Rapid Adaptation: Telemediated Worship, Covid-19 and Virtual Services

Covid-19 is an on-going inflection point producing radical and long-lasting social, cultural, economic and political change. Inflection points change the future.

At the University of Birmingham, we work across disciplinary boundaries. The University’s Institute for Global Innovation (IGI) was established to facilitate solutions to complex societal problems requiring transdisciplinary thinking. We don’t just talk about transdisciplinary research we do it. For other universities our project on the emergence of telemediated worship would be unusual, but not for the University of Birmingham. In this project an economic geographer based in a business school and a theologian are working together to understand the impacts and adaptation strategies that have emerged across religious denominations to Covid-19.

Religions are the oldest organisational forms. They are unusual. The Roman Catholic Church is an international business with a 2000-year history; the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. We don’t tend to associate religious denominations with rapid change or even radical change. Covid-19 has revealed that this country’s religions are able to adapt rapidly in moments of crisis.

On Monday 23 March, Boris Johnson, changed the lives of everyone living in the UK. One of these changes was the closure of all places of worship – churches, chapels, mosques, synagogues and chapels, for public worship. There are three important points to make here.

First, many individual parishes and places of worship had already adapted to Covid-19 by introducing live streaming of their services to ensure that the most vulnerable could remain at home but continue to worship. On 18 March the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Roman Catholic Church announced that the celebration of Mass would take place without a public congregation. Assemblies of God, one of the larger ‘new church’ groupings in the UK, advised its churches to close public meetings and provided training resources within days to support them in going online.

Second, places of worship across the country responded to the Covid-19 challenge by rapidly embracing new technology and developing local approaches to the live streaming of their services. This is an exceptional level of rapid adaptation in response to a national emergency.  For the Church of England, for example, vicarages have been rapidly converted in to recording and film studies and vicars, and their partners, have become film directors and producers. Global megachurches like Hillsong Church, Sydney, are gathering their thousands via Facebook rather than in their physical auditoria. The ChurchOnline virtual services platform run by Life Church, Kansas City, hosted over 20,000 worship events from across the globe on the last weekend of March, and online presence companies like Mevo are reporting a tenfold increase in equipment sales. A new normal has emerged, but in days rather than weeks.

These new on-line, live streamed services represent for the UK a new form of telemediated or virtual worship. There are many examples including on-line masses provided by the Catholic Society of Birmingham including a virtual book club to live streamed services from the newly established church in the study of the Vicar of the parish of Malvern Link with Cowleigh. The Malvern Link with Cowleigh website notes that “tough times call for creative solutions” and this includes a new link on their webpage to “virtual services”. Some of the new churches are piloting interactive prayer meetings over videoconferencing services such as GoToMeeting or Zoom or livestreaming Bible studies from their ministers’ living rooms.

Third, these new forms of virtual worship represent a new form of inclusive worship. Online services combine contributions from members of the congregation who have converted their homes into temporary film studies; dining rooms and garages have become music producing and recording venues. Nevertheless, the everyday activities undertaken by religious denominations continue in terms of supporting communities. This includes organising food deliveries and providing care to the most vulnerable and the isolated, as well as the important task of conducting pastoral counselling and support online and over the telephone.

It is important to reflect on what this means. Virtual worship extends the geographic reach of worship services including a dramatic increase in the numbers of those attending. Even small churches are seeing online attendances well into the hundreds. It also transforms the experience of worship. For some virtual services, commentary in real-time by those participating on-line is part of this new form of worship.

Covid-19 is an inflection moment that is changing the future and one of these changes may very well be live streaming of services becoming the new normal.

Professor John Bryson and Dr Andrew Davies.