by Father John Memorich
There once was a man who had a mouse in his house. He had a mousetrap, but no cheese to use as bait. As the man sat in his kitchen reading a magazine, he noticed an advertisement with a picture of cheese. Chuckling to himself, he cut out the cheese and placed it in the mousetrap under the sink hoping that the mouse might think it real. The next day the man got up, went into the kitchen, and checked the mousetrap. Low and behold he had caught something: a picture of a mouse!
These are certainly extraordinary times for Christians of all denominations, with everyone being forced to stay away from their churches because gathering together in the Name of Christ is such an important element to our Christian ethos: “For where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am also” (Matt. 18:20). Yet churches have found a way to gather, albeit in a virtual realm.
Since this pandemic began, most churches scrambled to meet the needs of parishioners by livestreaming said services, even if only a mere handful could be in the church to perform them. Although this is in no way ideal, it was considered by many to be the best way maintain continuity, to keep in touch, share the faith, and at least seemingly worship together as a congregation.
The use of this technology does have positive merits, even outside this quarantine situation. It allows those unable to attend regularly to view the services, such as those who are in nursing homes, are shut-ins, or who are homebound because they no longer drive, etc. Thus, to them, the livestreaming of service is their only means of participating in corporate services.
For the most part, this effort has worked well under these extreme, extenuating circumstances. Yet somewhere deep inside, livestreaming our services is still somewhat unsettling to me. Not to the point of wanting this practice to cease (most parishioners are now asking that we continue streaming even after the fact, for the sake of those who are at home or sick), nor would I ever criticize any parish for doing it as part of their ministry. Heck, Archangel Michael is leading the OCA in streaming technology by having eight cameras situated throughout the church! Even a friend of mine who works for NBC Sports wrote to thank us for all our efforts and the “fine quality of our production;” and you can’t get any greater praise than from someone who is in the business!
And as an interesting aside, since we have three cameras situated behind the altar, this has allowed everyone the opportunity to witness what before they could not, offering them a much greater appreciation and understanding of the liturgics of the liturgy by “seeing” what the priest does as the liturgy unfolds at the altar.
However, I do feel that there is a downside to this tact; a darkness, like the back corner behind stoves where demons lurk in Russian Fairy Tales. Obviously, live-streaming our services is perhaps the best we can do under the circumstances – and it is certainly being done with the purest of intentions, but I wonder how this is and/or will affect our sense of worship…if we’re not catching a “picture” of worship instead of the real thing.
Since I cannot visit anyone in person, I am being forced to make pastoral visitations with parishioners over the phone. Almost all of them who have the technology and wherewithal are viewing our services. Yet it is in “how” they are viewing them that concerns me. Everyone is certainly happy to see the church, watch the service, listen to sermon, and be “soothed and comforted” by my voice; but when asked what they are doing during the service, I receive answers which literally run the gamut of conduct.
Some families dress up for the live-streaming, others stay in pajamas or sweat-clothes. Some light candles and incense by their television and surround it with icons, others do not. Some families fast, others watch with a cup of coffee in their hand. Some families stand and try to “participate” as they would in church, others simply sit on the couch and watch; a few even admitting they just view services while in bed!
Perhaps the worst element to come out of this situation is what I have coined as, “Services Surfing.” For in talking with parishioners throughout Great Lent and Bright Week, many admit to watching some of our service, then click on to so and so’s services, and then over to another parish’s service, and so on. Upon first hearing this I was immediately taken aback and realized those parishioners, although good-minded, were viewing Sunday and Holy Week services as if they were watching the Browns play the Steelers; and then wanted to check on the Vikings-Green Bay game, before switching to see how the Bears were doing against the Lions!
This is where the livestreaming of worship starts to merge into the shadows of darkness. This is where I realized that people were NOT experiencing virtual Liturgical Worship as real worship; for even by that very definition there needs to be a physical synaxis (gathering) of the people; a “one-mindedness,” if you will. Thus, we are back to Plato’s Cave, watching the shadows of divine reality rather than experiencing the reality of the Divine!
I have no real answers to this unique [problem] as it came upon us so suddenly, nor do I have any hard, fast rules. As stated, we are all just trying to do the best we can do under forced circumstances. Still, I would like to see our hierarchy discuss this important issue and offer their own sage council and advice. However, in the meantime, I would like to make the following pastoral suggestions to my own flock entrusted to my care:
- That although we are forced to be at home and merely watch services remotely, we should still treat this time as “God’s time” by preparing adequately and participating properly.
- That persons should dress for the occasion as if they were normally attending church. Perhaps one need not go to extremes to dress formally, put on make-up, worry about jewelry, matching handbags and shows, yet there is something to be said about “setting apart” that time of worship from the rest of the week and giving God your best – even in how you dress and act.
- That you follow the guidelines of posture during services just as you would in church: standing, sitting, bowing your head, blessing yourself, etc. This promotes continuity to you and especially your children, as well as reminding us of the important times and components that make up our liturgical worship.
- I feel utter sorrow and pain in my inability to minister to my flock fully and physically, and to spiritually feed them from the chalice. However, during this time I think it advisable for parishioners to try and fast as you normally would prior to services. Even if you cannot receive the Eucharist, your fasting becomes a podvig – a kind of ascetical effort and sacrifice during these trying times of separation from the church. Obviously, there are exceptions due to age, illness, and medications, but one should follow the routine set between them and their Father Confessor.
- Please note that there is a vast, precarious cavern between “worship and entertainment;” one that can unknowingly become a great temptation. Therefore, everyone watching the live-streaming of liturgies, etc., should watch ONE service at a time and participate fully in THAT service (and hopefully it is your own home parish you are watching if they have that ability). Service Surfing and/or trying to catch three or four sermons while missing out on the rest of the liturgy utterly defeats the purpose of these extreme efforts. Give all your attention to that one service and then, afterwards, you may virtually visit, watch, and participate in as many services as you wish.