Fiona Mountford

The unexpected joy of going to church online

The unexpected joy of going to church online
The Anglican Dean of Manchester delivers his Easter Sunday prayer and sermon from his study (photo: Getty)
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During Holy Week and Easter I went to church five times. Or more accurately, I should say that I logged onto Facebook Live on five separate occasions. There I watched with joy and no little sense of amazement as my suburban parish church, by no means at the cutting edge of modern technology, skilled up in a matter of days in order to stay connected with its flock during this vital period for both the church and the world at large. I am now very closely acquainted with the pattern of the curtains in my vicar’s living room – the same kindly vicar who thoughtfully posted each member of his flock a palm cross which he proceeded to bless online during the Palm Sunday service.

There has been much lamentation that churchgoing online is a poor substitute for the substance, not to mention the pomp and circumstance, of the real thing. It’s certainly very different. But to my great surprise, it’s a difference that I have found myself valuing more and more as each day of lockdown has passed. Every year I attend the Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services as a matter of course. Never before, however, have I been tempted to a meditation on the Stations of the Cross or the Maundy Thursday vigil. With the clamour of the outside world abruptly stilled, the inside, online world of the church became the absolute centre and structure of my daily routine. A notification informing me that ‘Holy Trinity is now live’ brought a precious sense of connection, and not just with the Wi-Fi.

This break in the normal proceedings has also provided a welcome opportunity for some ecclesiastical spring cleaning, some stripping back of the layers of ritual that accumulate – and occasionally stifle ­– over time. Watching services on my own has allowed me to focus on the elements of the service that matter most to me, while tuning out from those that irk. I’ve never liked the hubbub of chatter that rises in a church before a service starts; in a religious building, I long for quiet contemplation and a sense of the numinous, rather than the background noise of a coffee shop. In control now of the surroundings in which I can experience the services, I make sure that I settle down in good time in a quiet room. The only time I have bothered to put on any sort of smart attire since the lockdown began was for the Easter Sunday Eucharist, when I donned a new spring dress. Even if no one else could see me, I reasoned, God could, and the least I could do on the most joyous day in the Christian calendar was to make some attempt to subdue my increasingly Womble-like hair.

Participating in the familiar liturgies and hearing the familiar words in this unfamiliar context has jolted me out of a sense of lazy complacency and made me pay attention and listen again. With no external distractions to look at, I have looked at the vicar, and the vicar’s curtains, only. Never before have I known the incredible intimacy of sharing a live silence with a small group of fellow worshippers over the internet. Perhaps fancifully, it made me think of the early days of the church; less fancifully, it served as a salutary reminder that even now, in so many places around the world, worshippers of all creeds are forced to follow their faith in clandestine ways.

But the joy! The joy has gloriously heightened too. Never before has it been so uplifting to sing that wonderful hymn of triumph, ‘Thine Be the Glory’, than it was on Sunday, listening to my vicar joined by, out of shot, his wife and young son accompanying us by banging on what sounded like a bucket. It was a rare and precious feeling of hard-won victory, of hope over despair and solidarity over solitude, sharpened by all the hearts and thumbs up signs that flooded the Facebook feed at that climactic moment. In normal times, I am greatly averse to hearts and thumbs up signs. These were not normal times.

Finding myself with an amplitude of time on my hands, immediately after my church’s Easter service I watched the Eucharist from Canterbury Cathedral. This was, as might be expected from the mother church of the Church of England, a sophisticated and reflective production that surely brought consolation to hundreds of thousands, all brooding shots of daffodils and the Gospel read by the Prince of Wales. Yet I know what I have enjoyed most over these past days: the sound of that bucket and the sight of my vicar’s curtains.