St. John the Divine, Victoria, began this pandemic like many other Christian communities, taking a reactive rather than a proactive approach to using technology in order to try and maintain some sense of ‘normalcy’ in the strange times we found ourselves in. Our services, initially broadcast live through Facebook and YouTube, soon became Zoom meetings which celebrated a commemoration of the sacrament rather than a kind-of eucharist. We shared a sense of mourning that we couldn’t join together in the holy meal, but at the same time recognized that the physical sharing of the eucharist could be remembered and marked in our prayers using the technology we all quickly were getting to grips with using day by day. And for those who had any difficulty ‘plugging in,’ advice and assistance were provided.
We took the opportunity to create a shared daily space for prayer on weekdays at noon: a mix of recorded, ‘Zoomed’, and Facebook Live versions of the midday office, which has grown a certain following, usually a dozen viewers for each live broadcast with up to 400 views later. A new sense of being a ‘praying community’ which enlarged our own physical community has emerged. These midday prayers began to offer a space for more creative use of liturgy and other resources and are led by members of the leadership and congregation of the church.
Meetings quickly went online, and we have learned that in this world of ‘screen fatigue’ it is better to try and keep them shorter, preferably nearer one hour rather than the two hours we used to budget ‘IRL’ (In Real Life).
As the pandemic has continued, and in the most recent shutdowns, the more creative approach has continued – as we have managed a ‘hybrid’ version of the service with music and a leader in the church building and other contributors taking part via Zoom. Our approach to using technology has been led by a few innovative folk, particularly our associate warden Karen Coverett and our musical director David Stratkauskas. They have researched and implemented various aspects of our livestream technology from hardware and software to the use of our website and the best shape for our liturgical offerings. As is often the case in church communities, finding personnel who can do these things and then trying to prevent them from burning out is proving to be a struggle.
We have tried to balance the sense of wanting to be curious, creative, even innovative, with the need to create an online space that is welcoming and comforting for our community – somewhere that feels familiar in a world where pretty much everything feels different. We also continue to ask how what we are offering can engage with and encourage the participation of those outside our parish community. Unlike a usual Sunday-by-Sunday gathering in our church building, it is difficult to find a way where new people can ‘drop in’ to a Zoom worship meeting – particularly as we try to balance openness with safety in our online gathering.
As 2021 dawns, I think that the church at large will need to continue to ask questions about inclusion, welcome, and openness in on online spaces. At St. John, we will continue to offer our daily online prayer, and to ‘livecast’ our worship even beyond the blessed day when we can again gather, as we have found a larger community who do seem to want to explore faith and connect through digital means. We are hoping that this pandemic can offer a launchpad into new and creative ways of sharing our message of faith, hope, and love and offer a space both online and physically which is welcoming, gracious, and safe to explore matters of spirit, justice, and worship.