What is the Purpose of Online Worship?

By The Revd Canon James Mustard

This is a question I have been considering for the last year or so. Initially, the answers are obvious: it retained a rhythm and pattern of prayer and worship. It kept, as best as we could, a community in touch with each other and, corporately, in touch with God. As a community, we learned to engage in new ways with each other, our Choristers learned how to sing together at home and our Choral Scholars achieved national recognition with their daily Complines.

But, as I stood in my dining room, dressed like a Christmas tree, surrounded by sheets and blankets (to dull the lively acoustics), looking into my mobile phone and blessing bread and wine, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was doing any good for anyone? I associate the Eucharist with gathering, with community. What does the Eucharist mean as a solitary, domestic act?

One strength of our lockdown experience was our discovery of the sharp difference between modes of worship: saying Morning and Evening Prayer worked surprisingly well online. It enabled us to offer participation across a wide geographical area, and gave new roles for those attending: reading lessons and responding. Indeed, ironically, we probably achieved no less a sense of ‘communion’ in our services of prayer and readings, than in our services of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Yet our Sunday morning Eucharists provided an important reminder to viewers of our place of worship, our Cathedral church, and kept our choir and musicians active and motivated. They kept us aware of just how valuable – indeed vital – our music and musicians are to us and our ministry and the centrality of the sacrament. But, it did feel like ‘performance’, certainly when presiding or preaching and looking beyond a camera to an empty building. So what, if anything might we have gained from all this?

Firstly, I think we learned something about time and place.

About place: the rhythm of prayer was clearly vital, and our return to the Cathedral from our home-chapels, was of deep significance. ‘Holiness’, the architect John Pawson once wrote, ‘is found in the coincidence of prayer and place’. Doing church at home, is not at all the same as doing it together in a familiar, communally experienced space. But, when gathering is not possible (and in different ways this may be the case for many of us), ‘virtual’ engagement is a good second-best. In a recent essay, Dr Charlie Bell has challenged the idea that there is such a radical difference between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ participation: technology extends our range of bodily participation. Witnessing worship is participation and perhaps our experience may shape our theology going forward. Personally, I was disappointed by our lack of embracing any form of ‘remote’ sacrament – very clearly prohibited by our bishops. There are forms of worship – the Methodist ‘Agape’ meal, being the obvious example – where bread and wine are shared without it being considered a sacrament, but where the sense of community and shared remembrance are embraced. Indeed, in contrast, we reserve the sacrament and distribute it as needed quite apart from the worshipping community. In so doing, we divorce the gathered community from the efficacy of the sacrament. In other words, and of course this is easily said in hindsight, I think the Church of England missed an opportunity to reflect upon and expand our Eucharistic theology.

About time: if holiness is found in the coincidence of time and place, what does it mean to worship out-of-synch, on-demand, at a moment of one’s own convenience. I will put my hand up and admit that I did not follow the Eucharist live every Sunday. Sometimes, it was convenient for me to start watching at 10.30am or 11am, to skip past the bits I felt I didn’t need to hear, and to listen only to music and the sermon. What of our 8am Communions? Because they were uploaded to YouTube they had to be pre-recorded, often on a Thursday, going ‘live’ at 6pm on a Saturday. I’m a big fan of the Prayer Book and I share with our 8am congregation a love of the language and shape of that service. But it felt very strange indeed to pre-record non-communicating services of Holy Communion! Throughout I found myself asking ‘what am I doing’?

My conclusion is that uniformity of time in worship is far more important that uniformity of place. To know that I am worshipping with others, that we have made a commitment to God and each other, to be present with each other, albeit across airwaves, was profound and nourishing. It taught me a lot about the communion we share in our baptism and faith, as well as (by its absence) the importance of the Eucharist. I’m a big fan of holy places, but I would have taken a more generous approach to issues of place. In extremis, to receive communion or, more straightforwardly, an Agape meal remotely would have been a reasonable response that might have expanded rather than undermined our theology of the Eucharist.

Going forward, it is clear that worship online is here to stay. Indeed, we are planning to continue live-streaming our 10am Choral Eucharist and it has transformed our engagement at Diocesan services. But it really is no substitute for being together, in person, in time and place! It’s also clear that the spoken word, talks, discussions and prayers can work really well online and thanks be to God for the technology and the technicians who have enabled us to meet in that way. But the whole experience of online has, above all, given me a renewed appreciation for our commitment of time to one another, and to God.

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