Professor Joe Goldblatt
As the minister carefully placed the candle holders upon his ritual table before the start of the weekly service, I was surprised when his set of ritual objects now included a lap top computer, a small tripod and video camera. It suddenly dawned upon me that I was now in a new world of hybrid religious events.
The minister announced proudly to the small in person congregation of around twenty persons that we were being joined by 28 screens that represented over fifty people from all over the world. Those of us sitting somewhat together in actual pews smiled in appreciation of the fact that business was booming for organised religion and that technology had become the great enabler of participation in our weekly services.
Hats off to the minister who in just two years time had acquired new specialised skills in computer technology, video broadcasting and the more soft and subtle skills of creating a blended congregation from those who were confident enough to sit with others indoors and those from afar whose spirit moved them to join us virtually. To my surprise, the minister seamlessly moved from the in person worshipers to those on line as he added text to their computer screens so that they could easily move from their prayer books follow and participate in the service.
During my prayers I began to wonder if this hybrid holiness was a fad or a trend? Would we ever return to one hundred percent worship in person or would our prayers always be enhanced by the bandwidth provided by the internet? The longer I observed and participated in this hybrid higher calling I came to realise that perhaps this was in fact a miracle that places of worship had long needed to extend their footprint and attract new followers.
The use of technology to promote religion, faith or belief is something that extends all the way back to the invention of the wireless and later televised evangelists who eventually reached millions of followers through their charismatic broadcasts. One such charismatic religious leader was the catholic priest from the USA named Bishop Fulton J Sheen who from 1930 to 1979 appeared on radio, television and even cassette tapes to promote and seek new converts to Catholicism. He was considered so popular that the catholic church has considered for many years promoting him to sainthood.
Sheen was followed by a legion of television evangelists ranging from Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, the Bakkers (Jim and Tammy Faye) and more recently the leader of a mega church in Houston, Texas named Pastor Joel Scott Osteen. Many of these individuals effectively used the airwaves to promote their religious values and some also fell into disrepute for living personal lives of ostentatious comfort. Technology has long been an enabler of reaching the multitudes who are seeking an opportunity to find or develop their faith and belief in both an individual and communal setting.
Therefore, when the minister carefully arranged the miniature tripod with the eye of the camera sitting at its apex I actually took comfort from the symbolism that through technology and the willingness of this minister to learn new skills that we could overcome the disruption of a global pandemic and continue to come together for mutual comfort, compassion, kindness, learning and yes, love. The camera actually became another ritual object. The order of the service had not changed nor had the the level of participation of those in the pews. What had changed was that many of us now felt as though we were part of a larger community who chose to worship with us in the way that was most comfortable for them.
Some traditional branches within organised religion may dispute or disapprove of certain rituals being conducted on line. However, over time they have begun to make some adjustments to allow their followers to continue to participate in sacred rituals using technology. For example, the Methodist church allowed their members to gather together on line for the ritual of holy communition for a limited period of September 2021 to August 2024. The Catholic church similarly has recently allowed online communion. Within Orthodox Judaism the online environment is particularly troubling because this branch of Judaism forbids using electricity on the Sabbath. Therefore, some orthodox Jewish rabbis have encouraged their congregants to meet on line during mid week to avoid the sin of using technology on the sabbath. Indeed, technology as it continues to expand has presented many new conundrums for faith leaders and others.
When the Dallas Cowboys football team constructed the first ever billion US dollar stadium with a giant video screen that dominated and literally overshadowed the playing field, many of the other US National Football League owners wondered if this signalled the beginning or the end of live sports. As it turned out, televised viewership for these games is up by ten percent in 2022. In Dallas, some local folks actually view the Cowboys games as a religious experience and the local traditional religious services are rescheduled so as not to conflict with their home games as this actually results in significantly decreased attendance at places of worship.
If places of worship measure some of their success by steady and perhaps increased attendance then the new opportunities to point, click and pray may be a welcome long term addition to the faith experience. However, I do hope that central to this experience will be the sacred feeling that is most often achieved by having warm bodies surrounding one another, especially during times of joy and sorrow. As a minister recently pointed out when he handed an actual parchment certificate of membership to a new convert, this was the first time in two years he could hold in his hand a document rather than only displaying it upon a computer screen. As the new member of the religious community held the certificate in her hands, shed a few tears and beamed with pride, it was obvious to those in person and at a distance, that our souls are perhaps more easily and perhaps more profoundly connected when we are in the same space at the same time for a common purpose.
Therefore, as we place our ritual objects upon the table perhaps the computer, tripod and camera should not become the prominent feature and instead technology should be seen as an enabler and enhancement rather than the sancta sanctorum (sacred space) of future worship experiences. Technology may indeed become the means in which we gather together in greater number, however, it must not become the final destination for our communal meditations. We must recognise and respect its importance and value and also insure that it does not, at our peril, become the sole determinant of how we gather as communities of faith and belief.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is also Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association.