Church of England Diocese of St.Edmundsbury & Ipswich St. Mary, Bury St. Edmunds

Online worship in the pandemic.

15 Mar 2021, 10 a.m.
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All over the world the COVID-19 pandemic has led to congregations taking their church services online. With a return to some sense of normality finally in sight it seems like an opportune moment to reflect upon my experiences of online worship.

There is no doubt that online worship suffers from certain drawbacks. I have always found churches to be uniquely special places in which to worship; they provide an environment where one can escape the distractions of modern life and there’s something about being in a church building that helps me feel closer to God in a way which just isn’t replicable in my own home. That is not to say that God can only be found within the confines of a church building – but the simple act of going into a church always seems to sharpen my focus on my relationship with Him.

There are also a number of characteristics of being physically together with each other which cannot be replicated by online worship. The importance of singing during worship, for instance, is well articulated by a Latin phrase traditionally attributed to St Augustine – bis orat qui cantat (“he who sings prays twice”). Online worship gives us the chance to sing along to hymns at home, and it has been wonderful that St Mary’s has found ways to use music performed by members of the parish within its online services. But singing along at home will never quite match the experience of raising our voices together as a congregation in church.

On a more practical level, there will inevitably have been some parishioners who lack the necessary technology to participate in online worship and who may have been at risk of becoming isolated from the church community as a result.

On the other hand, our inability to congregate in person has forced us to think more creatively about how we can connect as a community. As Rowan Williams recently noted in his book “Candles in the Dark”, the pandemic has had the side effect of shining a light on the needs of those people who, for one reason or another, have historically been unable to attend church services in person. Many such people will have benefited from the ability to participate in church services and reconnect with other members of the church community without having to leave their home.

One of the features of the approach St Mary’s has taken to online worship is the use of Zoom for Sunday services, rather than simply streaming services online. This, in my view, was a superb decision. As well as encouraging more of an active participation in the worship, as a congregation it strengthens our sense of connection to one another. The joy on the faces of fellow parishioners when they are able to see and greet their friends on screen is immediately apparent and deeply heart-warming!

The recently established 20’s and 30’s Fellowship Group has also provided an opportunity within the parish for other millennials and I to socialise, pray together and discuss our faith using Zoom. Spending time with other Christians of a similar age to me never fails to strengthen my faith, and although it’s always easier to get to know people in person than on a Zoom call it is far better to be able to meet virtually than to be unable to meet at all. By conducting these meetings online, it has also made it easier for certain members of the group to fit the sessions in around work commitments and, for the parents in the group, family responsibilities.

So what conclusions might we draw about worshipping online? Everyone will have had different experiences, but for me online worship could never be a perfect substitute for physical gatherings. Humans are inherently social beings, and working towards our common aim of building God’s Kingdom will inevitably be easier when we are once again able to worship and socialise together in person.

However, that is not to say that online worship doesn’t have a place, especially in the circumstances we have found ourselves in during the last twelve months. And there is no doubt that St Mary’s has done particularly well at addressing the challenges created by the pandemic – for instance, by taking steps to maintain contact with those who lack the technology to participate in online worship. Indeed, the Church’s response to the pandemic, including the move to online worship, illustrates two important points which should fill us with optimism and pride. First, the Church is defined by its members, not by the bricks and mortar of its church buildings. And second, faith and worship are resilient. They do not end when worship is no longer possible in its existing format – they adapt and evolve, and continue to provide comfort and hope even in the most challenging of circumstances.