FOR well over a year, clergy and laypeople have triumphantly and courageously kept churches in this land open and accessible for worship, while the buildings have been closed or seriously restricted. The opportunities to harness imagination and technology to enable online worship for those at home to share in have been amply realised — and this facility will, I hope, continue to be available (though not at the expense of “real” visits by “real” people).
There are warning signals being given, however, that a “new church” is emerging that will principally be this “virtual experience” through live-streaming on social-media platforms. Without wishing to sound like a Luddite, I suggest that this would be more than unfortunate; for it would mean the abandonment of the heart, experience, and meaning of worship — and the Church as God’s gathered people.
Worship is drama, but it is neither theatre nor cinema per se. It is an encounter in which something happens; it draws us in and takes us where we alone cannot go — into the heart of God, the epicentre of our being and our salvation. This is an experience realised by the Holy Spirit, which is transformative and beyond human control and manipulation. In an age wedded to entertainment, self-promotion, and the consolation of technology, the Christian gospel lies beyond the drama of the theatre and cinema, while also being found in it.
MERELY watching is not worship. The relationship of the observer to an event and other people is quite different from engagement and presence. At best, online worship involves people at a certain but incomplete level, and it is obviously a platform for teaching and exchange. In the cathedral in which I served, large services would have to utilise the great spaces divided by a stone screen topped by a very large organ. The separation, though physical, often felt much more in terms of distance, involvement, and participation.
Then there is the question of the “fourth wall”: the invisible divide between stage and audience (and the very physical presence of the screen in the cinema). At times, in church worship, the fourth wall seems to exist, in part, so that congregations are mainly passive and merely spectators before a stage with players — ministers, choirs, etc.
At the heart of worship, though, lies encounter — communion, union, unity, and atonement — and this, of necessity, sees the rending of the veil, the breaking of the fourth wall. It is the surrender of the heart and mind in the midst of God’s gathered people. It is here that humankind encounters the divine presence of God, the glory of the “shekinah”, in a visceral and all-consuming way.
To convince the sceptical of the uniqueness and reality of this “holy communion”, perhaps a slight parallel runs in football, where people have to play the game on a pitch with a real ball and a real goal, even if millions will watch a match in the stands and online. In Christian worship, there are no spectators. Similarly, you can watch a meal being prepared and eaten (online), but you miss out on not only the delights of smell and taste, but, more importantly, on the important and essential benefits of nutrition.
This sacramental dimension is present, too, in the power and presence of the living Word: my upbringing was in the Kirk, where the Bible would be processed in and placed in the pulpit. This was more than theatre alone: it was God coming among us to feed and teach us in the rite where the Word would be broken, read, praised, taught, sung, and prayed, and we would each and all be changed by its energy and power in our physical gathering, and so be blessed by God and be sent out.
LITURGY, therefore, is the divine drama where the fourth wall is broken, and we all become the players in God’s salvation drama. It works on so many levels, but, in essence, we enter “holy time and space”, where human power and distance dissolve.
The eucharist is an even more intimate meeting place, where altar and table open us to the sacrifice and meal where we are changed and commissioned, fed physically, intellectually, and spiritually, that we might be restored to live in the risen life of the crucified Christ in the world to which we return.
Worship is unique in uniting immanence and transcendence: God is with us, among us, and in us, and yet takes us out of ourselves, beyond our self-awareness into the realms of heaven itself. As Charles Wesley wrote in one of his great hymns: “Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise!”
As in heaven, so in this life in worship: we have to lose ourselves and enter beyond the veil. There can be nothing virtual in that.
The Revd Neil Thompson is a retired priest living in the diocese of Rochester, and a former Canon Precentor of Rochester Cathedral.