This summer I’m taking Wycliffe’s Ministry and Technology course online. Every two weeks we’re to write a 1000-word response to a given prompt that we have first worked through in discussion forums, and submit that response for grading. There is no requirement to share these papers online, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyways.
Paper #1: COVID-19 and the Church
The prompt: Has the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic redefined the church’s relationship with technology?
I will first limit the terms of the question to what seems most significant for my own perspective. 1) The common “experience of COVID-19” is that of physical distancing and quarantine. Closed churches, shuttered coffee shops and discontinued in-person services, meetings, Bible studies etc. 2) The specific “church” is the Anglican Church of Canada and the Diocese of Toronto. The perspectives of other churches and denominations are valuable, but I can only offer a perspective on the Church where I have been situated. 3) The specific “technology” is the use of internet tools for worship, meetings and communal connection, notably Zoom and video livestreaming, as well as email. The use of these tools has seen the most change.
So, has the experience of quarantine redefined Anglicans’ relationship with internet tools?
In the short term, there had to be a change. Doing something was better than doing nothing: many churches took to Zoom for both worship services and other gatherings, while others reserved Zoom for meetings and conversations but retrieved (Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, 41) the technology of televised services on Youtube or Facebook Live. A third option for worship, such as what we have done at St. Stephen’s, Maple, was to email modified versions of the Sunday bulletin for people to pray at home. All three options for worship sought to extend (Ibid) the church building, specifically the nave, into our living rooms. Using Zoom for other gatherings similarly extended the parish hall, a conscious effort named by the term “digital coffee hour.”
Again, doing something was better than nothing. Communities that were slower to act have left people feeling more isolated during these distressing times, and some parishes that were woefully unprepared have tragically imploded. On the other hand, parishioners such as those at St. Stephen’s have appreciated the opportunity for continued contact during our informal Friday night gatherings, and we are slowly introducing a small digital element to our Sunday home prayers. More importantly, it was clear that laity and clergy alike needed to continue encountering Christ through the ministry of the Word. Before the pandemic, some clergy used blogs, videos and social media to communicate Scripture and sermons outside of their regular Sunday use; now, many clergy have turned to Livestreams, Zoom services and posting transcripts online in lieu of these now-cancelled in-person services.
So, a change has occurred in the short-term, but what does it mean for our relationship to technology? The most we can say for the medium-term is that the pandemic experience has revealed how churches, clergy and communities have already viewed current technologies for a while now. We can only respond to a new situation with the spiritual, intellectual and technical resources already at our disposal. Two of the three approaches were prominent:
- The need to do something revealed that “uncritical embrace” was all we had time for. We had to accept a trade-off between the awkwardness of Zoom and unpolished videos and the fact that people really needed to connect with Christ in Scripture and with each other. We rushed to provide online ministry, and uncritically assumed there was a “why” of greater use of digital tools, despite not being too sure about the “how.”
- When pressed, the second option of “separation from technology,” is a minority opinion in mainstream Anglicanism, at least here in Toronto. Again, those who chose to separate from technology separated from each other and “imploded.”
- Many Livestreams and Zoom gatherings have turned out to be reliable and serviceable, such as the weekly streams from St. James’ Cathedral on the Diocese of Toronto Facebook page. This refinement has become a sort of “disciplined discernment” in media res: We are closer to experiencing MacLuhan’s connection between the “how” and the “why” of using internet tools as church. (Hipps, 30 etc.)
This discernment has begun to probe what is possible and what is impossible, especially according to our Anglican convictions regarding the connection between communal gathering and the Eucharist. Evangelicals and the Broach-church majority have called for a “Eucharistic fast,” stemming from a renewed Anglican insistence on an assembled congregation for the Eucharist. The possibility of “digital communion” has been ruled out, but Morning Prayer and Ante-communion for Sunday worship has been retrieved. Anglo-Catholics were never going to accept the possibility of “digital communion,” but have revived the practice of Spiritual Communion by employing St. Alphonsus Liguori’s prayer but in the more participatory context of Prayer Book worship. In both cases, whether in Morning Prayer or a Livestreamed Mass, the Liturgy of the Word continues in Anglican parishes. I will address some long-term possibilities of this below.
Beyond the medium-term, it is too soon to tell how the pandemic experience will come to redefine Anglican churches’ relationship to internet tools for gathering and worship. My long-term hope is that as this disciplined discernment continues, we are better positioned to do this discernment well when we can return to in-person gatherings. This is not guaranteed, especially if our disciplined awareness of the effect of media on message is overwhelmed by Ellul’s pessimistic “technological system” and “technological determinism.” (Thompson, “Ellul and Technology,” Cross Currents, 133) The worrisome example is if the ease and convenience of staying at home, watching a liturgy on a screen and merely connecting digitally comes to dominate over-against our Gospel-mandated pursuit of holistic human community. This domination risks creating a highly consumerist church “experience” that would obsolete (Hipps, 41) our in-person gatherings and the work involved on the part of both clergy and laity together. It might reverse (Ibid.) into the clericalism of medieval and Tridentine non-participatory liturgy, or perhaps the capitalist emotionalism of megachurches that Hipps (146-154) warns us about.
Those are the dangers, but I hope the opportunities are greater. We are aware that physical distancing is not the normative mode of human existence. Our longing for in-person gatherings is natural and healthy, and I hope this longing fosters a greater appreciation for these gatherings when they are again possible. Our differing responses within Anglicanism described above have already begun to express what we value in worship, and these might affect what our worship looks like in the future. I doubt this signifies a wholesale end to the century-old prominence of weekly reception of Communion, but we may experience a greater balance between Word and Sacrament when we return to regular gatherings. My deeper hope, again, is that if we continue to form people well, then we will experience a reinvigorated appreciation of Word and Sacrament when we return to gathering, and of in-person gathering itself.
Of course, these gatherings will not be as they were, nor will our ways of connecting as communities: some “cats are out of the bag.” My greatest hope is that Anglicans and mainline churches finally learn to respond to and constructively challenge Millennials and younger generations, according to the ways that they connect with each other. Is the goal that young people correct the current age imbalance of Anglican worship gatherings, an imbalance that threatens our future existence? Perhaps, but only if we remove the log out of our eye and learn to do disciplined discernment well. Because I believe that young people are longing to be included in both aspects of disciplined discernment: we are looking for communities that discern active use of social media and other tools in order to engage us, but are more accustomed to disciplined use and aware of the personal pitfalls of uncritical embrace than many older church leaders might suspect. If this experience redefines Anglican churches’ relationship to internet tools for the better, it may well be because we rely on the expertise of young people more than we have in the past.