While we’ve been gone…the e-church

Liturgy on TV, radio or through other electronic means is not a new thing. Beginning in the 1950s with the first televised liturgy from Westminster Abbey (the Coronation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II in 1953), and the first televised mass in the Archdiocese of Boston (the beginnings of CatholicTV in 1955), countless sacramental liturgical events have been broadcast and shared around the world. The beginnings of this brave new world were both applauded and critiqued by notable voices, including many who felt that such public access to the visual and aural dimensions of liturgy was devaluing the mysteries of the church as well as posing “a danger to ritual authenticity” (Johannes Metz, Umberto Eco, and others).

We’ve come a long way since then, televised to livestreamed liturgies have provided huge comfort to those unable to join in their parish liturgy from hospitals and care homes to shut-ins in their own homes. All this was in addition to the majority of Christians who celebrated the liturgies of the church gathered together in one place, and before the pandemic drove parish churches to lock the doors and deliver ‘normative’ liturgy, community, pastoral care, bible study, meetings, and even the dreaded coffee hour online. But long before this momentous change, the electronic to digital realities were being analyzed from both religious and corporate perspectives. Buried in the massive numbers of books, interviews, webinars, journals, and blogs is a recurring theme countering the seemingly limitless possibilities of cyberspace – what is this doing to us – human beings ‘built’ to be social beings, and Christians of the sacramental variety, for whom the incarnation is central, and ‘matter matters’ as the means of our salvation?

From time to time, someone will point out that most of the founders and CEOs of major internet companies (Google and others) have responded to interviews or freely volunteered that they strictly limit their own children’s time on the internet or engagement with any screens. From Steve Jobs (2014) who forbade any digital devices at the dinner table to Susan Wojcick (2019) “I take away all my kids’ phones on vacations…because I want people to interact with each other,” these leaders at the heart of the digital explosion know the need to limit the increasingly addictive lure of the screen. Echoing the WHO advice to limit children under the age of five to one hour a day, it seems those who know know there is a shadow side to the plethora of positives associated with the world wide web.

In spite of all this, the installation of large screens (often in small churches with clear sight lines to the altar) continued. In the one place with no reason to add to the growing concerns about too much screen time, screens were set up with texts (no music – just words) of songs and scripture readings, and even more inexplicably, lovely nature photos distracting the assembly while the presider stood at the altar leading the community in the great thanksgiving of the church. When quizzed “why?”, many parishioners – having apparently never met any millennials – said it was very popular and would draw young people to their church. This is a trend that needs to be seriously analyzed and challenged – BUT – in the meantime, 2020 happened. Now students spend hours on zoom ‘going’ to school, countless adults spend their days in zoom meetings, and Netflix has become the salvation of the isolated. With very little warning, parish priests needed to become tech experts, attempting at least Morning Prayer on Zoom, if not the Sunday eucharistic liturgy on Facebook. The issue of screens in the chancel has taken a back seat to much more urgent questions.

It seems years ago now, but do you remember the haunting broadcast of Pope Francis (a Lenten Friday, 27 March) from a dark, deserted, rainy piazza in front of St. Peter’s, an urbi et orbi prayer for the end of the Coronavirus pandemic? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the engaging and differently comforting daily broadcasts of the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, offering brief prayers each morning in his garden, surrounded by his menagerie of pets (including his now famous cat, who proceeded to drink from the tea set pitcher of cream behind the Dean during the entire prayer). So many occasions of prayer during lockdown have engaged us via Youtube or other platform, allowing us to enter into something we would otherwise have missed, and been poorer without.

It is good to remember the good, the helpful, the engaging, and the prayerful. But as the world hopefully emerges from this pandemic in 2021, the issue of what virtual reality is doing to us needs to remain in the conversations and wisdom of the church (and not just in the conversations of the “experts”, but at the diocesan and parochial levels). There is much good writing and reflection out there – but two issues in particular seem increasingly urgent. The first is what many students of cyberia note as the tendency of online liturgical experiences to disregard or downplay the essential nature of the material and embodied qualities of sacramental reality. Matthew Tan summarizes the work of a number of scholars in writing how “cyberspace repeats many threads of the old heresy of Gnosticism.” (“Sarah Coakley and the Prayers of the Digital Body of Christ”). The mundane, the ordinary, the corporeal are not desirable as hope rises for creating new and improved human beings, as many working in digital worlds increasingly see the body (and presence, location, in-person engagement) as undesirable and limiting, what Ed Regis calls the desire to “implement the human being in alternative hardware.” How is this filtering into the actual preference of many parishioners for the ease and anonymity of Sunday mornings from their living room? How is the necessity of listening to one another, breathing and pacing with those around us, negotiating the re-establishment of the “we” of the body of Christ factoring in online? The second issue is the mutually reinforcing dynamics of cyberspace and consumer culture. We consume the internet, and commodification is a threat to liturgy and ecclesiology in that it stresses social fragmentation and the fracturing of identity. Tan again writes that this stress on the autonomy of individuals is incompatible “with the body of Christ” particularly because its glorification of “the fragmentation of all bodies, biological and social” works as a type of “anti-sacramentality” re-enforcing the rampant individuality with which we already wrestled prior to 2020.

We have found a temporary solution to one problem in this horrific year – but where will it lead us, and how will the virtual reality reshape liturgy in the years to come?

9 comments

  1. So many good thoughts and concepts here. Thanks for the article.

    Just based comments from parishioners who “shop around” for the “best live stream Mass”, I fear that the commodification of the liturgy has already taken hold to a degree that extracting ourselves from it will be extremely difficult. If individuals can perpetually stay at home with their coffee and slippers, never interacting with the messiness of a live congregation, picking and choosing the parish or liturgy or music that suits their tastes, will there be enough catechesis to counter this?

    1. agreed Paul – none of us were, of course, ready for the pandemic or its extended effect on liturgical participation, but I am alarmed that I hear more people expressing contentment rather than a sense of restlessness and urgency – we have some serious ‘re-branding’ ahead of us. For me, I am convinced that we have not found how to communicate the importance of us, together, in one place – let alone sacramental imagination at the heart of who we are. I still go back to Durkheim’s “collective effervescence” – how do we preach that?

    2. However in parishes that are also stable and active communities and not just “Mass Centres” people will want to rejoin the Body they have missed and re-connect with the friends they have missed.
      I am hopeful.
      There is more to going to Church than receiving the Eucharist.

  2. Loved this article, and I think it raises lots of important questions. I think we have multiple responses at work in this time, and it is difficult to say what this is “doing to us” as the situation is so complex. Very few people are thriving right now. I have read church pundits saying this is the wave of the future, and maybe it feels that way to some, but I don’t hear that from the plebs. Frankly, I am impressed that so many people are heroically hanging in there when all their habits of worship have been interrupted and there is no end in sight to the wide range of abnormalities that we’ve been asked to adapt to and pain we’ve had to suck up during this time.

    Uprooted from the familiar, and grieving multiple losses all at the same time; plus coping with anxieties about everything from job insecurity, to child care, to electoral politics, to health threats and the mess of health insurance; plus the ache of missing precious moments together with relatives and friends — I don’t begrudge anybody their liturgical compromises in the midst of this. If this means shopping around for an online liturgy that nurtures you somehow, knowing you can safely attend despite the fact that the world was we know it is intensely vulnerable and even cracking, I consider this a spiritual survival strategy.

    What we ought to do, perhaps, is to use this time to conduct a full-on review of how our in-person liturgies could improve, because we know darn well that a considerable number of people are on the edge of giving up on church-going at any given time. What concerns me is that when churches have reopened, the worship experience is not only not renewed, it’s worse than ever. We can’t let pandemic time lead to a lowering of our standards.

    1. I whole-heartedly agree that there will always be some who feel the in-person experience of Mass is crucial and will attend, even in a pandemic. I know some of these hearty folk. And I also agree that during the pandemic, people may need to search for something that fills the unique hole left by in-person parish liturgy. I don’t begrudge that, as too many people I know are high-risk and cannot afford to take the chance.

      But parishioners don’t see the liturgy like liturgists.

      What worries me is that due to the raw Pavlovian circumstances, we may be conditioning congregations to treat the Mass as even more of a commodity than it was becoming prior to the pandemic. Once the pandemic is over, we may have created circumstances where parishioners feel that contacting the priest or the liturgy committee or anyone about what doesn’t make sense or what you don’t like / what isn’t of good quality is unnecessary and too much of a burden. One can just “change the channel” on YouTube or Facebook and watch whatever one likes in comfort of one’s own home. No muss, no fuss, no confrontation, no questions asked. Each parishioner controls the whole process without input or resistance from anyone else. If everyone moves to an on-line experience where each person is the final arbiter of what “good liturgy” is, then who is left to analyze the state of things? Getting volunteers was hard enough before the pandemic.

      I’m very concerned that the commodification mentality has been sneaking up on the church for a long time in a myriad of ways–it has already pervaded modern society almost to the point of invisibility. I fear that we’ll be unwilling to address its full ramifications until the paradigm is so strongly entrenched that dislodging it requires measures stronger than what anyone wishes to employ–a long, multi-generational slog that will be costly in time, effort, and ideological capital. It’s possible that the Church needs this process in some degree, but I hate to think about the casualties.

    2. Thanks Rita, for your comments on this…we need to be nurtured in liturgy, yes, but how will we move away from that as primary and into a kenotic engagement for the common good? (I guess that’s the movement I’m concerned about…)

  3. The zoom Lectio that I attend is actually pretty successful. It allows people from other parts of the country and even the world to participate.

    But Mass? I wonder if people won’t come to feel that there’s something ersatz about ‘receiving’ the Eucharist on line. And I wonder if folks won’t actually relish in- person meeting with other parishioners again, and find that goes much further towards overcoming feelings of isolation than the alternative. In the end, real encounters are the only way to real and satisfying experience. But more: even those unpleasant people whom we can avoid on-line, and who make demands on our time and attention when we meet them ‘live’, serve to puncture our bubbles in ways that may help our growth. Too much editing of experience, with its elimination of surprise, the unexpected, can’t be healthy in the end.

    Pollyanna, c’est moi. But again: does a virtual slide show of nature satisfy us in the same way as walking in a forest, or a garden?

  4. Never in my worst nightmares did I think that I would have to return to being a spectator at Mass.
    It feels such a retrograde step that I avoid streamed Masses.

    1. Alan – I’m with you on that – I ended my relationship with online eucharistic liturgies/and evening morning prayer, LOW when I could – pretty much by last June. I have been spoiled here at the Abbey with in-person liturgies, and am wondering how I will ‘do this’ for the next few months – sigh!

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