Liturgy, worship and digital doodads
A couple of weeks ago (that’s the ages of ages in blogging time) blogger Bosco Peters asked a question about the use of digital gadgetry, and especially projectors and screens, as aids to worship.
In a post with the title Luddite liturgy he writes Projector screens in church:
Recently I was in the congregation at a service where there were two large screens diagonally in the corners for the congregation, and one more facing the leadership in the stage/chancel/sanctuary area. And it was death by PowerPoint. Screens and PowerPoint may still feel “with it” for the oldies that dominate and lead – but it’s over two decades old now. Young people have not known a world in which it didn’t exist. Even the concept of “death by PowerPoint” is an issue realised more than a decade ago.
Sure, there’s possibly ways of incorporating digital images and contemporary technology etc. into worship. But let’s look at just a few issues that leaped out merely at this one service.
On reading that I was reminded of the occasion, a few years ago, when some Emerging Church people visited our parish (St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church, Brixton, Johannesburg) for Vespers. At tea after the service the visitors were invited to ask questions or make comments about the service they had just participated in, and one of them remarked that there was “nothing digital”.
I’d seen Protestant worship where projectors and screens were used for worship, though on occasion I had failed to recognise it as worship. At the Amahoro Conference a few years ago there was “worship” on the programme, so I wandered into the hall where a band was practising some songs, and I hung around waiting for the worship to begin, but eventually the band packed up their instruments, moved off the stage and made way for the next speaker. It turned out that what I had taken to be the band practising was the “worship”.
Some of the comments in Bosco Peters’s post were also interesting. One remarked that they were still back in the stone age, using an overhead projector with transparencies rather than a digital projector with PowerPoint. But it seemed to me that the main point was being missed — whether projecting stuff onto screens in that manner is appropriate for worship at all. Overhead projectors, or digital projectors, it doesn’t matter. Both were designed primarily as educational tools, not as aids to worship.
Now Bosco Peters is Anglican, and there is a longstanding Anglican tradition, going back to the compilers of A Book of Common Prayer and possibly before, that sees edification as an important (if not the most important) component of worship. I discovered that from having had to write an essay, and answer an exam question on edification as part of worship in the Anglican college I attended.
The penny dropped when, during one of the college vacations, I hopped overt to Switzerland for a two-week course on “Orthodox theology and worship for non-Orthodox theological students”. There was a large contingent of East German students at the course (that was during the Cold War, in 1968). They were Lutherans, and suffered from culture shock. During a break between lectures one of them was emphatically asking “But what about the WORD?” We were standing by the chapel and I looked in and saw the ikon of Christ looking at me, and it suddenly clicked. He is “The Word”. He is the Wisdom, Word and Power of God.
I tried to explain that, but the Lutherans were unconvinced.
We moved on to St Sergius Seminary in Paris and shared Holy Week and Pascha with the students and congregation there, and when I returned to college I knew how it was that Anglican services had such a strong element of edification. After Orthodox worship they seemed excessively didactic, and Reformed services even more so.
So it may seem entirely appropriate for Anglicans to have screens all over their churches. But Bosco Peters still has doubts, as he makes clear when he says Projector screens in church:
We’ve recently been discussing, here, the projecting of the texts of readings onto a screen. Can someone please tell me when they were last at a play where the words of the play were projected onto a screen? Or is the general expectation at a play that the quality of the proclamation is sufficient? Do we have a lesser expectation at services?
Plays are not really edification, but entertainment, and so we are getting closer to the more Protestant end of things, the so-called “non-liturgical churches”, where worship tends to become confused with entertainment. But in the comments on Bosco Peters’s post too, this is not far below the surface, when some commenters wrote about “the worship experience”.
I’ve been there and done that too.
Partly inspired by the experience of Orthodox worship, I took part in planning and running a “psychedelic service” that got me fired as an Anglican deacon (if you’re interested in the details you can find them here: Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages). We were didactic even we were trying to get away from the didacticism of Anglican worship, and it was undoubtedly a learning experience, and one of the things I learned was that what we were trying to do was to organise a “worship experience” for people and that the essential ingedient was missing — that is, worship itself.
So Bosco Peters concluded that
…liturgy degenerated from powerful symbolic actions accompanied by interpretive words to hundreds of people staring at screens of words in the corners of the worship space…
When it comes to liturgy – I’m mostly a Luddite.
It seems to me that the use of this digital gadgetry is essentially incompatible with liturgy. Liturgy is “the work of the people”.
As Ugolnik (1990:138) puts it
Liturgics enacts a representation of reality, embedded within a text, and seeks to impose its framework of meaning upon a resistant world. It is not, in essence, an ‘alternative reality,’ representative of a world in which it is contained – in the way, say, Middlemarch is a fictional representation of a provincial English town. Liturgics seeks to impose the textual vision upon a resistant world, and make the world conform to it. There is a phenomenon of inversion which is very important to a Russian Orthodox sense of liturgy; liturgy is in itself a kind of ‘revolutionary’ act. In this way Alexander Schmemann sees the liturgy as enacting or celebrating the Kingdom of God, a spiritual kingdom of justice and liberation, within a world which does not accept it.
And as Fr Alexander Schmemann (1983:25-26) himself has said:
The Eucharist is a liturgy. And he who says liturgy today is likely to get involved in a controversy. For to some — the “liturgically minded” — of all the activities of the Church, liturgy is the most important, if not the only one. To others, liturgy is an esthetic and and spiritual deviation from the real task of the Church. There exist today “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches and Christians. But this controversy is unnecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding– the “liturgical” understanding of the liturgy. This is the reduction of the liturgy to “cultic” categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the “profane” area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself. But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals — a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose.
Thus the Church itself is a leiturgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. Just as Christianity can — and must — be considered the end of religion, so the Christian liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular, are indeed the end of cult, of the sacred and religious act isolated from, and opposed to, the “profane” life of the community. The first condition for the understanding of liturgy is to forget about any specific “liturgical piety”
When a gathering of people are looking at a screen, they are not doing something together; they are rather passive recipients of something being done to them. It ceases to be liturgy and becomes manipulation, driven by the people managing the equipment. “Let us pray to the Lord: next slide”.
And when I try to think of this in the context of Orthodox worship, the incompatibility becomes obvious, for where can you put a screen in an Orthodox Church where it will not obscure some of the ikons?
Putting a screen in front of the ikons is replacing something having a deep, abiding and powerful symbolism with something superficial, banal and ephemeral.
But it is more. It breaks the community of the church.
Putting a screen in front of the ikons not only hides the ikons from the congregation, but it symbolically hides the congregation from the view of the saints depicted in the ikons. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, except for those we have chosen to exclude in favour of our own more ephemeral and self-centred concerns, our “worship experience”.
Orthodox Churches in Muslim countries are sometimes vandalised, because Muslims are iconoclasts. But they don’t usually vandalise the whole ikon, they just chisel out the eyes. And by putting a screen in front of the ikons we would in effect be doing the same thing.
If you can understand this, you may able to know something of the difference between the Orthodox Christian view of worship, and that of most Western Christians, certainly most Protestants.