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Cathedrals are adapting to a Netflix world

by
05 February 2021

But they have to navigate the challenges of enabling formation and community online, suggests Matthew Rushton

AS CATHEDRALS across the nation close their doors again for individual prayer or public worship, or both, they have opened their virtual great west doors instead.

That same spirit of innovation and outreach that brought us light shows, giant planetary models, golf courses, and helter-skelters (sometimes to mockery and outrage) would now bring us testing centres, vaccination hubs, and a plethora of online worship, prayer, and community.

Precentors had been discussing the inevitable rise of virtual congregations and live-streamed worship for years (it has come up in every one of the twice-yearly precentors’ conferences I have attended since 2013). Of course, many of the issues that we faced last year were not unique to cathedrals. But so much of what had been experienced and discussed in cathedral ministry became relevant to the situation in which we found ourselves.

Although officiating at a full choral service with multiple clergy, musicians, and staff in an empty building may seem odd in some contexts, it is exactly what cathedrals up and down the country do on the archetypal “rainy Tuesday evening in October”.

Congregations for midweek services have been increasing, but there has always been a counter-cultural aspect to the pattern of cathedral worship, rejecting the stringent deployment of resources in favour of the sheer abundance of glorifying God through daily choral worship, however many may or may not be present in the stalls. The earthly congregation may be sparse, but the congregation of saints and angels is boundless — and we are just adding in a camera (or three).

Similarly, the regular pattern of frequent online content needed to build up a following mirrors the liturgical ministry of cathedrals, which specifically emphasises the importance of public worship on occasions other than Sunday morning.

The huge numbers of views that can be racked up on Facebook and YouTube might justifiably be called into question as an accurate barometer of engagement. Does a three-second view really count as a genuine participation with an act of worship? Dipping into multiple live streams, watching recordings back later, and the arguably passive experience of merely “watching” liturgy is a cause for concern for some. But, for cathedrals, it is the very anonymity of the worshippers who can slip in and out on their own terms and in their own time which has contributed to the popularity of cathedral worship.

 

BUT there are challenges, and the prominence of cathedrals as centres of mission and worship raises the stakes in how those are thought through and turned into mission, pastoral, and evangelistic opportunities: how do we increase, in the language of online media, the “conversion rate”?

Resources, both human and financial, vary widely. Some are blessed with existing experience in AV (audiovisual) and IT; others have had to raise their skills rapidly. Given the nature of the buildings and the technical and reputational pressures for cathedrals, the “phone on a stand” did not pass muster for choral services.

Acquiring and mastering the equipment to produce a quality live stream comes at a cost, financial and temporal. My own stall at Rochester currently resembles the interior of a mini outside-broadcast van. The long-term sustainability of producing and operating something akin to a cable TV channel for every cathedral will need to be considered.

From the outset, there has been an awareness of the need to enable the formation of people online and to sustain communities who cannot meet in person but who wish to connect with others. Cathedrals have risen to this challenge, and there have been many fine examples of intentional formation alongside the offering of worship online: Durham’s Community of Prayer (seeking to provide support and resources for those who join partially or exclusively online) and Winchester’s regular post-service Zoom fellowship are just two excellent examples of sustained ministry.

At Winchester, the Precentor and Sacrist, Canon Andy Trenier, expects the cultural challenges to Christian discipleship fostered through cathedrals to be ongoing. He describes the need to avoid ministering to a “Netflix world with a Radio Times schedule”.

 

COMPETITIVENESS and envy, those all too Christian vices, are an ever present danger, as we try to keep up with what is happening at the (often more affluent, well-resourced, and tech-savvy) church down the road.

The boundlessness of the internet stretches ahead like a vast nave, and has allowed liturgical imaginations to run wild and free — for those with the budgets to match. But, given the disparity in resources available, sometimes doing our best has to be good enough.

As places of holy experiment, cathedrals are already well-placed to face these challenges. Have cathedrals caught up with the new normal, or has the new normal demonstrated the potential of what cathedrals already had to offer?

 

Canon Matthew Rushton is the Precentor of Rochester Cathedral.

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