw on.

Second, work hard at the technicalities. The lens of the recording camera should be at eye level or higher, as looking up our nostrils inspires no one to worship or pray. Where do you place the text that you are reading? It should be as close to the camera as possible so that you are not constantly looking down or away (please forgive me, Archbishop).

I had not realised how much I depend on the live congregation, however few they may be. The camera’s cold, unresponsive eye is not conducive to our branch of showbiz, and, with no guffaw of merriment to greet our cheap gags, a new self-contained technique needs to be learned. Posture is important. Most of us normally lead worship standing up: this is elastic, alert, dynamic. Sitting in a chair works well if you are wanting to give a cosy chat — but are you?

If you are celebrating the eucharist, remember that altars are higher than domestic tables. The chalice, paten, and text will be far lower down than you expect, and manual acts need some rethinking. To be included in shot means that the camera will take in a surprisingly large field to each side and above you; so, unless you want to spend time on post-production editing, and can crop the picture, this needs careful preparation.

Remember that what is out of shot is absolutely out of shot. Film and TV sets are surprisingly tacked together with makeshift substructures; so there is no reason that you cannot have as many piles of books, stacked coffee tables, etc., to get everything to the right height.

Third, unless your target audience is confined to the people who normally join you in worship, explain what is going on. I was surprised that many of the videos of complete Holy Week liturgies did not signal or explain the reason for, and meaning of, what will be for many viewers entirely unfamiliar actions and practices.

Remember how shocked and amazed our religiously illiterate media were when the Archbishop of Canterbury washed feet on Maundy Thursday? Simple and unembarrassed explanations of what we are about to do need not halt the flow of the service, and I always found that whenever I conducted a teaching eucharist for visiting schoolchildren it was our long-time congregants who always, afterwards, told me that they had never previously understand why we did this or that section of the service.

I am sure that many technically proficient contributors would be able to give infinitely more professional advice than these comments; but, sometimes, it is valuable to hear from someone who is learning from a baseline of zero.

What will all this radically new activity, these entirely different clergy and lay skills and practices, add up to? When life returns to whatever will be the new normal, I can foresee one of three effects: we might have found so much greater depth in unfamiliar traditions and the collaborative experience of putting together our online services that, from now on, our Sundays will be deeper, broader, and more nourishing; or we might find that far more people have discovered online the inspiration and challenge offered by Christian worship, and flood our churches with new faces; or we might, alas, find that sitting snugly at home staring at a screen, cup of coffee or glass of sherry at hand, is so much more comfortable that no one ever goes to church again.

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