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Rituals and traditions: experiential church in the time of Covid-19

Wednesday, 5 August 2020  | Karly Michelle Edgar




In this time of online church gatherings, I find I am missing those, sometimes all too brief, moments of collective quiet that we may experience when we meet together in person. It’s not a quiet of absence - those moments may not actually be silent, and they are certainly not empty - but rather a full ‘quiet of focus’. It’s not a stillness with no movement, but a stillness of direction, as together we turn towards God rather than pulling against one another. These moments are often preceded by a ritual - a prayer, communion or preaching - and they help us remember that there is something beyond ourselves that we don’t understand, but that for a time we are prepared to sit within the mystery together.

Despite this, I am completely supportive of the transition to church online. Online has the potential to benefit us all now, during the pandemic, and to continue to benefit us into the future. I do, however, think it is important to carefully consider how our congregation is going with this transition, especially as we cannot assume that the widespread need for online gathering will be over any time soon. Given that the transition to online was quite abrupt (at least in my experience), now that we have settled into a rhythm, I think there are three main areas for consideration.

The first is to consider how we assist our congregants long-term with technology. Are we able to help with providing technology, assisting with training or utilising a variety of online ways of connecting? There are many options and we need to be creative, flexible and adaptable to what our individual congregations actually need, and not only provide what is easiest.

Secondly, we need to consider how to incorporate what we have learnt about the use of technology in our long-term planning. Now that we know it is possible, how might we continue providing online access for those who always, irrespective of Covid-19, find getting to physical church services difficult? I realise online is never going to be exactly the same as face-to-face, but I’m also not prepared to say that face-to-face is always better and I certainly don’t think we should just wait for face-to-face to return. Online church gatherings allow us to connect with those who are isolated or unwell, making church even more accessible. Both the technical needs of our communities and our long-term incorporation of technology need to be an ongoing part of our faith communities’ discussions, as there is no single answer and we must be adaptive to our respective community needs.

But there is also a third consideration: How do we, week in and week out, actually conduct our services online? How have we transitioned the actions, the feelings, the experience of our weekly physical gatherings to online? I imagine that many of us have simply transferred what we used to do into a video format. This online transition has been an amazing and a particularly momentous transition and, overall, I think we have all done very well. But with the weeks stretching into months, it might be beneficial for us to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what it might mean to do church online for another year, as this might be a real possibility. Imagine if we knew for sure that it would be at least another twelve months; what might we set up now to facilitate this or what things might we begin to do differently? What else might we try?

As a community of people used to doing things face-to-face, it may take us a while to figure out how to best transfer to online and we need to feel free to keep trying, adapting and working through the possibilities. We need to keep trying to find inclusive ways of participation in online church gatherings. We need to consider how to connect, and how to facilitate prayer together. How might we facilitate moments of reflective and corporate stillness and silence? Sometimes what I need from a church gathering is not more information, but participation. How do we do genuine participation online? How do we not only say or hear the words, but focus on the image, the movements and the joint experience of participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist? How do we notice beauty and nature while staring at a computer? How do we transfer the touch of handshakes during the passing of the peace to online? How do we transform watching online gatherings into a participatory gathering of God’s people? How do we do this especially as small, local congregations?

During this transition to online, our rituals and traditions are being put to the test as we discover which of them may actually be dead corpses that we are stubbornly clinging onto; which of our rituals may have already been exclusive and non-participatory for a wider body and might need adaption; which ones may now mean very little; or which may mean a great deal more. We may discover the difficulty of transitioning physical, participatory and experiential rituals and traditions to online. Rituals were, in the past, always meant to be shared physically, alongside others, as we participate in words and actions that have been said by those who have come before us, and we hope, continued by those who come after us. But what do rituals mean now?

While we don’t have to ‘experience’ certain things to have faith, experience, participation and the joining with the body of Christ do form an important part of why we come together. The experiential side of our faith enriches our life in ways that are unknown and mysterious. It can be experienced individually at home - we do not have to be with others. But, part of the opportunity of gathering together as a church body is the reminder that we are a part of a community that stretches back into the past and forward into the future. We are not alone. And participating in rituals and traditions are one way of reminding ourselves of this.

The difficulty here is that there is no single answer given the variety of denominations and the slightly different ways in which individual churches have ‘gone online’. The way forward needs to be discovered from within as you seek to connect with your community’s needs, abilities, interests and more. Given that there are many ways forward, I want to encourage churches to actively review what the long-term engagement of technology might mean and to encourage thoughtful, prayerful and creative ways of engaging.

Suggestions

Therefore, I want to provide just a few suggestions that may spark some ideas and that you may like to experiment with and adapt for your own congregation.

  • Email out the order of service (or portions thereof), or particular prayers or statements of faith that are used regularly, that can be printed by those who wish to have something physical. Maybe mail out or drop off physical copies for those who do not have a printer. Encourage people to run their fingers along the words of the prayer as they are prayed.
  • Invite people to bring something from ‘nature’ into the service to have sitting by them as they watch the service: a pot plant, some leaves or flowers from the garden. Encourage people to engage with what they smell like, look like, feel like.
  • In an Easter gathering I once gave everyone who attended a large nail (the super large kind) to hold, encouraging those who could to hold it continually throughout the service, allowing the weight of it to become more noticeable. Then at a particular time they were invited to put the nail down, releasing its weight. There may be other versions of this as well as exploring other types of physical touch – things that are heavy, hard, soft, smooth, something from nature.
  • Ask people to bring with them something precious to focus on, or something with a different value that engages with the theme of the service.
  • During communion, maybe show the bread and the drink up very close, or draw back, much wider, to demonstrate the movements of the person leading, the raising and tearing of bread, the raising up of the drink.
  • Encourage interaction between those within households. For example you could encourage families to develop a household practice of passing the peace among parents and children.
  • However, some people do live alone and may be feeling more isolated than ever during the pandemic. Developing practices for those who live alone, or even for those who come to the online church gathering alone, is especially important. The passing of the peace could be done with hands up to the computer screen all at once. People could be encouraged to trace their handprint on paper and write the names of those they are thinking of.
  • Encourage small group discussion (maybe through Zoom breakout rooms) after the church services for those who wish to talk about the service or pray further, as a way of facilitating personal connection and more meaningful conversations.
  • Encourage people to write their own prayers during a time of silence and focus within the service.
  • Encourage drawing or a creative practice for those who like to engage this way. One of the benefits for me of online church is that I get to regularly spend some of the service drawing. This is also a practice that the kids of the church I attend engage in and I especially love that at the end of the service the children are invited to share what they have drawn.
  • I put together a Good Friday Reflection using a video of circle drawing, a form of drawing I find very meditative during reflection. Consider using a repetitive drawing practice like this. More examples of how to start can be found here.
  • Engage with icons. Look at them online and print them off to have yourself. An example can be found here.
  • Write out prayers or bible verses. An example can be found here.
  • Read through Mark Pierson’s ‘The Art of Curating Worship’ and see what ideas it sparks for you. How can you adapt it to online?
  • Engage the senses and encourage action: light candles, pour water, tear bread, touch, smell….

As we explore new ways to engage online, we need to be prepared for things to take longer and for ‘technical’ transitions to be noticeable. Technology will not always permit smooth transitions between the different parts of a gathering and there may be pauses. However, as those leading become more comfortable in their role, this transition will become less pressured and, whatever happens, we will all learn to adjust to it. It is best if the expectations about how to participate are communicated clearly by those leading the service. Whatever type of online church gathering your church does I encourage you to keep experimenting with what might be possible, and what best facilitates connection during this time of isolation.

Karly Michelle Edgar is a mixed media artist currently doing PhD research into biography in palliative care. She is interested in story, faith, and reflective artwork. Her current ‘One A Week Psalm Project’ explores creativity as spiritual practice. Karly lives with fibromyalgia, and lives on Wurundjeri land. You can find more of her work at www.karlymichelle.com.


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