Camera - Lights - Action!

One of my mantras over the past three years of ministry in Cork, has been “the church is not a building”. I have waxed lyrical on numerous Sunday mornings that as wonderful as our building is, despite the history captured within its four walls, despite the stories it could tell, the weddings, funerals and baptisms spanning the past three hundred years, the building is just that, at the end of the day, it is a wonderful collection of bricks and mortar. The work done by successive ministers, starting with The Rev. Samuel Lothian, was not confined to those activities that took place within those four walls. It’s a well-worn theme that I’m sure the congregation are sick and tired of hearing.
          In my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that my metaphorical alliteration would come to pass, as along with the rest of the world, church found itself ground to a stop by Covid-19. In Cork, on Sunday 15th March, what would be our last service in the church was led by David Heap. That morning, we had taken the decision to suspend all services and activities in our building. Initially, our belief was that we would be back in two or three weeks. Within a few days, the enormity of Covid-19 became very clear. The following Sunday, I broadcast service live from the church. During the service, I almost burnt down the building but managed to muddle through it. Although I had vast experience in radio, I had no idea that I could even broadcast service live on Facebook. It really was a case of “learning on the hoof”. Luckily, I wasn’t alone, Rev Bridget Spain in Dublin began audio broadcasts, while Rev Chris Wilson and Rev David Steers were both quick of the mark North of the border.
          To those working in ministry, it became clear, that at the end of the day, a horrible virus had stripped each of us of the comfort and security of our pulpits, had stripped us of a captive audience and had deprived us of that wonderful gift you instinctively develop, being able to read faces and gauge reaction. Soon, everybody was getting in on the act. The Pope in Rome, broadcasting from an empty St Peters Square and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby celebrating a Eucharist from his kitchen. It became apparent, that churches and clergy would have to adapt, and they would have to do so fast. In doing so, those that did began to realise that indeed, the building was closed but the church was very much open. Some did very simple face only broadcasts, mine were done from my home. Others launched into Spielberg like production’s, but it didn’t matter, church was open for those who wanted or needed it and each church served its people as it knew how and according to its own liturgical traditions.
          Here in the Republic, churches are set to reopen for worship on June 29th and the temptation is to get the people back into the pews and carry on as before. After the stress of the last three months, it would be an easy position to take, but for me it would be the wrong one. Like business and the economy, I believe church will struggle with the reopening. A return to church will be slow and staggered over a period of months. Although for many church is attended for the noblest of reasons, which are many and varied, it is like much in our lives a matter of routine. Church is a habit.
          There is much talk of a “new way” of doing church, it is the newly awakened beast that is the Digital Age. And it is a beast, its power is immense, its reach, well, simply universal, its potential, unlimited. During the lockdown I have been doing a course, which is on going as I write with the Video Ministry Academy. It is run by our friends in the UUA, specifically by a man called Peter Bowden. Peter is a Unitarian Universalist, a TV producer and husband of a Unitarian minister. In church terms his speciality is congregational growth and opportunities through the digital media. It has been an eye opener, has refreshed my sense of ministry and given me real hope for the potential growth of our Unitarian church here in Ireland.
          Traditionally, we have not been a proselytising church, it is I must admit not a view I have always agreed with. We have not gone out to actively attract people to our faith. We have preferred a process of natural osmosis. We have relied upon the law of natural attraction and to a point it has worked. However, the world has changed, the world has become a smaller place and by and large religion has lost its place.
          The Digital Age offers churches a new breath of life, it allows us to reach people literally where they are, it allows us to be available to them wherever they are. Even better, a service posted say on Facebook is available to watch later as a podcast would be. Then it becomes church available to suit the pace and balances of peoples lives. It is really a chance to gladly return to our buildings but to realise that there is a whole wide world outside of those four walls and they may be waiting to hear from us.
          Many churches rely on set and age- old liturgical norms and rubrics. These are rigid and often not adaptable. They are highly colourful and visually very attractive. However, interaction is limited and the langauge is very often church based. We as a church are less restricted, less church orientated in our langauge.

The captive audience awaits,

so, camera, lights action!

Rev.Mike O’Sullivan
Minister Unitarian Church, Cork