Anvil journal of theology and mission
The televisual art and theology of online worship
by Martin Poole
[A]ll things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world.Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI, 20071
2020 was a year when online worship was forced upon the church due to the closure of buildings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly churches and church people who hardly used a computer, let alone Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and all the other social media flavours, were thrown into an unfamiliar cyberworld of watch parties, streaming, uploading and retweeting. Churches that were barely able to connect to the internet had to scramble to find ways to engage with their congregations and the wider world and to wrestle with what it means to worship online. So let’s consider some of the artistic, creative and theological issues that we are presented with when we consider worship online.
I am going to use television as a catch-all title for all forms of screen-mediated worship, a media that has become enormously democratised in recent years thanks to the internet, YouTube, Facebook and so on. Gone are the days when television was the preserve of media professionals with expensive equipment and huge teams of specialists; now anyone can broadcast to the world using just a regular smartphone. Open access to this form of media is a good thing and we have all become used to the varying quality of material online while also being appreciative of the product produced professionally by production companies, broadcasters like the BBC and the new breed of streamers such as Netflix.
I would argue that televisual media is as much an art form as painting, sculpture, music, dance or any other of the more recognised “artistic media” that we are used to calling art, although I will also concede that there is a strong argument for categorising television as a craft. In the same way that anyone can play around with paint or do some sketching with varying degrees of success, television in all its forms can be used as a tool for creative communication by everyone – but that does not necessarily mean that everyone should. Good television takes skill, time and expertise and many of us have been catapulted into this world by the need to stream or post services online with no time to develop any of this. To give you an idea of the production disparity between online worship and “real” television, in the professional TV world a full day of editing with a team of professionals will produce on average three minutes of finished video, and this is not taking into account the time it takes to shoot the video, source music, create graphics and so on. So for a church to produce a 30-minute online worship service every week is little short of a miracle.
Of course, most online worship is the equivalent of a simple talking head – one person reciting liturgy direct to camera with perhaps the added excitement of a few singers performing and one or two other participants doing readings and leading in prayer. This is relatively straightforward to produce and thousands of churches across the country have commendably stepped up to the challenge of the pandemic lockdowns to provide this.
The challenge of this modern technology was recognised over 60 years ago when in 1958 St Clare was nominated as the patron saint of television by Pope Pius XII. He chose her because one Christmas she was too sick to attend church, so the Holy Spirit projected the images and sounds of Mass on the wall of her room in order to allow her to be “present” to the Mass. This “vision from afar” (the literal meaning of the word television) meant that she was the first person to experience online worship and clearly took great comfort from this.
Church worship is mainly centred around liturgy, either formal or informal, which is usually reckoned to mean “the work of the people”. This implies a communal activity as this is something that we all do together, although we all know that in many cases worship is often something that is “done to” a congregation, whether that be a very structured catholic Mass or a worship band-orchestrated praise party delivered from a church “stage”. Although our aspiration for worship is that it should be an interactive experience to which all can contribute, the reality is often that congregants are passive receivers of whatever the church leaders choose to deliver for them. The most active part that the congregation plays is in turning up, joining in when asked to do so, particularly through singing, and receiving Communion if that is part of the service.
In that sense, then, online worship is not much different in that it is clearly curated by someone (usually an individual) and delivered to the online “congregation” with little or no opportunity for interaction. In this way it replicates many artistic experiences. We don’t expect to interact with a painting or sculpture other than to view it, and we watch theatre performances or music events without interrupting the performers; we don’t even expect to interact with the other attendees at the event except perhaps with the people who accompanied us.
An important aspect of church liturgy is its ritualistic nature. Old Testament scholar Gordon J. Wenham writes about ritual in relation to the Old Testament:
[N]ot only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible.… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words.2
Online worship is literally colour television and should better help us to communicate with God as we aim to make ideas about God visible. As Ben Quash, Kings College Professor of Christianity and the Arts, says in the introduction to The Visual Commentary on Scripture, we can use “the warrant of the incarnation to affirm that physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight”. He goes on to say that images are made “to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal”.3
As the church has wrestled with the technological challenges of 2020, we have learned an enormous amount about the art and craft involved in creating online worship experiences. Perhaps as we move forward we can pay more attention to the richness of the televisual experience and explore the opportunities for epiphany that this medium provides for a wider audience than are able to attend our churches in person. 2021 could become the year when worship is not either online or face-to-face but becomes a “both/and” experience as we use all our God-given ingenuity and creativity to experience and express the divine in our worship.
As biblical scholar Andrew Byers writes in his book TheoMedia:
[W]e should honor Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.4
Televisual media can be truly worthy, becoming and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world when set apart for use in divine worship; we’re just not very adept at this in the church and we need to get up to speed because this is the world of the twenty-first century. It is honouring to God and to each other to try to make our interaction with this media the best we can in the same way that Jesus’ incarnation inspires us to be the best human beings we can. That doesn’t mean every online service should look like a feature film, but whatever our circumstances or resources we can put some thought into the imagery we use, the words we choose and the audio we play, and we can ensure an interesting full field of view with attention paid to the background, the lighting, the flow of the “liturgy/script”, and of course no nose hair.
About the author
Rev Martin Poole is a Church of England priest, creative worship practitioner, broadcaster, former communications consultant and actor who had a successful career as a communications strategist specialising in branding, marketing and promotion for media with expertise in the UK and international TV market before becoming a full-time parish priest in 2010. Since his training as a priest in the early 1980s and throughout his professional working life he has been involved in a variety of fresh expressions of church as an initiator and advocate. He is the founder and leader of Beyond, a fresh expression dedicated to creating innovative arts and spirituality events and conferences.
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1 From Pope Paul VI, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December 1963; Chapter VII, Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings, 122; Vatican Archive, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
2 Gordon J. Wenham, “The Perplexing Pentateuch,” Vox Evangelica 17 (1987): 19.
3 Ben Quash, “About the VCS,” The Visual Commentary on Scripture, November 2018, accessed 22 November 2020, https://thevcs.org/about.
4 Andrew J. Byers, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 172.