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My worship alongside a sexified fox

by
20 May 2022

Churches are toying with virtual-reality worship. Fergus Butler-Gallie tries it

YouTube

DJ Soto explains baptism to two avatars in a 2019 clip that has received nearly 1.3 million views

DJ Soto explains baptism to two avatars in a 2019 clip that has received nearly 1.3 million views

DURING one of my more pious episodes whilst a student, I decided to spend Holy Week and Easter at St Barnabas’s — the Ritualist hotbed at the heart of the Oxford neighbourhood of Jericho. I was enthralled by the complexity of it all, the strangeness, the deliberately arcane and confusing nature of what was going on.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but the distance, the alienation was more compelling to me, from a non-Church background, than the ministry of smothering which I had experienced elsewhere. Complexity, then, is hardwired into my religious DNA. I do not fear it.

Nothing, however, in that deliberately Byzantine week of liturgy back in Oxford could have prepared me for the complexities of virtual-reality church.

Virtual reality (VR) is a broad term for a whole variety of digital experiences that give the wearer of a specially designed headset the sense of being “inside” another world. This can vary from 360º immersive videos to spaces where avatars of the wearer wander around and interact with other digital characters.

It is a technology still very much in its early stages, but, already, like missionaries of yore, Christians across the world are bringing worship to these virtual pastures (News, 11 February).

Now, I remain vaguely perplexed about why I was thought to be the Church Times contributor best suited to grapple with the world of VR. I have to confess that my relationship with technology is such that it is not the most obvious pairing.

It would be a little like asking the Bishop of Ebbsfleet to cover New Wine, or getting the Bishop of Maidstone to report from the Brighton Pride Parade. Still, I soldiered on, procured a headset from a kind friend, who was decent enough to only express mild bemusement at my task, and set out to enter the world of virtual-reality worship.

 

FIRST, I had to create the digital universe that I was set to inhabit for the next couple of hours. This consisted of drawing a sort of cage round myself. There’s a sermon there, somewhere. I chose an area by the kitchen bins. Probably a sermon in that, too.

My initial parameters set, I found my surroundings transformed. I was in the digital lobby, which purported to be a dome-like structure on a hillside, filled with virtual brown furniture with a vague 1970s vibe. Imagine if a someone had set up a diocesan retreat house in the lair of a Bond villain.

This was all well and good, but, to go from here to the world of virtual church, I needed to connect the headset to some internet. The process took about 20 minutes — which is about as long as the longest sermon I’ve ever preached. I elected for the old tried-and-tested response: I switched off and on again.

As my virtual world re-animated, a notice popped up in front of my plane of vision which solved my problem: apparently, the controllers were of no use whatsoever. They merely detected motion in my hands, and all I needed to do to select, or type, or otherwise engage was to press together my forefinger and thumb.

The first rule of every church service — read the rubrics on the service sheet — applied here, too, it seemed. I practised the strange pinching motion, which made me look like something between a myopic radio tuner and a very small crab, and, after a few goes, I was in.

I did some brief Googling, and the first service I chose to attend was one of the most popular of the VR offerings online. The Church on the Rock is an American gathering in the megachurch tradition which got in on the virtual-reality game a while ago.

I found myself standing in an enormous atrium being greeted by two vast, pixeleated smiles that belong to the “welcome pastors”. They were eventually replaced by a band who did a quick (well, 20 minutes or so) round of worship songs.

YouTubePastor David Blunt preaches at the Church on the Rock

There didn’t seem to be any other congregants in the cavernous space; so it was all for the benefit of me and the angels, I suppose. Everything was, strangely, quite low-resolution. I don’t think anyone would have believed that they were “actually there” — unless everybody at the Church on the Rock is genuinely made of two to three pixeleated cubes.

I took advantage of the ability to skip ahead on some of the band’s chorus repeats, an advantage that VR has over physical church. I achieved this by stepping back towards the bins and thus reasserting control over the cursor.

When I returned to my cage, the band had been replaced by a man who looked like Father Christmas talking about Psalm 139. It was a broad-ranging sermon, and I enjoyed the shout out to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: it’s rare that an English-speaking sermon these days references the urtext of Whig history.

 

PERHAPS spurred by this, I chose to keep the ecumenical theme going and drop in on Rome. I found a virtual-reality Pentecost service from the Pantheon, no less.

The tradition is for rose petals to be dropped from the big hole in the roof, which, contra most holes in church roofs I have known, I am assured is supposed to be there. This felt a little less immersive than the Church on the Rock — as if I was merely inside a pre-recorded video rather than a special VR service.

Indeed, it didn’t even really present itself as a service, instead jumping about from spot to spot with a monotonous commentary about what was going on, instead of any discernible liturgy.

Unfortunately, the camera angles were a bit wonky, swaying either over the heads of the congregation or underneath their feet. I switched over when, during one of the latter phases, I was privy to the accidental upskirting of a cardinal.

I decided that perhaps I ought to embrace the awkward angularity of it all and head to the land of Zuckerberg and Clegg. Church is big business in the metaverse, the digital space where avatars wander free.

The one that I joined had a sermon on Isaiah 43 given by a crisp and clean-suited humanoid. So far, so predictable. As is so often the case, however, the inhabitants of the pews did not reflect the shiny characters on stage.

Alongside me stood an alien with an engorged head, a sort of sexified fox; a multi-coloured cuboid, which could have been a robot, but might equally have been an animated chest of drawers; and an Egyptian mummy. Perhaps Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 19, that the Egyptians shall make sacrifice and oblation unto the Lord, was coming true before my eyes.

YouTubeSparse congregation in another VR church online

There was, it seemed, supposed to be another leader — one Pastor Lena — but the suit announced that she had suffered a technical glitch. He then reminded the mummy, the fox, the alien, and the chest of drawers to keep their microphones switched off to prevent interference. Those golden days of Zoom flashed before my eyes, and I logged out.

 

FOR my final church trip, there was only one place to go: home. That’s right, even the dear old Church of England has dipped its toe into the VR puddle (News, 12 November 2021). I was transported to a Wren church for a service “of the light”.

Awkwardly, my bin cage placed me far too close to the action, meaning that I was wedged between the officiant and the choristers, making me feel a bit like one of those people who rush up and try to interrupt episcopal consecrations.

The awkward cadences of Common Worship resounded. Some responses appeared on the wall; things had all got a bit Daniel 5. I was about to log out, then the choir struck up the Stainer hymn “Hail, Gladdening Light”.

And I recalled another church in the Oxford benefice with St Barnabas’s — older, smaller, isolated in a little patch of green by the railway station and the ring road. This was St Thomas’s. I used to go there, too, for a vigil mass some Saturday evenings.

As the small congregation made their way up to the altar to receive, they would sing that same Stainer setting of “Hail, gladdening Light”. Quietly, falteringly at times, but still they — we — hymned the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I wasn’t in the Bond lair, or the Wren church, or by the bins, but back there, and at one with the humbler and more awestruck faith that I had then. It was a strange flashback, but made me deeply thankful for that place and the sense of God’s love which I had felt there.

VR church may well have a future, but, if my foray is anything to go by, it will not be by replacing those physical places where we have known and loved God — unless, by evoking memories of them, VR casts us into that place between space and time where we are known and loved as well.

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