Virtual service is a first after church is forced to close doors by coronavirus

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mass at St Joseph & English Martrys, Bishops Stortford
Mass at St Joseph & English Martrys, Bishops Stortford

It is a tradition going back thousands of years: Christians coming together on Sundays to worship together. But this Sunday was different. Churches were closed in the face of coronavirus, something that could spread fast through a congregation.

Millions across Britain turned instead to technology for their communal worship, from listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preside over a pre-recorded service on the BBC to live-streaming of services and Mass by churches and cathedrals of many different denominations. And so as a Roman Catholic I tuned in at 9am to Mass at St Joseph & English Martyrs in Bishops Stortford, Essex, celebrated by Fr Carols Quito.

Missing of course was the personal contact that means so much to us parishioners: the people you see week after week, the chat about those who are ill at home or on holiday, events coming up, what people have given up for Lent. This Sunday no doubt there would have been people going off to lunch for Mother’s Day afterward. Nor yesterday could we exchange a sign of peace, and above all we couldn’t receive Holy Communion. Yet I found the live-streamed alternative was prayerful, poignant and above all consoling. The most modern technology brought me the Ancient of Days.

As Fr Carlos began to sing the entry hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, his solitary voice echoed around the empty nave. In normal times, this would be a busy moment in a church with people arriving slightly late and dashing in at the last minute, shuffling along the pews, and small children still chatting.

Peterborough Cathedral streamed its Sunday service live to Facebook for the first time in its 900 year history Credit: Terry Harris 

For live-streaming viewers, the view was of the fine Italianate church, its altar framed by marble pillars as if set up to be viewed on a computer screen. We listened as Fr Carlos recited all the reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. And how appropriate they were: “I am the light of the world,” he read Jesus’ words from the St John’s Gospel. But it was the psalm, The Lord Is My Shepherd, whose familiar words were of comfort but brought tears too: “If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear”.

A pastoral letter from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, replaced the usual homily, using words I can imagine my parents and grandparents might have once heard during the Second World War but never expected in my lifetime.

“We know the steps and the sacrifices we must make”, he wrote.

“Together we turn to God as never before, our faith in God is the bedrock, prayer is an acknowledgement that we are not in control of our lives and of the world.”

For those of us watching at home, there was both an easy familiarity about the Mass with the usual pattern of the liturgy but a strangeness too. At Holy Communion there was only Fr Carlos, while the rest of us could only share in what the Church calls a spiritual communion.

The Archbishop of York lights a candle for NHS workers Credit: Charlotte Graham for The Telegraph 

Two hours later, Durham Cathedral used its Facebook page to livestream its Anglican Communion service. There was an intimacy about the service, which was lead by Canon Michael Hampel, the cathedral’s vice-dean and precentor and celebrated in the Shrine of St Cuthbert rather than the high altar of the vast medieval church. But there were several voices here belonging to the chapter of the cathedral, and fine choral singing. I could almost imagine I was tuning in to a private service for the clergy rather than an extraordinary event caused by churches fearing to pass on the coronavirus. The Facebook messages confirmed how important it was to the virtual congregation, tuning in from across the globe, not just in Britain.

The Anglican rituals and the liturgy were strikingly similar to the Roman Catholic Mass but the readings were different yet again so entirely appropriate.  The Gospel was St John’s account of feeding the five thousand, as disciples fretted and Jesus assured them they could feed everyone. It could be taken as a parable of sharing for us all in these panic buying times, or it could be St John’s version of the Eucharist, the preacher said. He reminded us the Eucharist was being celebrated this Sunday morning, just as it was on previous days and will be again. Even in these testing times, that is a certainty Christians can rely on. It was an optimism that lifted my spirits on a very difficult and very different Sunday.