Before the pandemic struck, Mr. Perkins, like many of us, had never heard of Zoom. He was content to offer services each Sunday to the small congregation that would gather in his little church at Hampton’s Corners. It had never occurred to him to broadcast his services or his sermons beyond the audience that faithfully gathered on the sacred day, at the sacred hour. This, of course, all changed when the pandemic came, and the government called for the closure of schools, and businesses, and even churches.
A few weeks went by with Mr. Perkins sending around the text of his homilies by email, and even this was a bit of a stretch for him, for Mr. Perkins was an old-fashioned sort of cleric. People used to joke that the quill pen and the pad of paper were the most advanced technology he used. But a call from his officious churchwarden, Judy Jumblejump, convinced him, or shall we say coerced him, into making an attempt at broadcasting the Sunday service over Zoom. It was not something he really wanted to do, or even knew how to do, and thus it was with a sense of real failure that he answered the door of the rectory that Monday morning after his first attempt at “Zooming Church” to find the indomitable Judy standing there with her arms crossed, a mask over the bottom half of her face, and her brow furrowed. He knew what was coming next. Her arms began to wave and she began to rant, “Mr. Perkins, what happened yesterday must never happen again! That was a disaster! If you persist in having services like this over Zoom, people will never tune in again! And they’ll stop giving to the church as well!”
Poor Mr. Perkins. This was another one of those times in which his best efforts had not been well received. What did happen that first Sunday that Christ Church, Hampton’s Corners decided to go online? Perhaps, with the hindsight of a couple of years of Zoom church under our belts, it is easy for us to judge Mr. Perkins for failing to understand the medium. But perhaps we should be gentle with our old friend, given that he had plunged head first into dark and murky waters. Have we forgotten how quickly the world changed when it went online overnight?
Just what had happened on the previous Sunday morn to make Judy Jumblejump show up at the parson’s door in such a fluster? Truthfully, I think he had taken too much on his own shoulders. He had made a call to a Presbyterian minister friend who had taught him over the phone how to set up a Zoom account. He had conscripted a couple of participants to take a few parts. Reg Canon, another of the wardens, was to be the reader, and Mary, his organist, would play a few hymns on her home piano. He had set up his ancient laptop on his kitchen table, vested in his cassock and surplice, and “started the meeting.” At first, he couldn’t understand why no one was “joining the meeting.” It was nearly eleven o’clock, and he sat there staring at himself on the screen. Maybe no one was coming. Maybe this Zoom thing was too much for them. Suddenly, his phone rang. It was Mary.
“Mr. Perkins,” she spoke gently, “you have to bring people in from the waiting room.”
“There’s a waiting room? Where? How do I do that?”
She explained it to him, and with a combination of both horror and delight, he realized he had 35 people stuck in the waiting room. He pressed “admit all,” following her instructions, and in a minute they all appeared on his screen. He apologized and began the announcements. After a few moments he noticed the faces of his flock were all pointing to their mouths and ears. A message popped up on his screen from Mary: “You are muted. Press unmute. It’s the little microphone on the bottom band on your screen.” Once he got that sorted, he began again.
Clearly, he was not the only one struggling with the technology, though, for a loud voice interrupted, “Will you shut up!” He was taken aback, thinking someone was shouting at him, until he realized that it was the voice of Millie Muckering shouting at her husband, “Marty, will you shut your @*$ mouth, I’m trying to watch church!”
“Ahem,” Mr. Perkins interjected, “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
“And also with you,” other voices chimed in, all over the place and cutting in and out.
“Mary has agreed to play a hymn or two for us from home,” he said, “You are invited to join in. The words were emailed to you a few days ago.”
“Mr. Perkins,” another voice interrupted, “I don’t have email. How do I get the words?”
“When did you send the email?” another voice said.
“I believe it was Thursday,” he replied.
“Well, I didn’t get it. Did anyone else get it?”
“I got it,” said Millie, “Can we get this service going? I want to watch Coronation Street.”
“I’m opening my email now, Mr. Perkins,” said another ‘old dear.’ “Let’s see… Hotmail, open, new messages… oh, here it is. You can start now, Mr. Perkins. I’m good to go!”
“Thank you,” he said, drawing in a deep breath. “Even if you don’t have the words, most of us will know it.”
Mary began playing “Amazing Grace” on her little parlour piano, and the people began to sing. It was an unholy cacophony of voices cutting in and out, with crackling and screeching feedback. It was the longest five verses of “Amazing Grace” he had ever had to suffer through, and he inwardly cursed his Presbyterian minister friend for not telling him he needed to mute the congregation while Mary played and sung.
Having discovered how to “mute all,” he asked Reg to lead the lesson from 1 Kings 9:11-14 about the prophet Elijah waiting for the Lord to pass by and reveal himself, and how God was not heard in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the still small voice of silence. However, the still small voice of silence was Reg’s, for he could not be heard, for he had not realized that Mr. Perkins had muted him. By all appearances, he read the reading with great passion, but not a single word of it was heard. Mr. Perkins feverishly tried to unmute him, but after getting lost in the Zoom settings he was unable to do so, and Reg finished. You could see a few individuals sympathetically mouthing “Thanks be to God” as he concluded the lesson.
Having finally figured out how to unmute the congregation, he was barely into his sermon when he began to hear the sounds of laughter. The laughter began to grow as he proceeded. Finally, he stopped and asked his flock directly, “Is there something funny going on?”
“Oh Mr. Perkins,” laughed Miss Lillian Littlestature, that ancient spinster, “you look like a pirate.” He then caught a glimpse of himself on the screen and realized that somehow, while he was in the settings trying to unmute Reg, he had applied a filter to his face that gave him a pirate patch, a pirate hat, and a parrot on his shoulder.
“Ahem. Just a minute.” He turned his video off for a moment, and when he came back his pirate attire had gone away. “Let us continue,” he said with solemnity, but no sooner had he taken up his sermon again, someone shouted, “Shut the @&% up!” Again, he was taken aback, but soon realized it was Millie again, “No, Marty, church is not over yet. Just tape it for me.”
And so it went. Mr. Perkins tried to get through his sermon. Of course, since the reading had been muted, he had to rehearse the text of the day once more to the congregation in order for his sermon to make sense. Thus, he related again the story of Elijah waiting for the Lord to pass by and how he was heard not in the wind, nor the splitting rocks of the earthquake, nor the fire, but finally in the sound of sheer silence. As Mr. Perkins reached this crescendo a thundering noise sounded through his speakers, like rushing water. And that is what it was. It was the sound of a flushing toilet.
“Good Lord,” he thought to himself, “someone’s listening to my sermon in the john!” He hastily concluded his sermon, for he thought at this point that the only thing it would add to the service was length. He muttered his way through a few prayers, all the while Millie continued to yell at Martin, “Marty, just shut up, I can’t hear Mr. Perkins praying!” As the service ended, he invited everyone to come back next week and he quickly “ended the meeting” and the faces disappeared.
Perhaps now we can understand Judy Jumblejump’s consternation and rage that Monday morning, but who amongst us has not had a similar horrifying experience upon first engaging new technology in such a public way?
Judy suggested he go online and see what the Rev. Robbie Ready was doing for online church. He was leading a wonderful service, with so much polish, she related. Of course he was. Robbie had a couple of TV execs in his parish, and they had brought in a team of professional technicians to livestream a very flashy product. He knew that the best way to handle Judy was to let her rant, let her tell him how it should have been done, what he should do next, and then she would fizzle out. And when that inevitably happened after about 45 minutes, she left.
He was discouraged, even despondent. Back in his day at Trinity College, there were no courses in multimedia ministry. He was just a simple country parson. What was he to do?
Judy did have a point. The service was a disaster, and whether or not he was to blame, he carried the responsibility for it not going well. It had exuded anything but Anglican “order and decency,” and he was ashamed. He downloaded Robbie Ready’s service to take a look at it, and it was slick, indeed. He knew he could never pull something like this together. Maybe God was telling him it was time to hang up his collar.
He moped about for the rest of the day until another knock came upon his door. He stirred himself from his self-flagellation to answer it, and there stood two older men, Jim and Tim, twin brothers. They were wearing their masks but unlike Judy, he could see compassion in their eyes. Jim said, “Mr. Perkins, you have a problem, and I believe we can help you.”
They were not regular parishioners, but they attended from time to time and had tuned into his first service. They had witnessed all that had happened. Jim and Tim had owned the local Radio Shack back in the old days, and they were known around town as the local techies who could fix anything. They kindly and gently explained to him where he had gone wrong, and that they could help him. They could set up some wi-fi in the church so he could conduct his services there, at his beloved altar, in the beloved parish church.
Jim said Mr. Perkins needed something called a “Zoom master” to take the burden of running the meeting off of the celebrant’s shoulders. Tim said he could set up a proper video camera and some good sound equipment, put the service on a PowerPoint that he would control, and they could even get Mary to come in and play the organ. Tim continued, “You know, Mr. Perkins, I think this would significantly improve the viewer experience.”
Well, the two men went to work in the church immediately and got it wired for sound. They coached Mr. Perkins on what to do, where to stand, where to look, and rehearsed the service several times, broadcasting once to their wives to make sure that all was in order.
The next Sunday morning rolled around. Mary was at the organ console, Mr. Perkins was at his prayer desk, Jim and Tim were masked and distanced, working in their respective technological spheres.
It would be wrong to say that everything went perfectly smoothly, but just being relieved of the burden of carrying the whole weight of the thing on his own shoulders made a huge difference. Now he could be prayerfully and intentionally present, not hastily trying to construct an electronic mystical experience in the presence of the Saviour. That he could be in his church, in that sacred space, on that holy ground as the light shone through the rose window, and that people could see him in their much-treasured place of worship from which they had been deprived for several weeks now, meant so much.
Tim had begun his PowerPoint with an opening slide that read: “We are learning, but we are together, and no matter what happens, we believe Christ is present with us, shining his light upon us.”
If there was any yelling at spouses, it was not heard. If anyone was listening to the service in the bathroom, or while eating their bacon and eggs, it was not obvious. With a little help from his friends, things seem to come off not badly at all, and everyone commented later that they really felt like they had been “back to church.”
He concluded the service with the Doxology: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”
Who could have imagined this a month ago, he thought? He had no way to imagine what might come next, how long this would all last, or if things would ever get back to normal. All he knew was that in this moment, whatever this was, together they were the Church, that Christ was truly present, and his glory shone around and within them, even in their floundering and imperfect efforts to worship him.