We Can’t Go Back..in Our Quest for the “Perfect Service”

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford

Helen King

I’ve found a new way of entertaining my mother, for whom I am also her carer, during the lockdown: discovering what the various churches she has attended over the years are doing in the way of online services.

Last Sunday we visited several, finding a wide range of approaches, including:

  • one priest doing the whole thing from their home, including unaccompanied singing (worked well, mainly due to the warmth of their personality which came over strongly)
  • one priest doing it all from what appeared to be the church hall, kitted out with an enormous altar/table and masses of candles (useful to have the camera person doing the responses; looked ‘like church’)
  • a family in their living room with children wandering around, cutting to another family home where the children sang a song accompanied by their dad on guitar (relaxed, not ‘churchy’, lots of enthusiasm).

Such variety, with everyone doing their best.

While some of us stay with our own church’s services, others are exploring their diocesan service, the weekly Church of England national service or even the Anglican communion service. Beyond services, there are also excellent contemplative online resources like Rumours of Hope; one clergyperson who used this said it was the first Easter in a while that he’d been able to keep the vigil, as he didn’t need to worry about getting up the next morning.

My church has a typical age profile for our diocese. For us, familiarity is what is needed.

Every Sunday now, there’s a short, formal Zoom communion service, led by the vicar who gives the sermon, with members of the congregation doing readings and responses, making it more of a communal effort. Last week, I was one of those members. It was a very odd experience. I’d imagined that we all did our bits and then they were woven together, but in fact we recorded the whole service, other than the hymns, from our homes. A technical problem meant we had to record the middle bit again the following evening (which meant the computer wasn’t in quite the same place, and also I’d started experimenting with my lockdown haircut, but nobody seems to have noticed!).

I find that a pre-recorded service released at a fixed time doesn’t feel like ‘church’. It confuses me; what is ‘performance’ and what is ‘really’ the service, if you’ve done it twice already and then watch it when it goes ‘live’? Maybe something genuinely live would feel better. Father Peter Anthony recently argued that no broadcast is really ‘live’ – there’s always a lag, even of a fraction of a second. Maybe, but in this context I don’t find that helps.

It makes me think of National Theatre Live, and the difference between being at the theatre, watching on the night when it is being streamed, or watching a catch-up recorded from that live version. To me, it’s the Zoom coffee-time that feels more like ‘church’, as people can see each other – the importance of the face as the self – and ask about those who aren’t present and share information on how to make scrubs for the NHS. ‘Church’ exists in the many acts of service which people – church and non-church – provide to their neighbours and communities.

My fellow Christians who watch the service on Sunday don’t seem bothered by these fine distinctions. They are simply grateful. They all thank the person who puts the service together and the assorted contributors, in a way that reminds me of the national representatives at Eurovision who start with ‘Thank you so much, host nation, for a wonderful show’. It is clearly reassuring to hear familiar voices and see familiar faces, suggesting that is part of what ‘church’ is for many people. There’s plenty of theological discussion out there about what ‘spiritual communion’ is, and on whether people should have some bread and wine with them as they watch the video, but our congregation just do what feels right to them.

There are bigger issues to online services than my personal unease.

Accessibility: they are available to a group which is both smaller and bigger than the usual congregation. Smaller, of course, because services exclude those without computer access: but bigger because those who can’t make it to church, for whatever reason, are now included.

Tone: upbeat? Reflective? Mournful? And let’s be honest here: some of us are finding this very, very difficult. I share lots of jolly COVID-19 spoof songs and enjoy free online theatre and lectures, but I also have vivid nightmares and moments of total panic. Single friends remember with longing the last time they ate with another human being for company. Those working in the caring sector, or worried about family and friends, are under great stress. Yet some services respond to lockdown with – great phrase – ‘toxic positivity’, challenging any expression of fear or loneliness with exhortations to be cheerful, to look at the beautiful spring flowers.

It just isn’t that easy for everyone.

Online church also finds it difficult to acknowledge that the economic divisions between us haven’t gone away: we’re not ‘all in this together’. While lockdown alone and lockdown with others both have their problems, lockdown in a 3-bedroom house with a garden is very different from lockdown in a bedsit. I was at a Zoom conference last week where one person was in her camper van because the house was too cramped. At least she had one. Lockdown for someone who can perform their job remotely – and this correlates with those with higher incomes – is very different from lockdown when you are unable to work. Those working normal hours, but doing so by back-to-back video conferencing, find it exhausting.

So what happens next? Having discovered the possibilities of the online world, will we change how we do ‘church’, or return to the old normal?

The thirst for real face-to-face contact, handshakes, hugs, feels very real. For many, for the ‘shielded’, that thirst won’t be quenched any time soon. Mandy Ford pointed out that the return of the activities – both social and ‘church’ – that are currently not available will mean that the pendulum may swing away from online worship and more neighbourliness, just as our currently quiet roads may become even busier than ever before as people avoid public transport and – if they have them – use their cars even more.

There are so many other important issues in our world to which this crisis draws our attention: inclusion, security, personal freedom and the role of the state. While the different ways of doing church in lockdown may reflect what we think church really is, I think we need to work harder to move beyond our internal concerns and join in the debate on the wider issues.

While escorting my mother around various churches made for an interesting morning, I don’t think any of us should be trying to move towards some image of “the perfect service”. Investing our energies in getting our online ‘product’ just right seems to me to completely miss the point that, in the words of a much-quoted article on the virus:

Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic.’

So how do we welcome both those who are excluded from the online world, and those who are excluded from normal church? How do we offer a place that can acknowledge both despair as well as hope, and pain as well as joy?




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11 Responses to We Can’t Go Back..in Our Quest for the “Perfect Service”

  1. williambuggins says:

    Eventually we will get back to physical meetings and services,and I do agree with you about pre-recorded services. My wife and I have borrowed a couple of hymn books from our chapel and armed with our bibles we worship together in the lounge on a Sunday morning. Of course if you are used to a more structured service it might not work for you.
    So, we’re not keen on internet services but there are some good things happening through the internet. My men’s prayer group usually meets on a Saturday morning but we have started using Zoom and it works well enough, Another useful feature of Zoom or Skype is that ministries like Open Doors and Christian Concern are able to hold virtual meetings on line. You can then hear speakers, ask questions and share points of view. Personally I find this very useful in getting to ‘meet’ other Christians from other parts of the country or overseas and hear what they have to say.
    Another side of this is catching up with old friends and family or ringing around congregational members to maintain fellowship. Especially valuable for the old and/or frail. Some internet providers offer a 24/7 telephone service which for a relatively small monthly amount allows you free calls up to an hour each call. (Helpful if you have any church friends you could converse with for an hour…:0)
    I do hope you will find ways of reaching out in fellowship until we get back to normal!


    • Helen King says:

      Thank you – yes, finding ways to help those without internet access is so important. I’ve been paying bills online for a neighbour who can’t make it to the Post Office (which in any case was shut for two weeks due to the virus). And phoning members of the congregation who can’t do the online thing has been great, and that reminds me it’s a week since I’ve phoned a particular person so I’m going to do that right now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. sjn62 says:

    Thank you for this, Helen. A great deal resonates with what I’m writing in reflections myself, not surprisingly, as we start to think about what comes next. I think the reflective service/gathering/offering that allows people to grieve what we’ve lost while in lockdown is a good idea and will have a think about how we might do that. Several people have mentioned the toxicity of ‘having to be positive’ while their hearts are crying for human contact. I am hopeful that the transitional period between where we are now and the freedom for everyone to go outside and enjoy hugs from friends will give us some time for building new foundations. Plenty to ponder.


  3. MariHoward says:

    The reason for the toxicity of that positive (pretty flowers, birdsong, and being kind) is that it is not real: it is dodging the issue – and the issue is much broader, and much less about feelings, (although of course feelings are important, whether loss of people who we shall ‘never’ see again, or loss of having fun and contact with friends and family on the outside. It is not about the loss of hugs. The big issue is the whole basis of Why the pandemic, and Why climate change? We humans have brought about these events, by our desires, by not heeding warnings, by not living within the means of the planet. We are all responsible. Can we change? The future, long-term, is in the hands of all of us – especially in our governments – but also in the hands of each of us.


    • williambuggins says:

      I think I know what you mean in saying ‘we humans’, but Idon’t think it’s that simple. Man is tribal and within a tribe there is a hierarchy whereby some (the leaders), have more influence and power than the followers. The larger the tribe becomes the more complex things get. So whilst in principle you are correct, I think in reality most of us go with the flow, and not because we don’t care, but because we feel inadequate or fearful of challenging the status quo.
      I think this is true even in Christian circles. It is so much easier to gossip and grumble than screw up our courage and challenge what is wrong! We may join in some sort of action or peaceful demonstration, but only those activities approved or endorsed by our leaders. We really don’t like to be different because being different may mean losing the respect or approval of others – even in church!


      • sjn62 says:

        in part, I agree with you and with @MariHoward. Sadly, I think we also have leaders who find it easier to gossip and grumble than to screw up their courage and challenge what is wrong. We are social beings, living in a hierarchy that should support organisation and structure, beginning with the weakest, but which in reality promotes the strongest. I pray that this pandemic might have shifted this at least a little. To tell people it’s our fault (which it is) is too big a mouthful for most, who will just decide there is nothing they can do, so do nothing. And it is when good people do nothing that evil persists. So it is by small steps that we encourage change and I am hopeful that some of these small steps are being taken now. The small step I really look forward to once all this is over might well be a hug, it represents safety and security.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. williambuggins says:

    Having worked and lived within a Christian organisation/community and had various jobs with children and adults, I would say (prepares for “Incoming!” ) in general the female of the species is much more tactile than the male. Which makes sense, seeing as females are the childbearers and main nurturers..
    Of course that doesn’t mean men can’t be tactile also. There are varying degrees of ‘maleness’ as with the female. I have found myself -with my wife’s approval of course, become much more tactile as I have become older. To give a gentle hug and kiss on the cheek to the ladies in our small congregation makes us all feel better!


  5. Michael says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Pope Francis’daily Mass. He spoke about the dangers of clericalism and inflexibity but that’s not what I particularly enjoyed. It was the format and Sister Josephine’s gentle, soft voice-over, translating the Italian. I found that prayerful and worship – ful. On my mobile I also found Dan Schutte’s Easter Triduum liturgies prayerful. Different format. Words provided. I led my own prayer at my own pace. I think a different style of worship is needed for a mobile. DVDs are great for those with no internet!


    • williambuggins says:

      Interesting that the numbers of people viewing streamed services has increased, due to the lockdown. So nice to know that you are one who is benefitting from virtual services. We are living in very interesting times.
      I don’t know if anyone here has heard of or seen “The Chosen.” A minister friend of mine told me about it a few days ago. It’s a new production of the Gospel story in episode format, and you can watch it for free on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=craeyJdrCsE. The first series consists of eight episodes -which I think you will find totally gripping.
      The producers have stayed close to the actual Gospel but developed the characters more fully. So for example Nicodemus is portrayed as an older respected and pious Pharisee, who is visiting Capernaum and is forced by the Romans to deal with a crazed fear driven Mary Magdala..
      The other interesting thing is that the whole project is being funded by ‘paying it forward’, so viewers have the opportunity to give towards making the next series.


  6. I am not normally given to commenting on blogs, but I want to say how much your comments resonate with me Helen, especially your reflection that pre-recorded services released at a particular time don’t feel like ‘church’ As one who is regularly leading such services at the moment, I never quite know what to do on a Sunday morning, as it feels a little like observing myself worshipping a few days previously. However, I realise that this is a ‘niche’ problem as, apart from those who have contributed to what is being live-streamed, everybody is seeing it as for the first time. The more profound questions for me, as we emerge form lockdown, will be to do with the meaning of, and maintenance of, two distinct communities – the physical and the virtual. The latter have become increasingly engaged through our worship, and are no longer simply (for example) Facebook friends. Much to reflect on.


  7. Pingback: Dislocation | sharedconversations

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