To Zoom or not to Zoom

We were back in church at Easter. On many levels it’s good to be back in the church community. But ….. the small numbers, the absence of singing, the masks … I guess that, as we move back to some kind of normality, the ‘in church’ experience will improve. And then we’ll have to talk about whether Zoom was just something we did when we had no alternative – is it going to be an enduring part of what we offer.

This is actually a number of quite separate questions. There is the Lord Braid view that online worship is an alternative rather than worship itself. I guess that questions about the authenticity of sacraments are in the same area. I have to confess that there are things about worship on Zoom which I like. I like being able to see the congregation all on the screen at the same time. I like being able to visit a number of churches – some would say that I am fickle. But Zoom really helps to challenge the congregationalism which is so characteristic of church life. And it makes it possible to include housebound people in the community – and to give people who may be considering joining a congregation an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’

I know that I am privileged in my ability to have a ‘view from the pew’ or more often a ‘view from the laptop on the kitchen table.’ To lead worship on Zoom must be very demanding – particularly if you want to do more than just ‘point a camera’ at what you would have been doing anyway. One of my clergy friends described it to me as ‘like running a small theatre which also broadcasts its offerings.’

I suspect that we are going to be talking about this for a long time. I’m about to run a clergy ‘Quiet Day’ on Zoom. I wonder how that will go!

Dear Scotland

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s ‘Dear England’ book has nudged me to think about ‘Dear Scotland’. There are many things which I could write about – with great affection. But the one which interests me most is the nature of secular society in Scotland.

Almost everywhere, society has been becoming more secular. It’s a sort of inexorable attrition of the life of faith and the practice of religion. To turn the tide tends to be a Canute-like endeavour. But strangely, as our societies become more multi-faith, religion paradoxically becomes more important,

It took me a long time to realise that what drives the secularising movement is not the same in every society.

In England, it’s been a steady ‘movement away’ and I’m often surprised by how much is left. In Ireland, the prosperous ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and the abuse scandals reduced the Catholic Church to a shadow of itself in a single generation. In Northern Ireland, the all-pervasive sectarianism artificially sustained religious affiliation – and the peace process has tended to weaken it. But there is a long way to go.

The Brierley Consultancy has been surveying religious practice in Scotland for many years. The figures are startling:

The 1984 Scottish Census recorded total church attendance as 854,000, and between 1984 and 2002 it reduced by 33% to 570,000 in 2002. That 2002 attendance figure has reduced over 14 years to 390,000 in 2016, a reduction of 32%.

No doubt there are many causes behind those figures – but the one which seems to me to be ‘special to Scotland’ is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment implanted in the Scottish DNA strands of rationalism and empiricism. So the roots of Scottish secular society lie in an intellectual movement not in a gradual ‘falling away’. It is obvious that this will make efforts to grow religious movements challenging to say the least.

Faith communities say, quite rightly, that a decline in religious practice is not the same as the absence of appetite for exploration of the spiritual. But, as applies everywhere, it helps to understand the context.

So my experience has been that it is possible to stir interest in spirituality and prayer. Many people have a radical and faith-driven attitude to issues of social justice. Celtic spirituality remains deeply attractive to many and is increasingly being expressed in the growing pilgrimage movement.

But in a society like this, it is tempting for faith communities to live inside their own world. It takes energy – but it is absolutely necessary that they should try and engage with the whole of society and take their place in the ‘public square’

More another day

Kitchen table pew

I had to struggle last night to get online for the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion from Perth Concert Hall. Their concerts are a sort of Passiontide ‘trigger’ for me. As the struggle with the technology subsided, the music began to do as it always does for me. Yes German is another challenge – but Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Peter’s denial and bitter weeping transcend language and hit home. The Concert Hall seems to be taking its online presence very seriously and professionally – several cameras and clever fading in and out made it an experience of almost television standard. I missed the atmosphere of the Concert Hall – but the experience was real to me.

Meanwhile I took an interest this week in the Facebook discussion among some of our clergy following Lord Braid’s Judgement about the Scottish Government’s decision to close churches. Lord Braid suggested that ‘online broadcasts and services…. are best viewed as an alternative to worship, rather than worship itself.’ An interesting discussion followed about whether worship was a more or less satisfactory online experience ‘live’ or recorded’ and about what happens to sacraments in online worship. I was reminded of the argument in the early days of recorded worship about whether a taped blessing could be considered to ‘work’ or not.

I’ve been reading Rowan Williams’ ‘Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a time of Pain. He made this interesting comment: ‘I have found that the experience of concentrating on ‘spiritual communion’; of quieting myself down to focus on the great gift of God in Jesus, absolutely present in this act, these things; of doing all this in the quiet of home, in a moment of physical stillness and quietness – all this brings home to me the truth that our common life, in and out of church, depends simply on what has been done for us, and in response we can only gaze and adore and give thanks.’

My position on all this at present is that of the person In the pew – which happens to be the laptop on the kitchen table. Online worship is certainly different. But it seems to me that it offers many new possibilities even if it is not the same experience as being in church. I’ve just been part of the congregation at Chichester Cathedral and I’ve been able ‘helicopter in’ to all sorts of places – churches where I have been in ministry or have other connections or where I am just interested. Congregations can build whole new communities like this. It seems to me that the skills required to shape and lead this kind of worship lie somewhere between worship leading and broadcasting. Some have become very effective at doing this. I’ve heard congregations just talking to one another before the service and at the Peace. I’ve heard people reading and leading prayers – and talking about their faith. I’ve heard simple and very effective music. There are new freedoms here even if the online world imposes restraints of its own.

I don’t think this is going to go away – it’s going to be part of church life for the foreseeable future even when we are able to meet in church buildings again!