online church

The richness and exuberance of the Online Church

We are just beginning to see changes in the severity of the coronavirus lockdown. Even as the rules are being gradually loosened, which will be welcomed by many of us, I hope we will not rush to abandon some of the lessons we have been learning. I remind myself that even human catastrophes such as war there is comradeship to be found; a sense of purpose and idealism. When the danger and privations were long gone, it was still possible to look back and say ‘I wish we hadn’t left that behind too’.

So what might we plan to take with us out of the coronavirus lockdown? What positives are present amidst the sadnesses, the loneliness, the tensions and the worry? I suspect many of the problems of our social isolation – the emotional, relational, economic and spiritual – came into the situation with us. There will have been problems for everyone, but they must surely have been especially acute for those who entered the restrictions with the most difficulties in ‘ordinary life’.

The religiously-minded or interested will need to evaluate our experiences in future times, and I am pleased to say that individuals and dioceses have already begun to do so. My own Diocese of Rochester is planning an online Zoom conference to begin that process, and I am sure we are not alone. I suppose there will be multiple “lessons learned” reviews, but it should not only be institutions that undertake this exercise. What might you write down in your inventory of what the lockdown has taught you?

When you have a moment (and, frankly, most of us have a few of those at present), why not sit down with a cup of tea and write down your own list, maybe in two columns, positives and negatives, and be ready to share them with family, friends, neighbours and your congregation. It might even be a good conversation topic for filling those interviews for church vacancies, or at some future dinner party when the conversation lags: it will makes a change from holiday recollections, and at least in this conversation everyone would begin with a measure of equality. There is no ‘better’; just the inclusivity of a shared common experience.

On a basic level, I hope some families will have learned that time spent together around a shared meal is socially important. Cooking it together and sharing the preparation and tidying away is a bonus. “No man is an island”, and if the tedium of social distancing has brought teenagers out of their bedrooms and back into family mealtimes, that will surely be a bonus.

For those who live alone and perhaps are partially habituated to a distanced life, I hope there have been outreaches by concerned friends and neighbours. Surely the value of Facetime, Zoom, Teams and Facebook have come to the fore. Most people of faith will be familiar With God’s reflection that ‘It is not good for the man to be alone‘. If we in the churches find that we have let people fall between the cracks of our congregational, administrative and pastoral structures, we need to repent and repair early. If we didn’t have contact details and/or failed to use them, that ought perhaps to be a cause for regret and an urgent priority.

As I write my list for review of these times I shall prioritise my gratitude for the richness I have enjoyed through the Online Church. As I have referenced before, I have received a daily selection of encouragements – teaching, challenge, humour and stimulation – from a variety of sources, and for this I am very grateful. This is one thing I do not want to lose, and I hope we shall bring this into our future discussions within our faith communities.

These outreaches have come from both predictable and unpredictable sources. Perhaps the most unlikely contribution came from the controversial comedian and actor Russell Brand, whose thoughts on prayer are refreshing and most welcome. It is, of course, chaotic and unbiblical, but it has two important qualities which are often missing from our weekly institutional religious practice: it is enthusiastic, and it connects with people who are disconnected – from both the Church and God. If I could enthuse some of our services with this sort of passion, I would happily do so. It takes a special kind of foolishness to make the big questions of existence uninteresting to the young, but we seem to have become rather good at it. Russell Brand is not everyone’s cup of tea, but God does seem to have form for choosing unlikely champions.

In the sharpest of contrast, but equally just as helpful, I want to take seriously the thoughts of Roman Catholic journalist Tim Stanley, who has experienced an entirely different aspect of religious practice during lockdown. With priests celebrating alone online, he sees a return to an Eastwards celebration (because there is no immediate congregation community with which to gather). Lockdown worship has restored for him something he missed in his local church, because its liturgical culture has shifted, and he regrets the change. While we may not wish to be entirely habituating ourselves to socially-distanced worship (isn’t the direct and tangible experience of community good?), Tim Stanley sees in our changed patterns of worship a potential return to sacramentalism – and why not?

From a similar perspective. I have begun engaging with the website ‘Alone [Together]‘, and have loved hearing from Benedictine Dom Christopher Jamison OSB about how the monastic tradition has many lessons for us on coping with the unfamiliar strains under which we currently find ourselves. It has many helpful short videos, including contributions from a Buddhist monk and Terry Waite, the former Assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury, for whom many of us will have prayed during his four-year captivity in Lebanon. These people know whereof they speak, and are intensely practical in their offerings. If you are finding things hard, I can’t commend this enough.

I was encouraged to look on YouTube for the television programme ‘The Monastery‘, which followed six young men through the challenges and strains of the secluded life. That, too, is both interesting and informative in our unfamiliar circumstances. I hope we do not lose these nuggets of spiritual vibrancy when we get back to our former religious lives. We have surely learned that the technology does work, that people are forgiving if it doesn’t, and that the engagement is well worth the effort in many ways. Could we not utilise some of this this when we get back to normal?

Could we not incorporate some of the strengths of Online Church into our liturgy and practice? Our Bishops are getting habituated to these possibilities. Might they not welcome churches across the Diocese, giving news and encouraging us with news of what is happening around the parishes? Maybe our Directors of Ordinands could take a turn, explaining that the Church needs many talents. We might share the peace with an inner-city or remote church. We could enjoy a virtual visiting preacher from the other end of the country, even from a different ecclesiastical tradition. From skilled ‘Godly Play’ practitioners to intercessions from the homebound parishioner, there are multiple ways we can use what we have seen online and integrate it into our familiar forms, provided we do not just fall back.

When they have extensively sampled the rich and varied smorgasbord of spiritual fare which has broken into our lives via the wider creative church, not everyone will be delighted to return to the same old ‘meat and two veg’ of ‘normal worship’. That can still be valued, but a movement for more open, inclusive and varied worship may well be a consequence of what we have learned alone together.

We could call it Meze Church..