COVID-19 and what happens when Churches go Online

COVID-19 the pandemic commonly known as Coronavirus is affecting every area of our lives at the moment. To help slow the spread of infection governments across the world have started to ask citizens to self-isolate and have banned gatherings of groups larger than 10 people. This has, and will continue to have, a huge effect on the portions of society which require meeting in large groups: sports events, the hospitality and the service industry, music concerts and comedy gigs. Some industries have been able to pivot to an online system to continue providing services to their customers. It is likely, for example, that the only way restaurants will make any money in the coming months is by moving to a delivery business model. Worshipping communities have of course also been affected by the ban on groups meeting together. It is important that worshipping in large groups is stopped for the foreseeable future, until this pandemic has been brought under control, particularly given that two significant outbreaks (one in New York State, and the other in South Korea) happened because of infected people going to places of worship.

The Archbishops wrote a letter calling for Church of England churches to put public worship on hold and become a “different sort of church” in the coming months to face the challenge of coronavirus. This means that “Churches should be open where possible but with no public worship services taking place. Prayers can be said by clergy and ministers on behalf of everyone and churches should consider ways of sharing this with the wider community.” These include digital resources that the Church of England is making available. Since then I’ve seen a number of my colleagues using social media extensively to reach out to their existing communities: broadcasting Eucharist services and prayer meetings, sharing thoughts or reaching out to their parishes, offering to support the lonely and housebound. Last night my home group met together on Zoom, a video conferencing platform (which is where this photo comes from).

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For some Churches, this sort of digital engagement is not unusual, particularly large Churches and evangelical/charismatic Churches who have been broadcasting their preaching and worship online for years. Two months ago, if you were to stumble across a Church heavily using an online platform to broadcast its service you could confidently predict the type of Church and the format of content that you would see. That is no longer the case. Up until COVID-19 hit, it was extremely unusual for CofE churches to broadcast online, particularly small or medium size churches, and particularly Churches which prioritise the Eucharist or Mass. The rapid impact of the virus, the plethora of technologies available and the confident response of priests to use that technology for the sake of engagement with the public in uncertain times results in a unique set of circumstances. Suddenly a form of worship previously rarely seen on Instagram and Facebook Live is now being broadcast regularly.

I am glad this is happening. I’m excited that this might shake up ‘Church’ as we currently know it. I believe this virus can and will have a lasting impact on the way we ‘do’ Church, what it means to ‘be’ Church. I was motivated by the vision of the Church that the Archbishops called us to at this time. Particularly the statement that “This is a defining moment for the Church of England. Are we truly a church for all, or just the church for ourselves? We urge you, sisters and brothers, to become a different sort of church in these coming months: hopeful and rooted in the offering of prayer and praise and overflowing in service to the world.” But for now, I think it would be wise to consider the potential effect of the digitalisation of our services. And I should say that although so far in this article I have referenced a number of ways that the Church can engage in social media, from here on I’m going to focus on the Communion service.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a Canadian philosopher at the University of Toronto studying media theory. He predicted the World Wide Web 30 years before it happened and coined the term “global village”. Basically, the guy was smarter than Yoda and could see into the future better than Marty McFly! In his book the Laws of Media, McLuhan asks four questions which I think really helps us consider what happens when we celebrate the Eucharist online (we’ll get to the four questions in a moment).

McLuhan is trying to tease apart the relationship between the Message, the Medium and the Context. He said that “the Medium is the Message” meaning that whenever you say something, the way you say it (the medium you use to communicate the message) is as important as the message itself. Going one step further, every form of communication technology (the medium) necessarily operates through a particular context. Every message is communicated through a medium and in a particular context. Message, Medium and Context each play a role in effecting what is ultimately heard by the recipient.

  • Message; what we are trying to communicate
  • Medium; the way we are communicating the message
  • Context; the environment within which we communicate

You can think of it as concentric circles, the message is contained within a medium which is contained within a context.

Message, Medium, Context.png

When McLuhan states that “the medium is the message” he is telling us that when we communicate the message (for example) “Jesus loves you and gave his life for you” through the medium of giving and sharing a Eucharist meal, the medium communicates as much, if not more than the message itself. Contrast the Eucharistic meal and the street preacher who shouts at people as they walk past, both communication events have the same message “Jesus loves you and gave his life for you” but the medium is different and so what is heard by the recipient is different. The context is also different: a street corner verses a Church building, passers-by on their way to work versus a congregation who have read Scripture, confessed their sins and share the peace together.

So, having said all of that, I want to look at McLuhan’s four questions and reflect on what happens when we record and post our services online. My aim in doing this is that we will think carefully about what we both gain and lose in this process.

  • What does the medium enhance?

The medium of digital media enhances the reach of most Church of England Priests as they celebrate the Eucharist. A friend of mine said the Mass on Facebook Live and at the point of writing this blog she had 2,600 views, 65 shares and 90 comments (on the original video). This is an extraordinary enhancement of her average congregation size, and the response from members of her parish that wouldn’t ordinarily enter the Church has been extremely positive. My church here in New York has added a number of mid-week prayer services to increase connection with people who are otherwise stuck at home which are all shared through Facebook. Compline on Wednesday had 539 views and the Midday prayer on Thursday at 285 views. These stats indicate the reach that the Church has had; it’s also worth noting the that Compline had 41 comments and Midday prayer at 41 comments, the majority of those being prayer requests suggesting not just reach but genuine engagement.

This is perhaps a no-brainer, of course a communication and social connection technology like Facebook would enhance the capacity for communication of the Eucharist. I am glad that the Church has responded to this virus in positive and creative ways and has gained a new and exciting outreach opportunity. But all this leads us to the next question.

  • What does the medium make obsolete?

The Eucharist service ordinarily takes place in a particular context: Church building, wooden pews, people sitting near or next to you, a particular space and time. Context even includes the fresh air of a Sunday morning as you walk to church; all of the elements that we take for granted but form part of the embodied spatial experience of worship. The Eucharist service ordinarily requires a level of embodied behaviour: the physical touch of shaking hands during the peace, the smell and taste of bread and wine, the hearing and singing of hymns.

All of this context and embodiment is made obsolete by digital communication. Think of the video of the Mass and the people watching it at home I referenced earlier. The multi-sensory embodied contextual experience is reduced to sight (through a screen) and sound (through speakers). This disembodiment is a significant loss and although it feels familiar given how much of our life is currently spent online and in virtual spaces I don’t think we should underestimate its negative effect.

Can anything be done about this? Can we mitigate the worst of the effects of the nature of the medium we are currently using? Yes, I think so. Priests and Eucharistic Ministers should do everything they can to invite participation through the screens by which they are talking to their parishioners. Invite people to stand for the hymns, encourage people to have bread and wine in their apartments so that they can eat and drink the Eucharist rather than just watch you do it. This might feel weird at first, but it will be worth it in the long run. Parishioners who have to do Church this Sunday by watching a service on Facebook should close their eyes to pray like they would normally, bow, kneel, genuflect and stand as per usual and physically share the peace with the other people in their house. Activate participation throughout the service is vital and necessary, otherwise, I think the nature of the medium will inevitably reduce Communion from an embodied experience to a watched performance.

  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?

In pre-reformation Mediaeval Europe, it was not uncommon for the Laity to only receive Communion once a year at Easter. As Amy Burnett says in her article on The Social History of Communion and the Reformation of the Eucharist, “As a substitute for frequent sacramental communion, the laity were encouraged to communicate Spiritually… it became linked with ocular communion… a contemplative visual encounter.” (Past & Present, no. 211, 2011, pp. 77–119, p. 84) This means that rather than receiving communion most people in the Church would watch the Priest receive communion.

At first blush, it may seem a bit extreme to equate communion on Facebook Live with a return to Mediaeval Christendom but – bear with me here – I think the parallels are legitimate. The real danger of the digitization of the Eucharist is not the stripping away of the context and embodiment, but the increasing of the divide between Priest and Laity, between those who can take Communion and those who watch. I think it is a short step between “communicate Spiritually” and “communicate virtually”.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Churches that have been broadcasting worship services and preaching for decades. Despite their declared insistence on the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ it is in the Churches that regularly post their services online where the divide between leader and follower, preacher and listener, celebrity pastor and flock, anointed and needy, is most pronounced. As the Anglican Church moves towards digitalised and broadcast services for the first time in its history it must do everything it can to stem the natural effect of the medium it is currently having to use. What McLuhan would call “retrieving what had been obsolesced earlier”.

  • What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

The potential beauty of the online space is that everyone with a smartphone and internet access can share. The democratisation of the public square, the removal of barriers to entry for most people so they have a voice without needing permission from gatekeepers: this is the power of the internet. COVID-19 and the effective ban on traditional worship gatherings could lead to profound democratisation of the spiritual leadership of our churches in the months to come. As the Church necessarily moves online for the foreseeable future there are significant hurdles that will have to be overcome (outlined above) but there is also an incredible opportunity on offer.

Invite members of your congregation to lead prayers online, get as many people as possible to use this season of self-isolation to post their reflections on scripture, train and release as many lay eucharistic ministers as possible so that in the coming months house churches can receive Communion together without the risk of large gatherings in which infection can spread, hand over the login details to the Church Facebook page and invite members of the congregation to preach and lead wherever possible.

A quick note, McLuhan argues that these four Laws of media will take place simultaneously, not one after the other, so you can expect to see Enhancement (1), Obsolescence (2), Retrieval (3) and Reversal (4) taking place all at the same time in the coming weeks and months.

I think McLuhan can offer us a helpful framework for understanding and thinking through the impact that digital media will have on the Church in the coming months. Keep in mind we are only in the foothills of this climb, there are almost certainly months of this ahead. Careful thinking through the issues at hand is essential if we are to make the most of this opportunity and not fall into unnecessary pitfalls. I can’t wait to hear what you think…

1 Comment

  1. This is a really helpful reflection, thanks so much Jimmy! I will also use the four questions to reflect on preaching in the coming months.
    I think I would be ok with households using bread and wine/juice in front of them to activity participate in communion, although I think it’s ok and right to have the priest presiding, even if online.

    One thing I have noticed is the increased emphasis on ‘Church is the people not the building’ rhetoric, but then the priests still praying live from the church building! I understand the significance of being in a building that many cannot access physically at this time, but I hope to see a variety of people and places in online prayer as we move forward.

    As a city centre church in the UK we are hoping to have reflections and prayers from many members of the congregation and also maintain the link between congregation and ministry team through leasing prayers from our homes. I think many people are looking for wise leadership at this time and those in full time church ministry can step up to this appropriately.
    Great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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