For the past year, my small Unitarian Universalist congregation in Northwest Indiana has been conducting worship services virtually using Zoom. When the quarantine was announced and our church went remote, few of us had any idea it would last this long. We were thinking in terms of weeks, maybe months. Even though the Unitarian Universalist Association advised its member congregations to expect to be doing virtual services for a year, at the time, few of us could imagine it.
When the announcement was made last March that our in-person worship services would be cancelled, there was a scramble to figure out how to provide services remotely. I was part of the committee that helped coordinated our worship services, and I was already familiar with Zoom, so I offered to host the services until someone else could be trained. I greatly overestimated the technological comfort level of my congregation, which is weighted heavily toward the Boomer generation. While most acclimated well to attending Zoom meetings over a period of weeks, hosting the worship services was another matter. Over the past year, I have facilitated all but a few of our Sunday worship services.
For our worship services, we use a combination of PowerPoint screen sharing, pre-recorded music, multiple live speakers, and some interaction with the congregation. It was challenging even for me at first, though I’ve now gotten quite practiced at it. Our services are also streamed over Facebook and YouTube, though Zoom is our primary platform, because it allows for some interaction.
We strived to maintain a degree of authenticity in our services by incorporating some elements from our in-person services. Our church building has an antique bell, which we used to ring every Sunday. One of our members recorded the bell, and we play the recording now to start the virtual services. Unitarian services always begin with the lighting of a “chalice”–a candle or oil lamp set within a bowl or other container. Another one of our members brought our chalice to his home and continued to light the chalice for us in front of a green screen of the chapel. Our professional musician continued to record new music every week for the service and eventually coordinated virtual multipart choir pieces. We also encourage the members attending the services to leave their cameras on during the service, so they could see each other as if they were physically present. During one part of the service we unmute everyone so they can say hello all at once, and during another part we use the chat function to share our “joys and sorrows”. And before and after each service, we have a “check-in” and a virtual “coffee hour”, where people can talk more casually.
As you can tell, we’ve really tried. But it is not the same. In fact, I think that something essential has been missing. If I had any doubt before, the past year has convinced me that virtual services are no substitute for in-person worship.
As we are anticipating returning to in-person services once everyone is immunized, there has been a discussion about whether and to what extent we want to continue to stream our services on the internet. This decision has significant consequences. For one thing, it drastically limits the music and other media which we can use in the worship services. Church worship services are generally exempt from copyright laws, but that exemption disappears when the services are broadcast. For another thing, continuing to stream our services may enable some homebound people to attend the services, but it may also encourage some able-bodied people to stay home, instead of coming to the service in-person. And if that happens, I’m afraid what it will mean for our worship.
There’s something special about worshiping together in person, standing together, singing together, shaking each other’s hands and hugging each other, just being in the physical presence of one another while we engage in this act we call “worship”. And when we can’t do that, I think something essential is lost. In fact, you might even say that we haven’t really been worshiping since our services went remote. In Worship That Works (2009), Unitarian Universalist liturgists, Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz, write about the primacy of worship in the life of a congregation. We can have religious education classes, service projects, social justice demonstrations, community presentations, and social events, they say, but it is from worship that the meaning of all of these other activities emerge.
A lot of Unitarians were ambivalent about the word “worship”, even before COVID complicated things. A lot of us are atheists or agnostics. Many of us came to Unitarianism because we were done with the “bowing and scraping” of traditional religion, and some of us still have an aversion to anything resembling humbling oneself before a higher power. And yet, we still call our Sunday services “worship”. And we intentionally strive to make our worship services qualitatively different from the other kinds of gatherings we have.
It’s that quality that I think is missing from virtual services. We sometimes have a hard time putting our finger on what that quality is, but we know it when we feel it. We use different words to describe it: awe, wonder, connection, transcendence. It is both the practice of reaching for an experience and the experience itself, an experience of connecting with something larger than ourselves (though not necessarily supernatural) and being transformed by it.
While I have found that experience in solitude, I think we must also find it in the company of others or we risk falling into the mirror of our own self-reflection Narcissus-like. As Barbara Brown Taylor explains in An Altar in the World (2009):
“Most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment too having a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.
“Athletes and artists speak of something called ‘flow.’ When they are deeply involved in what they are doing, time ceases to exist. So does their sense of themselves as separate from what they are doing. … Awareness blooms, as the individual self escapes its confines to become part of something bigger than the self.
“In the Christian mystical tradition, one name for this phenomenon is divine union.”— Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (2009)
In Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (1948), the Christian priest-turned Buddhist teacher, Alan Watts, writes that worship is what turns what would otherwise be just a lecture on morality into a transcendent experience with the power to change us. Watts defines it the “realization of unity through corporate self-forgetfulness”. I think his choice of the word “corporate” is here is deliberate. It refers to being together, but also being together bodily. The word “corporate” comes from the Latin corpus, meaning “body”.
In the Christian tradition (of which Unitarianism is an extended part), it’s common to speak of the church “body” or the “body” of the church. This is where we get the idea of congregants being “members” or parts of the body. One of the earliest sources for this analogy probably comes from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. … Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Even though our Unitarian congregation is largely post-Christian–you’d be hard pressed to find a Bible anywhere in our pews on Sunday–the metaphor is still applicable.
We are embodied beings. We are fleshly creatures–as much as our contemporary culture tries to distract us from that fact. I’m a naturally introverted person, and I am still unlearning the egoism which is the inheritance of modern life. It took me years to understand that the body is the door that leads out of the prisons of our minds–and that door opens onto a world filled with other people. I am still trying to practice that wisdom in my daily life. Our weekly worship services are an important part of that practice.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to find that door in our increasingly virtual, disembodied world. The more time I spend in Zoom gatherings, the more I am coming to believe that “online community” is a contradiction of terms. The kind of communities we need to build aren’t communities of the mind, and that’s all you can have online. We need communities of bodies.
Unitarian Universalism is a very cerebral religion to begin with. We struggled to achieve embodied worship even when we could be together in the flesh. And COVID has made it impossible. A keyboard is no substitute for the touch of another person’s flesh. A face on a screen is no substitute for making eye contact in the presence of another person. A sound coming from an electric speaker is no substitute for hearing the resonance of another person’s embodied voice. Even the smells are important. These are the essential elements of human contact. And without in-the-flesh human contact, the corporate self-forgetting that is real worship remains elusive–at least for me.