Richard Bastable considers worship online

Undoubtedly livestreaming and other digital broadcasts have helped some of those able to access it to feel close to Christian worship, and has provided them some spiritual nourishment. I decided early not to livestream, chief among several reasons was that I didn’t believe I would be good at it. Knowing the local fondness for the Bishop of Fulham, and confident of the quality of his broadcasts, I gladly circulated his livestreamed liturgies to our email list. Meanwhile, I ensured a range of media (daily emails, Facebook posts, YouTube homilies) kept the digitally-enabled in touch with the parish itself; hard-copies of devotional material and regular phone calls meant that those whose faith was thus far intact without going online were also included. My hope was that people, especially families, would rediscover the value of prayer in the home and the domestic church. I was also keen to underline to parishioners that, though they cannot join me physically, I continue to pray on their behalf in the accustomed ways, in the usual place, and along the same schedule. This has given a sense of unity and continuity.  

I’m very happy that the ministry of livestreaming has been offered, and those doing so have received much gratitude from their parishioners and others, but I had a sense that it wasn’t incumbent on us all to be doing it all the time. [In what follows I refer consistently to livestreaming, but that is meant to incorporate broadcasting of pre-recorded liturgies.]  

By Holy Week almost everyone was livestreaming – comparison is the peril of personal and parish presences on social media. Digital efforts seem to have been the primary concern of “central church” (for want of a more elegant, or less personally finger-pointing, term), sometimes in preference to greater theological issues, or more vital matters of Christian ministry. Should I succumb? Maybe on Easter Day I’d livestream a Mass; but then we were told not to do so from our churches but only from our homes. This made me even more wary of the trend to turn ourselves into online celebrities – we were now to turn our homes into studios: another unwelcome acceleration in the commodification of Christian ministry. It would be easier, perhaps, to say Mass in church in the normal way with a camera that just happens to be there; however, the retreat into the home forces decisions about liturgy, style and personality that too readily succumb to the celebrity model.  

This was parodied on Facebook when a priest posted two pictures of his newly-constructed home altar and asked whether two or four reliquaries looked better. We were all amused and it allowed a welcome outlet for pressure-easing humour. Parody only works when there is some truth. Often there are none so competitive as the clergy. These sitting-rooms-turned-oratories were the new expression of that competition. 

Requiring more probing are the issues of what we think livestreaming is, does and achieves, and what it isn’t, what it doesn’t do, and what it can’t achieve. 

1. Livestreaming a liturgy enables some of those unable to attend to find a limited connection with a liturgy being offered; however, it is not the same as attendance at such a liturgy and cannot be considered a replacement for attendance, but only a helpful means of some personal connection with the liturgy, and to some extent with the person or place by whom and from which it is celebrated. Yes, a Spiritual Communion can be made at the usual time of receiving Communion in the Mass, but such a Spiritual Communion can also be made at any time whether viewing a livestream or not. It may help some to conform their devotions to the livestreamed Mass, but objectively, in terms of grace, it doesn’t add anything. 

2. When we are in church for Mass we see the Eucharistic elements; after consecration, we give them appropriate reverence believing in their transformation into the real presence of Christ. In a livestreamed liturgy we see a configuration of pixels showing us that same thing, but only as a depiction. Sacramentally what is present to us has no objective quality (unlike the sacrament itself), and is equal to a photograph or artistic representation. 

3. Liturgy requires the gathering of people. On Sunday we would hope for a large, diverse crowd. One of the blessings of this parish is that the Sunday Mass is a rare place in this community where people meet from a range of backgrounds: age, social class, ethnicity, occupations, and so on. We come from across the globe and a century-worth span of ages. Despite what it can do for us, livestreaming cannot replicate this; attempts to do so through pre-recorded engagements from others haven’t the true “gathered nature” of real liturgy. Even though we can be sure that the Church Triumphant joins the lone priest, something is missing and very lacking when members of the community of the Church Militant cannot be present to each other. 

4. Notwithstanding point 2 above, the attitude of someone engaged in a livestream is necessarily different from their attitude in church. A father wrote of encouraging his children to behave as they would in church: making the responses, sitting, kneeling, standing; but the children slumped on the sofa and watched with phones in their hands, making commentary or chatter as they would for television viewing. Livestreaming is neither active participation in the Mass (demanding the customary postures), nor is it merely entertainment (easily permitting sofa-viewing). We cannot receive the same, nor even nearly the same, from a livestreamed Mass as we cannot give the same to it in terms of preparation, devotion, and spiritual disposition. Its appearance on screen in our home also presents issues of modern living such as attention-span and concentration. 

5. The church building and the offering of liturgy therein prefigures our heavenly destination. We physically travel to attend the liturgy in a journey which mirrors our pilgrimage through life towards heaven. Once there, all-consuming multi-sensory worship lifts us from earthly existence and mystically unites us with a place where God seems nearer. This bodily pilgrimage and mystical union cannot replicated by looking at a computer screen. 

Clergy and others must ensure that livestreaming is not an attempt to justify their ongoing existence when much (not all!) of their public-facing work has been diminished; likewise, we must be cautious of uncritically assimilating the hierarchy’s “look, we are still here” obsession when we might justifiably question their withdrawal from much of what they could do and their apparent command that others withdraw. We must ask, why am I doing this? If it is genuinely to help people with their prayers, then that, of course, is good.  

We must earnestly pray for that time when we may return to our churches to offer the liturgy together. Essential in the meantime is deliberate recognition of these issues by livestreamers and viewers, lest a livestreamed liturgy be perceived as an adequate alternative for presence at liturgy itself – with the above points in mind, it simply can’t be. A livestream can provide spiritual help to those unable to join the liturgy in the place where it is offered, and this is worthy reason to livestream – it is not a sufficient substitution, but in a time of deprivation it may be some consolation.  

Fr Richard Bastable is the Vicar of St Luke’s, Shepherd’s Bush.