Every parish has its own way of "doing" Holy Week. When a parish priest arrives, if he’s got any sense he listens to those who’ve been around for a while and learns from them what works before introducing any changes to the way the ceremonies of "The Great Week" are celebrated.
This year has felt a bit like having to start again and make it up as I went along – and to do so without that collective wisdom to guide me, that collective wisdom and its helping hands being kept firmly the other side of a locked door.
Our lead flower-arranger kindly arranged the £15 worth of flowers I’d picked up at the local Tesco into a beautiful couple of displays "in shot" as we went to live streaming. I broke regulations by allowing someone inside the church to press the necessary buttons to introduce pre-recorded music and prayers into our Easter morning Eucharist.
For a decade I’d uploaded the Gospel and homily onto the parish SoundCloud account, hosted on the parish website. This service had typically been getting between 10-25 hits a week, sometimes from far-flung friends, sometimes from parishioners stuck at home, or from members of our Alpha follow-up group, "Beta", who once a month would choose a sermon to pick apart as the way into their own reflection.
The technology is simple: an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder in my pocket with a throat mic. And when the national lock-down happened, initially I was inclined to continue with that as our form of outreach, conscious that we couldn’t compete with bigger and better live-streaming options with proper kit delivering it to the internet.
It was also in my comfort zone, something I could do confidently without fear of mucking it up, at a time when it felt like I was being hit from all sides by new demands and questions. Also I imagined it being more accessible to parents busy coping with a house unexpectedly full of spouses, kids and possibly the pressures of working from home with no privacy or downtime.
I know of one or two parishioners who take the homily out jogging or when walking the dog. One couple told me, after I’d started recording the whole of daily Mass during the lockdown, that I had "replaced World At One" in their house. Sure enough numbers of downloads shot up, to about 150 at a peak. But people asked repeatedly for a video feed. I think there is some very strong psychological drive to see the familiar place among parishioners, to see their own church, not any old church.
Fortunately, Our Lady of Lourdes parish is a member of the Divine Renovation Network, and Hannah Vaughan-Spruce and her colleagues in the UK office have been doing great work supporting parishes in these changed circumstances.
Providentially they organised a webinar on the Friday before Palm Sunday in which Brenden Thompson from Catholic Voices and a "newby" live-streamer parish priest, Fr Peter Conner, talked a large number of clergy through the "how to" questions surrounding "How To Livestream Your First Mass", a recording of which is available here.
The following morning I took the plunge. After Easter, I'd like to explore other formats such as YouTube and a permanent camera system, but I really haven't had the head-space for that so far. It's extraordinary how busy this time has been, and how tiring the process of learning new ways, so I went for the simplest option. I used Facebook Live, which I hadn’t really heard of before that webinar on April 3.
When I say "simplest", I mean it. Initial kit was my phone, propped up on the altar against a book. A parishioner then took pity on me and sent me a mini-tripod with directional mic, which has done wonders for quality, perhaps as a result of me cutting off the top four inches off my head one morning when the book slipped and the camera angle went awry.
Other glitches included a bandwidth in church that meant occasionally the picture broke up, until I learned how to lower the definition of the video; a consequent attempt at filming first and streaming later – it took 3 hours to upload – and forgetting to turn my phone sounds to "mute" – something I realised half-way through mass, which made me anxious that someone was bound to call me any moment now, even though it was 7.30am. This worry was actually quite distracting.
Then there was forgetting to turn the directional microphone on and not knowing how to stop the phone frenetically re-focusing every time I move, since I'm a fairly mobile speaker when I get going. I would to switch off the sound recording at the end of Mass, leading to ten minutes of noises off as I cleared up the church – fortunately with no swear-words uttered or other significant bloopers. And realising during recording that I hadn't put out a host for consecrating, leading to the announcement: "There will now be an offertory procession while I go and get a host from the sacristy.' Because of course no sacristan is allowed on the premises.
We would normally get a bumper crop at Easter, though nothing like the Christmas crowd, of course. Last year, apparently we had 180 at Mass of the Lord's Supper, 220 at the Passion, 200 at the Vigil, 610 on Easter morning. This year there is a plethora of statistics on our Facebook feed – though I’m still unclear about the precise difference between "reach", "engagement" and "views".
Thus far the Facebook link to our children's stations, beautifully read by parish children in their own homes, then edited and uploaded on YouTube by a parishioner, has 245 people reached and 114 engagements on Facebook; the Passion, available only as an audio track on SoundCloud due to technical difficulties, had 198 downloads; the ecumenical service on Good Friday morning, normally on Giggs Hill Green, this year on Zoom, attracted 40 participants when it aired, while 28 engaged with the mention of it on our website. The Vigil reached 2,741 people, with 695 views and 194 engaged, plus 62 on SoundCloud; 42 engaged with our music sheet for Easter Sunday mass, which could also be accessed directly from the parish website, while the mass itself reached 2,099 people, engaged 328 and was viewed by 895, plus 85 on SoundCloud.
Which Facebook figures you run with will depend on what you're trying to prove – a bit like newspaper circulation figures, I suspect – but this is a significant number of people reached from within a locked church with minimal resources.
In terms of the learning curve, being on camera or broadcast doesn't worry me at all. I'm very comfortable in my own skin before an audience or congregation. However, I anticipated that I would hate saying mass on my own, never having done this in 28.5 years of ministry, because I reject the notion that "Father's Mass" is an act of private piety rather than a response to a community need. In fact, it has made perfect sense from day one, even when I was only doing an audio feed. I have a palpable sense of communion, a connectedness which goes far beyond the act of receiving bread and wine, something I try to express in my poem, Palmless Sunday, which I wrote as a newsletter editorial for Palm Sunday:
We gather virtually these days,
with virtual palms and virtual cries of praise.
Virtual cloaks we scatter underfoot
to greet the Son of David whom we long to meet.
Two metres wide (at least) the Covid social distancing
that separates the would-be members of the crowd
as we avoid quite gathering to greet him
sanitised, clean-handed at the city gate.
But there is nothing virtual about the Prince of Peace,
subverting all our violent dreams of glory
with his choice of gentle cross-marked beast
to humbly carry him to Zion for the Feast.
Nothing virtual either in the bonds that link us all today
in honouring the ones who risk their lives to make us well;
in worrying for the elders home alone;
in understanding pressures hid behind closed doors.
Communion, then, is this: this web of praying, caring,
picking up the phone, dropping round some food,
sharing (at safe distance) smiles and tears,
this swopping words of hope for fears.
This is what we celebrate on Sundays in more normal times.
This is what our breaking bread and sharing cup proclaims:
that the Easter Lord still comes to share our little feast,
comes even through locked doors with words of peace.
I've had an awful lot of feedback following the live-streaming, ranging from the usual reflex response of Facebook likes to requests for prayer and other comments. On Easter Sunday morning a trail of parishioners recognising each other’s comments and greeting each other appeared during mass. Perhaps my favourite response so far is a message reflecting straight back to me the theme of my Easter morning homily about the presence of the Risen Lord in our homes with the simple statement: "We are the Church." If my community have understood that and felt it and prayed it at their dining tables, in their living rooms and bedrooms, I have done my work.
On Easter Sunday morning we introduced music sound-files, with our hymns performed at home by a couple of musical families, via a beat-box perched out of shot on the altar. Better still was the recording of children's voices for the bidding prayers, really beautifully written and read by our youngsters. This feels like way to go for however long this lockdown continues. If it’s amateur it is in the best sense of the word – performed out of love. I certainly feel very loved by the people I am privileged to serve.
I am sure that we have reached a fundamental turning point in the life of the Church. In this diocese, Arundel and Brighton, we have been having what is to my mind a rather arid conversation about how to reduce the number of Masses to what will be sustainable in the long term. By 2030, even before Covid-19 struck, we were expected to have 25 presbyters under 65, with another 25 over the age of 65 but still in active ministry.
Sadly, those statistics may have become more dramatic by the time we are done with the current Covid-19 crisis. Focusing only on how to match the number of masses to the number of available clergy feels to me almost entirely maintenance oriented, leaving little energy left for real mission. But that script has now been torn up by the overwhelming impact of Covid-19.
Parish life will never be the same again. We face the choice: adapt or die. Will the people come back to Sunday Mass when we re-open our doors? Many who have come out of habit, or who persist in the belief that "the Church" is something that Father runs and they "go to", probably won't, while some, especially some of our older folk who have been pillars of the parish for a lifetime, won't survive the pandemic, alas.
But where parishioners have been enabled to discover that the home is the heart of the Church community, the place of ordinary self-giving and loving and praying, and to experience the deep web of connection that is communion and which binds us as one much more strongly than mere formal doctrinal statements of belief, I think they will. This Easter, I personally have been struck as never before by the emphasis in John 20.19,26 on the fact that door of that upper room in Jerusalem was locked. That’s when and how the Risen Christ shows himself.
As we look ahead, the longevity of Pope Francis, whose capacity to reach those outside the Church is remarkable, the choice of the next Archbishop of Westminster, and the general quality of Catholic media operations, national, diocesan and parochial, will all be crucial. Brenden Thompson spoke in the webinar referenced above of the Church being bounced into a "digital revolution". I hope so. We could yet surprise ourselves, but only by a radical process of sifting of what we should and shouldn't devote our energies to and by a certain humility, willing to learn from the experts in social communications, who will invariably be laity.
Father Rob Esdaile is Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
Find out more at the Divine Renovation website.