Easter 2024

01 September 2011
media - social, in the liturgy

Fair warning: there's no order to these thoughts on both sides of the issue, and I haven't provided any transitions between them

Cellphones, Blackberries, and other electronic devices are strictly forbidden in the church during services.

The Church Cats welcome you!

I've taken the above from the website of Church of the Advent, Boston for use in a discussion of parishioner and clergy use of social media during Christian liturgical services.

It is fairly obvious from the notice on the website (which is duplicated in service leaflets) that you would not be welcome to live-tweet the liturgy at Advent, Boston, though the welcome from the Church Cats (whom you will likely see on Sunday morning) should make it clear that this isn't a lifeless, humorless place. What gives?

Apparently, this place has a clear identity, and they're not afraid of expressing who they are as a community - at least in terms of digital devices and feline friends. In this church, one would not pull out one's iPhone and tweet without at least some expectation that one would be asked to stop.

So we're left with an encounter with Schrödinger's liturgical cats. The cats, interestingly enough, are unaffected (so we assume) by the active use of social media during the liturgy.

It's the humans in the church who are, presumably, affected by social media, either directly by their use of it, or indirectly by its use by others. And the humans at Advent, Boston (unless the cats are web savvy) have publicized that these social-media-capable devices are not to be used.

And this, I think, in America and elsewhere is a pretty commonly held social principle. People are responsible for their own behavior when they enter into the public arena -- especially those places that are open to the public but are owned and operated by particular entities. Even under the First Amendment you can't shout "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

Likewise, people are responsible for their own liturgical behavior when they enter a church. There's a lot of leeway here, and a lot of it comes from the Book of Common Prayer. You can stand or kneel. The congregation all might be doing it one way, but if it's more important for you to have your own treasured posture, go for it. This is mildly distracting, but it's not a big deal. A parishioner might wonder for a moment, "Did Mr. Smith forget to kneel? Why, yes, he's adopting that other posture provided for in the rubric. On with the Postcommunion prayer, I suppose."

And this is all well and good --until your behavior becomes an ongoing distraction.

As in: "I enjoyed the Sequence Hymn as much as anyone, but Mrs. Cadswallop has been humming it all during the sermon"

or: "I understand it's hot in the church this summer, but I would say 'no shirt, no shoes, no service at the Altar rail'", etc.

These aren't so much behaviors that are out of place in church; they would be out of place in the public library or your local McDonalds.

Cats are fine, but sheep tend to clutter up the church. Vergers were originally placed at the head of the aisle to clear the sheep out of the way of the processions. Now, mind you, he was not charged with clearing the sheep entirely out of the church; they just seem to be an established part of the way things were.

If historically, we've stood around (pews are a modern invention) for sheep infested liturgies, why can't we sit while our neighbor tweets?

Marva Dawn, in her seminal works on Christian worship (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, and A Royal "Waste" of Time), decries what she sees as the "technicization of intimacy", and I think that employing social media while attending a liturgy is probably falls under this category.

The liturgical moment that comes to the fore here is the passing of the Peace. This one moment in the liturgy demands that we be present to our neighbors, and if we place a screen between us or if we fail to engage at all we are diminishing the liturgy for both parties.

How do you receive the host with a Blackberry in one hand?

Tweet: "I'm just about to eat Jesus". What is the point of this?

And with the liturgy as a whole, are you not technicizing your experience of something unapologetically untechnical? We use candles, not lightbulbs. We use incense, not air freshener. We use the spoken word, not webpages. If our liturgy can survive sheep in church we can survive smartphones.

Don't pretend like this is hypothetical. I hear cell phones interrupt the liturgy every week, especially at funerals.

There's another thing that I need to address here: the fallacious argument that I/you/he/she needs to "pay attention" to worship in order to "get something out of it".

The sacraments are valid whether you pay attention or not. The sacraments are valid whether you attend or not. The sacraments are valid whether you believe in their efficacy or not.

We don't attend liturgy to "get something out of it" (see Dawn's title "'Waste' of Time" above); we attend liturgy to give God something out of us. So maybe the real issue is not that our smartphones rob us of a full experience of liturgy (which is not "for" us anyway) but that they prevent God from getting his full due.

Worship is not for us! We are not worshipping ourselves! If our smartphones should keep us from the worship that the very nature of God -- the subject and object of our worship -- elicits the very stones of the earth would cry out in praise and adoration.

In this scheme of things, you don't matter. Except that you do, of course. Your attention doesn't matter, and yet, that's exactly what the Holy Spirit is using. Lex orandi, lex credendi. How you pray shapes what you believe. How you tweet shapes what you surf.

There are larger issues about how the internet is changing the way we think -- but I don't even remember what I was going to write about that just now anyway.

Sermons are another matter altogether ("the very stones would preach . . . "? I don't think so). Like organ voluntaries, no one listens while they're happening and they're mostly not worth remembering. There will be new ones next week anyway.

If you want to tweet during the sermon (or the organ voluntary), I say, heck, go for it. I'm speaking now to people in the pews. I don't think sermon delivery would be enhanced by someone in the pulpit trying to tweet simultaneously and/or process incoming appropriately-hashtagged tweets. (And, speaking from experience, I know that I cannot check Facebook and play the organ at the same time.) In fact, the clergy and the laity should be excited that you, the congregant, are choosing to include as part of your piety that day the further dissemination of God's word.

But read, mark and inwardly digest the prayer for "Before Worship" that asks God to "Deliver us when we draw near to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind".

At the Lenten Preaching service at the church where I work, I would often tweet zingers from the celebrity preachers whose sermons were delivered daily Monday through Friday at noon. These gifted homilists deserved larger congregations who, I believe, would have benefited from their words. Without the ability to transmit all their words, I felt inspired to push out just a few from time to time. I should also note that I was in the gallery of the church, for sermon-focused liturgy that included neither Holy Eucharist nor Holy Baptism.

We could go a step further. If you are wearing a vestment, you should not tweet. In fact, your phone should be off. As a leader in the liturgy, I believe that you should be prayerfully focused on the task at hand. If you have trained to be a leader in the liturgy, which you have because you are vested for the occasion, you should not be doing something else. Choir, I'm looking in your direction.

And a step further yet, what about vesting a tweeter's guild? Seated with the acolytes in a 21st century prie-dieu, their duty in the service is to broadcast the words and action of that liturgy.

As you can see, I wrote a lengthy article because I did not have time to write a short one, but perhaps I might better organize my thoughts thusly:

  1. How is tweeting defined as a liturgical behavior?
  2. How should technology's role in our lives be adapted to/excluded from liturgy?
  3. How does a community go about defining its position on smartphones in the pews?

This reflection sparked by the good work at #ChSocM (Church Social Media) Tweetchat

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I wouldn't tweet during a service for the same reason I wouldn't talk to the person seated next to me during a service (except during the Peace, or unless one of us needed help finding the right hymn or similar). Okay, as I'm the organist there isn't usually anyone next to me -- but when I attend services elsewhere I don't talk.

Candles are a technology -- and most churches nowadays use them symbolically rather than as the main source of light, most of the time. Machine-printed Bibles to read from, rather than handwritten, are a technology; so, for that matter, are the paper and quills for writing by hand. Incense (and candles for that matter) may be lit by matches or a lighter, and only rarely by hot embers from a larger fire or by flint and steel.

But lightbulbs, printed text, and ways of lighting incense without resorting to flint and steel are so much part of our life that we don't feel like they interfere with the liturgy itself. We've worked out most of the bugs: We know how to deal with faulty lightbulbs and they are rare enough we they don't detract unduly from litury. Printing is much easier for most people to read these days and means we can have access to a much wider range of texts than if we were reliant on scribes. Most adults can still use matches or a lighter with ease (and would struggle to light a candle from flint and steel! Tinder is much easier). These things ARE all technology but they are technology that has permeated so much of our lives that doing without them would be much harder for us than using them.

I don't think the same is currently true of, say, projection screens for the words to hymns and songs, and I thank God that my tradition doesn't make extensive use of these. Oh, we're all used to reading things from screens instead of paper or posters or books, but so often a projection screen somehow doesn't work well within the liturgy, whether through inconsiderate placement (oh, the windows I've seen marred by projection screens!) or operator error (at least if I turn two pages in the hymnal I'm holding onto, it's only me who is affected). This technology is not yet sufficiently streamlined to be used in worship as a matter of course.

Smartphones haven't been around nearly long enough. I can certainly see churches having "service sheet" apps of some description or another, though, or some people using downloadable hymnals on tablets rather than paper books.

Some technology isn't used in worship because it just isn't appropriate, of course. In general, formal liturgical worship doesn't need to include microwaves, or dishwashers, or irrigation systems. I don't think smartphones and the near-ubiquitous internet access they provide are as irrelevant as these tools, but rather that we don't know where they fit yet. And it's as well to be cautious in trying to figure it out.

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