From the Rev. Canon Alissa Newton:
My congregation ran our first live-stream service on the Second Sunday of Lent. Most of us will remember that as the last Sunday we were allowed as a congregation in our worship spaces. We used my cell phone, a tripod, and a wireless mic that hooked to my alb and plugged directly into the phone. St. Columba had 65 human beings in the sanctuary that day for our main service, the emerging crisis delivering about the same sort of hit we usually take in attendance for a Seahawks game. I got up front and gave a little talk about social distancing, how we would only be sharing bread at Eucharist, and gosh it was good to see everybody. We worshiped together, and I was grateful to be able to film that worship and share it with the folks who were watching from home.
One week later the world had changed. We were no longer worshiping as community and streaming our worship to the important minority of congregants who were isolated at home. Now, there were just eight of us facilitating worship for our entire community who were all at home. The role and purpose of what we were doing via the camera and internet connection is fundamentally different now, and as all of us move into this uncharted and frankly unwanted territory, I have some thoughts to offer in how we stay church and continue to worship while ministering liturgically (and in most other ways) at a distance from the congregations we have been called to serve. These are, I hope, ideas that will jump start our liturgical brains and imaginations, and begin conversations we can have as colleagues together in the weeks and months to come.
Use the camera to place congregants in the room. If you are filming in your usual worship space, consider what your people need to see. What are the comforting and familiar sights that will make them feel like they are there? At St. Columba, we chose a fairly intimate camera placement that can pan between a close shot of the lectern and vested ministers and a close shot of the altar, because we are continuing Eucharist as our Sunday worship service. We wanted our congregation to feel like they were sitting right in the front row, and we made sure to include our familiar red processional cross in the background. We are not an extremely large congregation, and the intimacy is something we really miss right now. I made the choice to exclude any shots of empty chairs – some might choose to show them as a way of acknowledging the loss. If you are leading worship from your home, think through what is behind you and in the frame. Is there something familiar from your worship space that could come live at your house for a while? An icon or bell or cross that says “church” to your people?
Consider shifting your liturgy toward the viewer. My team had some spirited debate about this. Do we process in past empty chairs? Does the preacher address the camera directly? When does this cease to be worship and become a performance? We decided to ask at each moment in our customary liturgy how we could include viewers with intention. For us, this means the preacher addresses the camera directly, and, after reverencing the altar, we reverence the camera. We added a guided meditation after the sermon, written with people sitting at home in mind and connected to our Lenten and scriptural themes. One of our team of eight who put on our live-stream liturgy is someone whose whole job it is to moderate and respond to comments so we are connected to viewers. This was our way – you might use Zoom instead of Facebook Live, or use them together to bring people from distanced locations together. You might have even better ideas that emerge from your congregation and your experience of exploring this way of connecting and staying church. If you do – please share them!
You communicate differently on screen. A colleague reminded me today that TV is not a subtle medium. “Our tone, gestures, and emotions need to be bigger than we think, especially the dominant culture of the Episcopal church.” Let’s have the courage to watch ourselves back and think about how to modify how we gesture, emote, and speak to impact our people on the other side of the screen.
Find a balance between the familiar and the new. Maybe this is the perfect time to teach your people how to do Morning Prayer. Or maybe what your people need is to see and hear the familiar words of the Eucharist even though they cannot participate fully. As we get further into this crisis, needs may change. More than anything we have a wonderful opportunity to model trying new things and holding ourselves as leaders in a state of public grace as we also engage in public, live-streamed, video-conferenced love for and with our people.
During our first live-streamed service at St. Columba, the mic failed to plug into my phone and my sermon was inaudible to the hard of hearing folks at home. We messed up a cell phone setting and filmed sideways for the first four minutes. But the at-home folks reported that the music and the ability watch was an immense comfort to them. Last week the mic was great. It was so great we had to proclaim much of the service from the lectern because no voices could be heard that weren’t spoken directly into the mic. But folks at home were thrilled to worship together and to hear their priest and their musician and see their people in their church. Our first job is to love our people and show up for and with them. This is something we already know how to do. Let’s stay in conversation as we think through,and learn the tech that will continue to enable us to do what we know, together.