By John Kenneth Gibson
I made the sign of the cross while holding a cup of green tea in my hand as the Presiding Bishop intoned: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I was curled up in bed with my laptop, watching the June 15 webcast from Duke Chapel of the consecration of Anne Hodges-Copple as Bishop Suffragan of North Carolina. This was the first time I had watched a liturgical service through the web.
I had planned to attend, but those plans changed when my wife and I agreed to help my stepson move to Birmingham, Alabama. They changed again when he announced early in the week of the consecration that he was leaving Wednesday instead of Saturday. Since I had to prepare for our pilgrimage to Greece, “In the Footsteps of St. Paul,” I decided to follow the webcast.
Having attended two consecrations in the chapel, I knew immediately that the web gave me a better view. I easily picked out my clergy friends as they walked down the center aisle, hugging and waving to people they knew in the congregation. I saw Anne, vested in her alb, smile when she walked through the great entrance portal into the nave. Each jewel in Lauren Winner’s signature cat-eyeglasses sparkled as she delivered the sermon.
Though the webcast gave a better view, I had a hard time engaging in the service. My big black cat, Donovan, jumped on my chest shortly after the liturgy began, blocking my view. Once I had pushed him aside, my wife walked into the room, leaned in front of me to look at the screen and asked, “What’s happening?” External distractions were, however, the least challenging.
I was my own worst enemy. I tried to participate. I bowed my head and closed my eyes during the collect for purity. I listened attentively to the readings appointed for the feast day of Evelyn Underhill. I applauded with the congregation after Anne was consecrated. But way before that moment, my attention had wandered.
I decided during a hymn to check Facebook and my email. One message was from a Yoga teacher about the benefits of spirulina in smoothies. Since I did not know anything about spirulina and I drink a smoothie every morning for breakfast, I checked it out. The next thing I knew I had four tabs open about the blue-green algae. After Anne, arrayed in her luminous white mitre and chasuble with rainbow-hued images of water, grain, grapes, and wind, beautifully chanted the Sursum Corda, I turned the computer off and returned to my trip preparations. I knew what happened next in the service and I could not receive the Eucharist through my laptop.
My experience watching the webcast was not unique. People dart faster than hummingbirds from webpage to webpage. Fewer than 50 percent of people watch more than one minute of an online video. The average viewing of the consecration was 50 minutes, an eternity on the web.
Any worship experience today, virtually or in person, contends with the digiverse. On a recent Sunday sitting in the congregation, my wife castigated me for pulling out my smart phone during the announcements. But I was never tempted to check email during any other part of the liturgy, because worship is not a spectator event but participatory. A central tenet of the liturgical renewal movement emphasized the work of the people.
In the Eucharist, according to the Rite I prayer, we offer God “ourselves, our souls and bodies.” We stand, sit, kneel, touch, taste, and, perhaps rarely these days, if there is incense, breathe in the scent of worship. While the webcast gave me a sense of the thunderous Amens and the frisson of Taizé’s Veni Sancte Spiritus, it could not provide the handshake of my sisters and brothers during the peace or the risen Lord in the body and blood.
However limited, the reality is that more people experienced Bishop Hodges-Copple’s consecration virtually than in person. During the event, according to Fred Westbrook for Duke Chapel Media Ministry, 260 IP addresses accessed the service. This number translates to more than 260 people since it included groups. Approximately 25 people watched together at Croasdaile Village, a retirement community in Durham, where Anne has celebrated the Eucharist monthly and performed many funerals. In the first three days after the consecration, another 1,100 IP addresses accessed the ordination service at YouTube. An estimated 2,000 people had watched the live stream and archived YouTube video by 5 p.m. June 18, compared to 1,400 who attended in person. Duke Chapel could not have accommodated all these people. Moreover, many who saw the webcast could not have attended because of illness or for other reasons.
Simply watching something online can be a moving, spiritual experience. The availability of lyrics and music for hymns, and the texts of prayers and readings, would offer a more participative worship experience for those seeking it. Websites such as the Mission of St. Clare already offer these for Morning and Evening Prayer. Washington National Cathedral’s 2011 webcast of the Ninth Bishop of Washington’s consecration provided a PDF of the service leaflet. Beyond these offerings, perhaps the reserved sacrament, or even concelebration (in an Eastern Orthodox understanding), could create a full worship experience for groups such as the one at Croasdaile.
With more and more dioceses and parishes webcasting their liturgies, thoughtful Christians in our entertainment-saturated society should find ways to protect worship as praise of the Living God.
Image: The Rt. Rev. Anne Elliott Hodges-Copple offers the blessing at her ordination and consecration June 15 at the historic Duke University Chapel in Durham. Richard Schori/ENS
The Rev. John Kenneth Gibson has served as a priest of the Diocese of North Carolina for more than 20 years.