Sunday, 27 September 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

How St Peter's Anglican Church is worshipping online during Covid-19

One of the key attributes of formal religious worship is the communal activity of “being together.” The Covid-19 restrictions are precluding this fellowship. Every congregation or wider organisation of every religious affiliation across New Zealand has to cope with this lack of in-person interaction.

It is an especially poignant time for our older churchgoers who might look to their regular services as a way to reconnect with others. As we look to protect them from harm - a noble mission - an unwelcome by-product is that we also isolate them from a familiar and comforting social channel.

Max and Gillian Reid from Whitianga’s St Peter the Fisherman Anglican Church are providing a good example of how our local congregations have set out to minimise the impact of this void during the restrictions by taking their services online. 

Gillian, the St Peter’s priest, is working closely with husband and AV director, Max, senior lay person, Jill Laird, and rostered service leaders to provide their congregation with an online experience which emulates as closely as possible their familiar Anglican service structure. A multimedia experience, the services allow for significant participation from the congregation, topped off with beautiful video clips designed for reflection - excluding Holy Communion which really needs to be done in person. 

The goal is to engage the congregation with familiar worship and connectivity with Gillian as their priest, rather than to link to another church’s more impersonal online services.

Parishioners are encouraged to attend at the normal scheduled time on Sunday mornings, even if the services can logistically be viewed at any time. By making this effort, Gillian and the others are hoping that the congregation would be able to feel the presence of other church members and maintain their common, shared worship experience - even if they are in front of a computer.

Both Max and Gillian come from careers in IT and are fairly comfortable in the online world, but they realised that there would be a number of people in their congregation who would struggle with anything too technical.  There were a handful that did not even have a computer. In considering all their options, they ruled out the world of Facebook and other livestreaming video-conferencing products like Zoom. They felt they would lose people through fear of technology. So they set about creating the services as a video on YouTube, which meant the parishioners only need to click on a link in an email to attend.  

Gillian also made contact with the families of the four church members who didn’t have a computer. Two of members were living with family at the same address and computer access was available to them. In the end there were only two church members who were unable to participate.

Although user-friendly at the worshipper end, creating the St Peter’s online video services are no “walk in the park.” Although the concept seems simple, the execution requires quite a bit of lateral thinking and organisation. The services are predominately created using Max and Gillian’s laptop cameras and PowerPoint, which has been, in any event, a church staple for St Peter’s.

The services are typically a team affair, so the process developed to the extent that the rostered liturgist (service leader) for each Sunday decides as a first step what form the service would take. The base service is then built on Max or Gillian’s laptop. The congregation members are also asked to send any favourite hymns/songs they would like and are given a choice in prayers and offerings to suit the particular service. Gillian then adds in any supporting pastoral images or video clips, which are all loaded into the PowerPoint file. As they grew in confidence in the process, other church members who are able to film themselves on their own computers, started to provide segments for the service, which are also uploaded into PowerPoint. 

Once the PowerPoint file is completed, Max and Gillian would go through a slide-by-slide rehearsal, which has to be ready each Wednesday afternoon in order for the service to be filmed with the PowerPoint in frame and Gillian presiding.

Max plays the role of key AV engineer for each service and also provides the voiceover for all of the required congregational responses so that viewing worshippers knows when to join in. 

As Max and Gillian learned more, they were able to adjust their lighting techniques.

Once each service is completed, it has to be uploaded to YouTube. Maxwell and Gillian live in Rings Beach and like everyone in the small local community, their upload bandwidth is slow. To make a Saturday afternoon deadline, with enough time to sort out any unforeseen interruptions, they would begin uploading a service on a Thursday afternoon. A video of about 50 minutes takes 24 hours to upload, leaving little bandwidth for other key lockdown pursuits like binging on Netflix or working remotely. 

Gillian is looking forward to when the St Peter’s congregation can meet in person again so they can include the church members who have not been able to participate online and also get back to those highly valuable personal experiences.  

As good as they are getting in creating online services, nothing beats being together in one room.

Gillian says that some church members might be getting seduced by not having to get up on Sundays, getting properly dressed and getting to church, so she would need to communicate clearly that this online form of worship will end when the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted to the extent that formal religious worship can take place again.

One thing which Gillian is musing over is that the number of views of the St Peter’s online services is close to three times the number of people in the congregation. Food for thought... 

Pictured: A screenshot of part of the online video service of Whitianga’s St Peter the Fisherman Anglican Church on 3 May.

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