Help! A parish wants to put in screens. What would you say?

A Pray Tell reader sent in this letter (identifying information changed), wondering what resources there are to resist projection screens in church. What help do you readers have?  

Dear Father Ruff,

I am a long-time organist at a Catholic church in an older, well-established neighborhood in Anytown, ZZ. The parish, Our Lady Queen of Hearts, has a long history of forward-thinking pastors and a beautiful church built with quality in mind during the 1960s. It has a wonderful pipe organ which is why I’m there.  There has been a long affiliation with a leading music publisher and the parish has used their materials in church for as long as I’ve been there.

However, on Sunday I was told by the director of music for the parish that plans are underway to discontinue use of the publisher’s materials and replacing them with a large screen on which words would be projected. I’m not sure which words are planned to be on the screen.  Certainly words for the hymns would be projected.

I am appalled at that idea, seeing a large screen as an intrusion in the liturgical space of the church.  I am also concerned that people on the far left and right sides as well as in the back would be able to view the words. I presume that the melody line would not be included, thus inhibiting presentation of new music to the congregation. Removal of print materials also means a loss of resource for additional meditation on readings or prayers contained therein.

I will be meeting with the director of music and with a member of the parish council to discuss this move – so it’s not set in stone yet.  But I am reaching out to see if there are articles about this issue.

I am quite sure that our parish is doing this because of budgetary concerns. If you have any materials that you could refer me to on this subject, I would greatly appreciate it.

Sincerely,

A concerned organist

22 comments

  1. Personally I find a huge screen intruding in sacred space distasteful, but I willingly allow that projecting the words of hymns can be helpful. I will also allow that, at school Masses, or on occasions such as funerals when many attend who are not regular church-goers, displaying the prayer texts may help participation. But surely we can keep our liturgy as a human rather than a multimedia experience? As for those background scenes of running water and sunsets and snow-capped mountains — give me a hand-quilted banner any day!
    Technology can be of enormous help in the preparation of liturgy, and data projection can enhance liturgical celebrations by facilitating fuller participation. However, technology sometimes intrudes on worship, turning participants into spectators waiting to be entertained by what appears next on the ‘big screen’ and cluttering a sacred space with equipment.
    Relying too much on projected words during worship can make a ritual celebration seem more like a catechetical session. The words and reading become the focus instead of engagement with the sights, sounds, silences and feel of the liturgy. We need to be more aware of involving all of the senses in liturgy because it has become too wordy and intellectual.
    I wonder too if people with sight problems or who are not able to read written English easily feel left out when the rest of the assembly is constantly reading printed words on a screen or in a detailed order of service?
    Liturgy needs to be ‘real’. Projecting images of wheat and grapes on a screen during Mass is in no way a substitute for using bread that can be broken and shared and offering the chalice to all the faithful.

  2. When I first started visiting the US in 1974, I discovered that a proportion of churches were using projection screens. This was not something I had encountered before, except in some evangelical churches (some of them even had a bouncing ball moving along the text — remember that?!)

    Within a few years, all those screens had vanished from churches, with the exception of Newman Centers around the country, where they still persist to this day. One reason they died out was that the technology was primitive and prone to failure: slide carousels were noisy and would frequently jam or reverse direction. A much more significant reason, however, was that people began to realize that introducing one or more huge visual symbols into the worship space had the effect, through sheer size, of dwarfing, overwhelming and detracting from the primary liturgical symbols. There was much discussion of this at the time.

    We have recently witnessed a comeback of projection screens, helped by computers and programs such as PowerPoint. They can still be prone to failure, but not as much as before. Because we are in love with the technology (read: some people are tech geeks), we are reluctant to give up our toys.

    Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed people’s attitudes. They are no longer so comfortable handling hymn books or other worship aids that others may have touched recently, so projection screens are being presented as a hygiene measure. In countries where the vaccination rate is higher than it is in the US (at the last count, 70 million people still remain unvaccinated) this does not seem to be so much of an issue.

    My concern is our short memories. No one now seems to recall that we had all these discussions in the late 1970s, with the result that it was realized that projection screens were not a good thing for the liturgy. Because it is so much easier to do today, we don’t stop to think whether we should even be doing this.

    Not only that, but closed-circuit TV, where the assembly can see on monitors what is going on at the altar, etc, have also been the subject of criticism (though they are still with us in some places). No one asks the basic questions that people like Gabe Huck expressed so forcefully in the 1990s. No one realizes that the visibility “problem” is because our church layouts and designs do not work with the liturgy of today, and yet we continue to build liturgically unsuitable buildings with careless abandon because clergy and architects don’t know any better.

    In some places projection screens are used like these TV monitors to project action as well as text and music, to aid what is conceived of as visual participation. Once again, it’s very easy for the eye to focus on the screen rather than on what is happening in the midst of the assembly.

    I would add one word of comfort for “concerned organist”. It is in fact perfectly easy to include melody lines with text on screens, though it requires work on the part of those preparing the graphics for the presentation. The downside, however, is that there is then no flexibility for using a different melody if that is desired.

  3. “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” — Anton Ergo, (Peter O’Toole) in _Ratatouille_.

    I can fully understand your apprehension towards screens in a church. However, in my experience, it has only increased congregant participation, directing one’s gaze towards the altar, keeping the hymn lyrics and the center of activity within the same view. No more looking downward, towards the paper-based resource, towards the floor; instead, all voices are projected forward, towards the altar, as they should be. No more limitations of a song’s inclusion by a dilapidated hymnal or employing a missalette subscription using cheap paper, with favorite songs being cut from future editions without warning, or favorite hymns being bastardized by copyright-leeching contemporary song-smiths sapping the original song’s power by mediocre replacements and forced rhymes.

    It should be noted, though, that this enthusiastic recommendation comes with a caveat: I believe the general trend in how screens have been used has not yet received perfection, and therefore, there has been a rightful disdain among traditional musicians towards the format. I get it. Screens usually mean following the contemporary modern praise and worship scene; organs may be the chopping block next.

    Baloney. Done right (and this is key), screens can improve your experience. Here’s how:
    1. Incorporate music notation on the slides themselves, alongside the lyrics.
    2. Post lyrics one or two lines at a time, so there is clarity of where one is at in the song.
    3. Incorporate the very best classical sacred art of all twenty centuries during the non-singing portions, as pertaining to the week on the liturgical calendar. This includes photographs of famous religious statues, paintings (from all varied styles–Byzantine, Rennaissance, or Contemporary), mosaics, tapestries, stained glass windows, cinematic depictions, and real-life photos of the Holy Land.
    4. Don’t forget the homily!

  4. Is this the common US context, as I understand it without ever venturing away from Europe, of an annual publication combining readings and hymnbook? I have never seen such a thing in the UK. We do not regard them as neccessary or desireable..
    As far as possible, for the congregation liturgy ought to be watched and listened to, not read. If you are not going to read the homily, which will never be heard again, why should you need to read the scripture (at Mass that is, private study is another matter) or the orations, which will come around every year or three. We in the congregation only need to see the words we are expected to sing/say.
    What proportion of the congregation is functionaly illterate, in some places that reaches 30% among adults. And the ability to read music? English hymn books for the general congregation do not include tunes, you can have a few melody or choir copies for those who can make use of them. Much more important for costing purposes is that the hymn books will last twenty or more years, no recurring cost of books . And as far as I know, no recurring licence fees for /displaying the text//reading the books/.

    1. And the ability to read music? English hymn books for the general congregation do not include tunes, you can have a few melody or choir copies for those who can make use of them.

      Purely on a point of info, Anthony, all the major North American RC hymn books and similar publications, in both English and Spanish languages, include music notation for every item as standard, in congregation (pew) editions as well as accompaniment and choral editions. Usually all texts are interlined with the music, which makes it much more difficult to appreciate the literary form of the texts, but aids singers who do not have the same skills as those in the British Isles, where any church singer worth their salt is used to combining music in one place on the page with text in another.

      And yes, some of the above-mentioned publications do also include the texts of the readings, although there is a move towards making these available for only those with hearing difficulties (or with substandard church PA systems).

    2. I have to say that I get so much more out of the readings during mass when I can read as well as listen. I think I take in 150 percent more of the meaning. While I understand there is a concern people aren’t paying attention, I’m actually paying more attention when I read and understanding the lector more. I think this is one of the human differences where the church should just show patience rather than impose a style. That said, I’m not a fan of screens as it seems they would be distracting from everyone’s attention from the altar rather than a book.

    3. I have to say that I get so much more out of the readings during mass when I can read as well as listen. I think I take in 150 percent more of the meaning.

      Many people make this claim, citing the different assimilation intelligences in play — in this case, visual intelligence. I would certainly say that reading aids my own understanding, but it is an “intellectual” understanding rather than a “spiritual” understanding.

      The difference between listening to the readings at Mass, and both listening and reading along, is that by simply listening you just “take” whatever it is that God is saying to you today. The word “arrives” through the medium of the lector, who may be more or less skilled.

      When you simply listen, you hear things in a reading that you have never heard before, even if you have heard the reading a hundred times before. When you read along at the same time, that does not happen in the same way. By reading along, you yourself control the meaning that you receive. It is my contention that this may risk missing God’s word for you today.

      That is why, at Mass, I always make a conscious effort not to read along with what is being read aloud, so that I may be open to being surprised by an unexpected word, or phrase, or emphasis, or tone of voice, offering a new insight.

      Of course these days, when for many lectors English is not their first language, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what is being proclaimed. That is an additional reason for making sure that we read the readings ahead of time, so that we can celebrate what is already partially within us, rather than experiencing it for the first time at Mass. In that way, we ourselves can become true ministers of the word instead of just leaving the ministry of the word to the lector.

      1. Paul

        What studied evidence within the context of the liturgy do you have that your contention is *spiritually* equally effective for everyone?

      2. Karl,

        I would cite my experience with many different groups of lectio divina done in common. (It’s frequently found to be a helpful way of starting a “business” meeting.)

        Someone reads a passage of scripture. People are then asked to name a word or phrase that struck them in what they heard. Then people are asked, if they wish, to say something about why it struck them. (Those two steps can be combined into one, but it’s often more useful if they are not.) Finally, the same passage is read again. Now you hear it with everyone else’s insights in your mind, a real enrichment.

        In that process, the wonderful thing is how much one learns from what struck other people. Everyone hears things slightly differently. Everyone agrees that listening, rather than reading along, is the key to this.

        In answer to your question, I would reiterate that it is being open to the unexpected that can make a real spiritual difference, not “controlling” the meaning you receive by reading along with the spoken proclamation of the word.

      3. Paul

        I would suggest that that is not an effective comparison for the proclamation of scripture at Mass for people in the pews.

  5. We use some projection, before the liturgy for periodic un intrusive notes to help pray better (“please be sure to have a worship aid” kind of stuff), at offertory with instructions on texting your tithe, and the parish announcements which are pre-recorded. The announcement recording started after we re-opened after our COVID “hiatus” and brought a lot of value for clarity of speech and message, concise and deliberate delivery. (If someone stumbles on words we can do another take), as well as forcing a well planned communication strategy which really cut back on the length of announcements. Plus if someone (usually a staff member) wants to directly give their announcement they can, and not have to be at all 5 (but was 6 for over a year) weekend masses, this was particularly helpful for our school principal – our school is shared between two parishes.

    We’re in a space where we don’t have to put up screens, we have sections of blank angled ceilings in our worship space, so it just “appears” when it’s in use, and vanishes when it’s done.

    I think it works well as a supplement when used judiciously and strategically. I’d really be uncomfortable at my parish if it were used for much more than what we do.

    Perhaps discuss a ‘both and’ proposal instead of an ‘either or’. Keep the hymnals, but perhaps use well placed non intrusive screens to make other things perhaps more effective.

  6. I would have been quick to dismiss this idea in the past. But I was visiting my uncle, who was bishop of a small diocese. Knowing I’m in liturgical music, he wanted to take me to the church he felt had the best music ministry.

    Yes, the musician was very talented. But they had screens! That was new for me.

    The congregation stood tall, chin up, singing to the words on the screen. I’ve never heard a more dynamic participation of the faithful.

    In terms of worrying about the beauty of the space, if the right person does it, it will blend in in an artistic way. The space reverts right back to what it was before the screens.

    So all in all – I would approve.

  7. How would this work in older churches (including my cathedral) where sightlines are blocked by pillars?

  8. The good: people sing up and out. The bad: there’s some. Depending on the building shape, maybe too much to overcome. My new church has them and I spend some time preparing slides for liturgy. If a traditional-shaped nave doesn’t have the pillar problem, that’s the best geography for them. For a church in the round or set up antiphonally or with a deep semi-circle, not best at all. Installers and parish planners assume everybody’s sitting front-and-center. If the seating is wide and curved, there will be spots with worse visibility. My small church needs two screens and we still have pockets of marginal visibility.

    I would counsel great care, ask a lot of annoying questions for the sales rep and installation team, and do a lot of parish consultation. Maybe talk to an artist too. Use with caution.

  9. Just a reminder that you’ll still need to pay an annual reprint license to project onto a screen. Be it only lyrics, or lyrics and music. They are also subject to copyright laws.

    Like others, my biggest concern is architectural/artistic. In many newer churches this has been thought about in the design. Often blank wall space. In older more ornate churches, this would be a tough sell.

    1. The copyright issues will only apply to those songs under copyright. Public domain hymns (of which there are volumes) are free. Just double check and ensure that your text is not modified from the p.d. version.

  10. This is an important topic that I wish would be approached more urgently, and not just because it’s such a prominent aesthetic feature.

    Our diocese just a few months ago made an effort to synthesize some theological and sociological concerns with screen technology in churches. Here is the fruit of that, which hopefully can help spark some deeper conversation elsewhere:
    https://diocesefwsb.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/FW-SB-Norms-on-Use-of-Screens-and-Projections-English-and-Spanish.pdf

    1. I like much of that.

      This exception, however, is, um [insert negative adjective of choice here]:

      “The only exception surrounding the celebration of Mass is when there is an extraordinary need to share some sort of media message (such as the Annual Bishop’s Appeal video).”

      IMNSHO, there’s *less* justification for that exception than for much of what is otherwise forbidden.

      1. Yes, a very fair criticism, and one that was recognized. I’m hoping a change gets incorporated into a revision soon.

  11. I have been in a Florida parish that uses screens. In fact, when the new church was built, the screens were well planned for and really are a part of the building. Before I came here eight years ago, I had no experience with screens and the amount of work that goes into not only preparing a presentation but also making sure you have volunteers to run the presentation. Also, there is cost involved, it’s not cheap. First of all, think of copyright licenses, Second, think of how you will present music, we Finale all our music, we do not project just words. We have a vast library of music that we have created with the appropriate copyrights now in our files for easy downloading into the presentation. Third, think about equipment – projectors can be quite expensive and replacing bulbs every 1,500 hours or so is another cost, unless you are purchasing laser projectors. Fourth, are the screens big enough to be seen by all?
    Some may scoff at the thought of projection, and I sit in the middle of the road on this one. It does take peoples noses out of the books, it does save the environment of printing weekly worship aids, etc.
    Lots of pros and cons when considering screens.

  12. Put simply, people in society are saturated with screens in their personal/work/secular lives. The church should be a center of solace, an oasis, where people can unplug and not be distracted by another large screen.

  13. My plea to those who use projection is to include the melody line and not just words. There is a parish I have attended a couple of times while traveling which I will avoid in the future. Their projection (onto bare wall space) has only the words, which precludes my participation if it’s unfamiliar music. I do not have a talent for listening and then picking up the tune, even through several verses. I do read music so if the melody is included, I am able to participate fully from the very first note.

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