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COVID19 and the Church Online

Yesterday, I had the joy of leading a postgraduate seminar at Wesley House in Cambridge for the Postgrad Tutor there, Dr Andrew Stobart. When the students headed into breakout rooms in Zoom, Andrew and I began to discuss the new phenomenon of online expressions of church and the varying patterns what we had seen. The seminar was based on a lecture I wrote sometime ago published in Holiness Journal: Wesley's Digital Parish

I've been fairly involved in all this and especially in emphasising the need for community. But yesterday, Andrew challenged my insistence on online church as only doing community, admitting that while the present situation demanded the need to emphasise ongoing social connection, we need to ask where the element of public proclamation had gone! This has made me think and helped to focus some further thoughts I've been having about different forms of online expression.

I'm so pleased that church has gone online so well. You are all doing brilliantly. It has been fantastic to see the upsurge of supporting documentation from techies and church bodies and, well, everyone. Yesterday, I helped to publicise Nel's story - one Methodist minister's shift from rural to online ministry. We'll be publishing some further reflections on what it is like to be an online minister over the coming few days on the same site. We have begun to have some reflection pieces in the public media and I note my colleague Jonas Kurlberg has published a great piece today. I've also been asked to contribute to an ebook on The Social Distant Church and a media interviews are creeping into my diary.

But the new online church is so diverse. While the Archbishop beamed a traditional preaching service from Lambeth Palace, others created team celebrations from their churches, while still others performed a mass, a celebration of Holy Communion with themselves as the only one to eat the bread and drink the wine. Others are performing/sharing the daily offices online - across all the traditions. The famous Jesuit devotional app, Pray As You Go, has now developed Pray As You Stay. A kind of online routine for all us homeworkers to intersperse our day with a new quasi-monastic spirituality. There are community developed acts of worship with people filming sections in their own homes and someone editing these together. There are Zoom or Teams services/bible studies/group meetings where congregations all gather in a meeting and in the Gallery View you can see everyone! With such services you can switch the leadership of different parts of the service, and unmute everyone for the Grace! There are online masses - the celebration of the Lord's Supper by one person now in their home and there are even a few brave people now offering to celebration communion together with people online. The Methodist Church has released a new order for the Love Feast or Agape meal which Nel Shallow talked about in her post on this site yesterday.

Certainly, the fare is much richer than you might expect from Angela Tilby's rather unfair presentation in this week's Church Times.

Lots of people have worked really hard at creating good acts of worship, excellent acts of worship, the best acts of worship ever...

There are lots of ways to do online church and may many thousand flowers bloom!

These online services provide for the needs the existing church, offering solace and consolation for the Church in a time of great anxiety that happens to coincide with the season of Lent and the run up to the most important celebration in the Christian year, Easter.

But there is something else happening.

I've had a few tweets noting that more people are attending worship online than expected. In other words, a church of 20 went online and there were 70 viewers. Or a church of 300 manages 3000 views during the few days after the service. Now, it will take some time to work out whether such views are just brief visits or people staying for the whole thing. But also we don't know how many people there were per view. It might be that 70 views are made up of some single viewers, some couples, some families. So the 70 might be larger than 70!

What's happening? Well, society needs comfort as well as the church. People are afraid and anxious and perhaps they are visiting the online church to find that comfort. Perhaps Grace Davie was right that more people believe in the UK than attend church because they believe in a vicarious church - they are pleased that other people go to church but they just can't fit it into their busy lives or because they are simply too scared to step across the threshold. Now that the church has gone online, such people can come and say hello in an anonymous way, they can watch from their living rooms, they can partake in worship, they can see the mysteries without someone coming up with a cup of tea and a slice of quiche and asking them if they would like to take on the role of church treasurer!

So, Church, who's watching you and are you welcoming your visitors as well as your regulars?

If some of this is what is happening with the online church, then we may need to think again about what we are doing. While we have righty emphasised the need for community (see Douglas Estes post who wrote SimChurch back in 2008), it may be that given the mixed audience, we also need to take time for proclamation as well. In the Methodist tradition, services were often divided between church-focussed communion services in the morning and an evangelistic preaching service in the evening. The difference between community and proclamation was easy to see. But how about when we go online? Do we need opportunities for proclamation - preaching opportunities to get the Gospel message and ram it home? (Ooo-er...). Let's just hang on a moment.

Might it be that developing community is actually an even better form of proclamation.

As we are robbed of social connection, what better sign is there of the Gospel of Love than someone offering community to us: a voice of peace, a voice of blessing, a friendly face, eyes looking at and breaking through the Fourth Wall of the TV screen; someone weeping with us as we hear the death of a friend, and someone giving us time to lament and to share out common humanity. Indeed, even in the quiet observation of someone performing the mass, we can find a different world of silence and solace. Even in the performance of the mass, we see the theatre of God - the story of how Jesus gave himself for us, poured himself out for us. A God who does not berate us but consoles us. A God who calls us into community again and again because it is in community that we are truly human - the very opposite of social isolation.

What's happening in this new phenomenon of online Church is that the Church is continuing to proclaim a gospel of hope through inviting everyone to share together in community, to be the people God wants us to be, to give solace to a nation in fear and anxiety, to bring hope that after the Winter comes the warmth of the Spring, that after death comes life.


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