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Angela Tilby: Live-stream is good, but. . .

27 March 2020


The Pioneer Minister at Freedom Church, on the Mereside Estate in Blackpool, the Revd Linda Tomkinson, leads a service from her living room, livestreamed through Facebook

The Pioneer Minister at Freedom Church, on the Mereside Estate in Blackpool, the Revd Linda Tomkinson, leads a service from her living ro...

WITH public worship banned, there were many attempts last weekend at live-streaming worship from churches. The experiment has clearly been appreciated.

How the service was done depended largely on churchmanship. At Portsmouth Cathedral, we had a Mothering Sunday eucharist contained in the stark simplicity of a single wide-angle shot, with the president behind the altar, the organ supporting four invisible voices, a sermon from the lectern, and prayers written by children, which were read by one of the priests. Towards the end, the Dean actually said: “We miss you.” No pretences here, just the reality of hope-in-desolation — which is, surely, where we ought to be now.

The main problem is that many of those who might most appreciate online worship are those who don’t have the tech skills to enjoy it. And there is a danger, especially with face-to-face apps, that “the Church” becomes reduced to the online group, with less and less concern for the Church in its representative function. Clergy should be using the old fashioned telephone to keep in touch.

Live streaming is a poor substitute for the real thing, which, I think, is exactly what it should be. It worries me when people talk it up as an exciting new mission activity. Of course, there have always been clergy who like the idea of being in people’s homes without actually having to visit them. I met some of them when I was involved in broadcast worship for the BBC, and I would guess that they are more numerous these days as worship styles increasingly mimic media and mould their content to generate reaction from their audiences.

Mostly, I am sorry that there has been little attention paid to what it means to worship without the sacraments. This is not a problem for those for whom sacraments are optional, but, for those of us who take the physicality of the body of Christ seriously, it is a loss that we were not prepared for. Live streaming is not “complete”, any more than being without the sacraments is complete. It is a celebration of presence in absence. There needs to be space to acknowledge those who cannot be present, and why they cannot be present.

The best example of a live-streamed service that I have seen was from Italy, where a fully vested priest was shown saying mass in a huge empty space. For me, this was iconic. Not only were the congregation visibly absent: the priest shared their absence by saying mass on his own.

Meanwhile, I owe to the Precentor of Christ Church, Oxford, Canon Grant Bayliss, a reminder that the Church of England recognises the reality of spiritual communion when it is impossible to take the sacrament by mouth. It’s all there in the BCP, at the end of the service for the Communion of the Sick.

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