British Report on Online Worship

A study by the University of Chester and Manchester Metropolitan University (seemingly focused on members of the Church of England) suggests that people’s experience of online worship has not been particularly positive.

I don’t suppose any of this will come as a shock to anyone who has been trying to maintain a corporate worship life for the past year and a half. On the whole, people find disembodied worship unsatisfying. They seem to find those online platforms that allow for interaction (like Zoom) to be better than those that don’t (like livestreaming), though these do tend to restrict the numbers that can participate. The most positive reaction to online worship seems to be from those who use it as an entry point to a particular community or tradition.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that clergy seem more positive about the experience than the laity. One suggestion is that this is because clergy were often in the building where the community had perviously gathered for worship, making the experience more familiar and embodied than the experience of the laity. My own experience during the period when public worship was restricted was of gathering in a large cathedral with about ten people to celebrate the liturgy that would be livestreamed. It felt odd to have row upon row of empty pews, but still felt like I was participating in a liturgy–a feeling I don’t have when watching a livestream.

I think a question that more and more parishes will be facing in the months ahead is whether the effort involved in providing online worship will be worth it. It can provide people who want to check out your parish a foot in the door, but are those numbers worth the effort? It can provide access to the disabled and shut in, but are there more effective ways of making those people truly part of the community?

2 comments

  1. I can see a good reason for online worship, for the sake of the marginalized in our communities — those who are sick or housebound or simply so vulnerable that they dare not venture into the church — but for the rest of us, apart from an overdeveloped interest in how others are doing things, I can see little merit in what is essentially watching Mass on TV.

    Watching is not participating, or at least not in the same way. Most people said how much they missed the human contact, the sense of community, that comes from communal worship when one is physically present. It sounds as if our Anglicans sisters and brothers had the same negative experiences.

    I vivldy remember a number of posts in various forums on FB during the first severe lockdown in 2020. They all said the same thing, in different ways: “I want to pray myself, not watch you praying, Father.” I think some presiders did not understand that some people saw celebrating Eucharist, alone in a church, for an online audience as simply rubbing people’s noses in the fact that they themselves were not allowed to be there..

    I have said before, and will say again, how powerful a sign it would have been if priests had refrained completely from Mass and Communion, in solidarity with all their sisters and brothers in Christ who had no choice but to refrain, and instead prayed the Liturgy of the Hours or some other non-eucharistic service. As it was, Mass under lockdown risked becoming more like a personal devotional exercise than an act of the gathered Church.

    The outcome of that is a devalued respect for the Eucharist, and, for some, a changed understanding of what liturgical presence means.

  2. I agree that “watching is not participating” , certainly not in a full sense. But, given that holding services could not safely be done…on line worship is (was) a better option than nothing. And in fact for many who felt isolated, on line Mass DID give a sense of continuity, and reassure them that yes, fellow parishioners are ‘there’ and safe and participating. My Church encouraged people sing and pray along, and most did. I certainly never heard anyone say they felt that on line Mass was “Rubbing their noses in the fact that they were not allowed to be there”. Really? People mostly understood full well why they couldn’t be there. Moreover, I think celebrating the Eucharist despite Covid and making it widely available increased respect for and awareness of how deeply we all hanker for it. That’s hardly a devaluation.

    Maybe we should ask those you mentioned at the outset–the homebound, the ill etc.–if they feel doomed to a second class Eucharist with little merit. My guess is that they’ll speak to it’s deep meaning for them.

    Most understood that the whole situation was temporary. Most doubtless felt it was less than optimal, to say the least. I’d guess that if Churches had cancelled Eucharist and substituted the Daily Office, most would have called for the Eucharist. I jsut don’t see how any lasting damage has been done, as you suggest.

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