Friday, April 24, 2020

Online Worship: From Disruption to Participation

Life remains busy under Lockdown here in NZ. We will finish Level 4 at 11.59 pm
Monday 27 April; but Level 3, for at least two weeks won't be much different. A smart
alec politician observed that it will be Level 4 with KFC. (Explanation: some takeaways
will be purchasable again).

So, online worship will continue for a few more weeks - and many parishes will be
considering it continuing for many weeks after we get to Level 2 (when services, with
congregations 100 or under, can resume, providing social distancing criteria are met). In
Level 2 we expect vulnerable parishioners will choose to continue to stay at home on

I have a post in the pipeline with further reflections on "Zoom Eucharists" and prior to that
coming on stream, there is another on the Gospel Resurrection Narratives. In the absence
of output from me, I am very pleased to offer a post by Bowman Walton, regular
commenter here.

Bowman writes ...  From Disruption to Participation

Father Ron, I hope that you do not mind my asking: how did folks at SMAA celebrate the Feast of Feasts this year? I have been asking others as well, but I am especially curious about parishes like yours that have such a richly eucharistic calendar. One would suppose that they have a keen sense of the mystery of our participation in Christ. Yet the invisible plague outside our windows-- we hope-- is testing our mettle in living that out.

This lock-down deprives everyone of unmediated worship. But it also disrupts a Spirit-given habit of
communion, one that usually anchors our connection with Christ through time, and in him, with others--brothers and sisters in faith, the created world for which we pray, and even the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” who join our praise and thanksgiving to the Father.

As a hermit in a COVID-19 hotspot this year, I found myself this Easter recalling the celebrations of
years past. That was not my plan, but the memories just came. Different times, different countries,
different languages, but recognizably the same Pascha however the congregation of each moment had
gathered to say Christ is Risen! Talking to friends this past week, I have noticed that we were all more or less prompted to search our memories for these hours past. We know Who did this.

Staying in the Lord through memory and time

When we talk about the Spirit’s gift of Jesus’s presence to us in communion, we usually think of it as
spacial-- the Lord in heaven is suddenly also on the altar-- or as eventual-- his people on earth are for the moment near to his heavenly throne. St Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin. Both ideas have deep roots in the East, but a long tradition there also emphasizes that Jesus’s eucharistic presence to us persists through time. “I am with you until the end of the age.”

In a rite before the Sunday liturgy in, say, Thessaloniki, the priest blesses the round loaf and cuts it into pieces. A wedge of the bread is later consecrated with the chalice of wine, and then smaller pieces of the rest are distributed to the faithful as they kiss the cross and depart. As its name *antidoron* (< Greek "in place of the gifts") suggests, these take-out pieces of the blessed bread continue the ancient practice of distributing the host to all so that they can communicate themselves at home during the week on Wednesdays and Fridays. The liturgy ends; the communion must not.

A medieval practice followed that one: the celebrant carried the antidoron out the door in a procession to the place where the congregation would share an agape meal like those of St Paul’s day. So the blessed bread in that way linked Christ’s presence in the congregation's eucharist to their further presence in the streets. "This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world."

In the monasteries of Mount Athos, this is still done. But there, the procession winds its way through
porticoes to the refectory where the monks listen to readings as they eat their portions. Reflecting that, the refectories are painted with murals that somewhat mirror those of the church-- in both places one is surrounded by frescoes of saints-- and whose unifying theme is brotherly love.

This is holiness-- the Holy Spirit takes hold of us, deepens our intention to participate in Christ through time, and enables us to keep it through all the obstacles that come. More than any other intention, this one requires vigilance.

At a certain monastery known for its oppositional temper-- a black flag on its ramparts reads Orthodoxy or Death!-- the celebrant once led that procession down a corridor adorned only with apostolic warnings against sins of the tongue copied in an elegant Byzantine hand and framed in gold. If we slide from comparing views into trolling for sport or insulting brothers, the mouth of hell yawns open. The brothers there have opinions as strong as the wind off the Aegean, but they also know their weakness.

Just so, a congregation gathers around the chalice like long distance runners who are apt to run off theircourse and lose their form as they tire, but who are still trying to improve their stride and their times. “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Richard Hooker would surely approve this practice of lingering in the Lord's eucharistic presence long after the liturgy has ended-- in principle, through the week-- because it is constancy in what he saw as the purpose of that means of grace: the soul’s union with Christ. Baffled wranglers still ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?,” as they do in St John vi 52. But Hooker would point out that it does not matter much how one understands the metaphysics of the communion one makes, so long as one makes it intending to remain in it forever.

Meeting the Lord in the digital cathedral

Our ever-smarter phones have no good substitute for participation in the communion itself. Carrying the ball makes you a rugby player; watching someone else carry the ball makes you a fan. Most people I know has seen the occasional services that are also made-for-television spectacles-- royal weddings, state funerals, etc-- but we watch these as geeks, fans or citizens, not to transact the business of the Body of Christ. Anyway, the Lord is immediately present wherever two or three gather in his name; why should they watch him being present elsewhere?

But these computers in our pockets do have three capabilities that could enrich our solidarity in Christ--
(1) the Body can communicate with them to transcend its buildings and boundaries;
(2) we can standardize or tailor the presentation of ideas that help us to participate; and
(3) we can see the Body’s life as it is in other places and times, other “sorts and conditions.” When the faithful of a place have all three, they will be more together than at any time since they prayed under one roof. In that sense, those who integrate them in the service of the local Body are laying foundations for the digital cathedrals of this century.

If you have their cell numbers, you can gather folks across town into a congregation with a text message. Some Roman Catholic bishops up here have gathered flash mobs for events-- learning, service projects, processions-- with mass or vespers. We tell the children that a church is the people, not the building, but they learn all too early that we mainly mobilize the people around the buildings. An inexpensive capability of mobilizing members around need and purpose instead has far-reaching consequences.

Souls can use their phones to connect intentionally by interest and need. An ecumenical social medium to rival Facebook could be very fruitful. In Britain, the NHS has been experimenting with therapeutic communities online with some success. It is not hard to imagine how a similar approach could support ministries in person to the addicted, the homeless, the bereaved etc. To say nothing of those displaced by a disaster, cordoned off from violence, or locked down by a pandemic.

Apps can prompt with timely, tailored information. The world’s best museums use them to explain
religious art in their collections; why on earth don’t churches explain their arts-- visual, musical, and
textual (especially scriptural)-- in apps of their own? It is beginning, slowly.

And just as distance runners now use apps to goad them to practice, map their locations, track their
strides, and time their runs, so serious communicants might be helped by apps that help them to steadily improve a rule of practice. Today, most apps for this purpose are digital-books-with-a-clock that show the prayers and readings appointed for particular hours and days on phone-screens. Their convenience is undeniable, but the next generation of them should be better guided by the needs and UX of those who actually use them.

Most parishes today post links to each Sunday’s sermons in a tidy but boring list. Some retreat centres do the same with retreat talks, guided meditations, and the like. What might happen if these were collected, edited, and presented, nay promoted to lists of those interested in their topics?

Everyone today has a camera and mic in pocket, and access to open source software for editing video.
This is gradually making us a more oral culture than we have been, one in that way more like the ancient world from which we came. It is also enabling voices to speak their minds and show their surroundings from situations like nothing that we have ever seen. At the same time, it is harder than it was for churches to get their distracted members to pay attention to anything merely printed and mailed. Street-wise St Paul might not today collect funds for Jerusalem with a mass mailing. Yet secular platforms like Facebook and YouTube, Skype and Zoom are not optimal for the exchanges of voices and views that should happen among those who pray for one another.

And although the Body is necessarily conserving in most ways, she has been praying for a century for one big disruption that digital technology enables-- the reunion, or at least collaboration, of once-related denominations who are now estranged. Whilst the cost of digital cathedral-building can be low relative to its value, most of these churches have stretched budgets. Working together on a better platform that all can use may be the way to put decades of dialogues, reports, and resolutions to work in the streets for good.

Today, as Bosco says, we live half of our lives online and this is bound to be disruptive. Can we make
disruption beautiful? We always have.
• Early Christians needed to be able to refer quickly to passages copied on several scrolls, and as it
was cumbersome to have them all unrolled at once they became early adoptors of a new
technology-- pieces of scrolls sewed together along their left edge. Over the millennium that
followed, piety inspired ingenuity and they made the book beautiful.
• Huge congregations required special buildings of vaulted stone. In the hard acoustics it was hard
for those in the back to hear what was said in the front, but it was easier if the clergy sang on the
resonating pitch. Plainchant began of necessity, but has continued as a sacred art.
• As late antiquity was becoming the middle ages, the disruptive technology in the East was the
painting of murals and icons. It acknowledged saints, inspired women, toppled a dynasty, and
posed a christological question that only the last ecumenical council could answer. But when
crowds flock to an exhibition of icons today, it is because they are beautiful in some way that
nothing else is. Jesus’s avatar on the internet today is nearly always a Byzantine icon.

Faithful Christians have not so much adopted technologies as inhabited them, adapting them to the piety of souls, the needs of the Body, and the devotion to God of the crafty people who actually copy the manuscript, chant the verse, paint the icon, code the software, edit the video, make the documentary, etc. Disruptions are not beautiful, but the Holy Spirit uses our participation in them to make a new beauty that speaks to the heart.

Our online life puts something subtle at stake: the difference between being saved as a solitary and
sovereign consumer of data, and being saved through fully personal participation in what God is doing--also online-- in his new creation. Both stories have helped souls, but both cannot be the whole. In that way, the scriptures press us to re-evaluate carefully what we have been treating, if at all, as a matter of indifference.

Peter Carrell responds: no one voted for the disruption to life on the planet as we know it, caused by
COVID-19. Very few people ever vote for disruption! But disruption is the experience of 2020 (including the tragic disruption of those dying from COVID-19, among whose number we count those who went to work as doctors and nurses to heal the sick and have died themselves).

Bowman's post above develops the theme of disruption in liturgy, indeed in the very life of the church, as we are thrown into forced dependency on devices, at least for a season. His observations of the present time are laced with personal memories and ecclesiastical histories of other times in Christian experience when disruption altered the course of our theology and our practice. Good may come of this year's disruption, but Bowman's point is that it will not be handed to us on a plate, neatly wrapped and with a plain English explanation of how to make it the best.

We will need to ask, seek and look for what God is giving to his church at this time. There will be matters which compel us to discern carefully, decide wisely and act boldly. There is definitely an opportunity amidst the losses caused by disruption to find gains which draw us closer to Christ and more deeply into fellowship with one another.

1 comment:

Bryden Black said...

"Disruption" + "... But Hooker would point out that it does not matter much how one understands the metaphysics of the communion one makes, so long as one makes it intending to remain in it forever."



= Paschal koinonia

Fin! For what else is there to say ...