Online church services are starting to feel like food programmes
I conducted my first experimental Zoom Eucharist on Sunday. I’d only just joined up to the video conferencing software the day before, so the way it worked was completely new to me. But we muddled through. Some people were unable to find the “meeting”. Others couldn’t find the mute button so that the words of our Lord, “do this in remembrance of me” were superimposed with the sound of various domestic goings-on, with contributions that some may have wished to have edited , especially had they known they were being broadcast to the rest of the congregation.
The chap who did the intercessions sipped from his mug of tea in the silences between his prayers. A couple joining in on the sofa at home realised that the nude painting behind them might not be entirely appropriate for church service broadcast. In a way I have never experienced before, church space and domestic space collapsed into one another in the zoom Eucharist. And the potential for comedy is high.
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Even so, I loved it. I can imagine that when we are back to normal — if, indeed, there will be a normal to return to — the idea that the sick and the housebound will be able to join in our Sunday service from home is something we will want to continue. But it still felt odd giving the Eucharist out to nobody but myself. Even odder to invite the e-congregation to say along with me the words of the post-Eucharistic prayer: “we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood …”. Can we get bread and wine and hold it up near the computer screen, someone asked, that way you can consecrate ours at home? That felt like a clear no to me, but I’m not sure Eucharistic theologians had ever considered anything like that. So many questions, so few answers.
During the service, it was to Masterchef that my mind wandered. Why are food programmes so popular when no one at home gets to taste or even smell the food? And is this what church is to become, a kind of simulacrum of itself, a digital re-presentation of live-giving bread that is apparently offered, but cannot be eaten? Yet nourishment there was. People at home appreciated the service, however amateurish it was as a first go. They say around their kitchen tables and on their sofas and they joined with me and each other singing words like “Help of the helpless, O abide with me”. For all the clunkiness of the presentation, it felt so important and bonding to be with my congregation like this.
This virus is going to throw up many different experiments in togetherness. Strangely, and for all the social distancing, it may bring us together in unexpected and powerful new ways.