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Online Church with a Flip-Phone Priest

Each week, ADOTS will be publishing encouraging stories of connectedness and ministry from around the Diocese during this time of social distancing. Please share the ways your church is ministering with Rachel Moorman at news@adots.org.

Our first entry comes from Fr. Aaron Wright and Old North Abbey in Knoxville, TN, where Fr. Aaron is known for his trusty flip-phone.


Fr. Aaron Wright

This past week, Old North Abbey dared to step into the world of online worship. This is way out of my comfort zone. I hesitate to call it virtual worship, because honestly there wasn’t anything about it that was “virtual.” It was real. It was holy. And, it was live. Over the last few weeks I have had many conversations with other pastors and worship leaders who have given their good and well thought out insight about how to move from Sunday worship in their respective spaces to online services. Their thoughts helped to guide us going forward. However, it wasn’t what they said that helped to make those decisions for us, but what they weren’t saying. Every church is different. They did what was best for their churches, and we did what we believed was best for us.

Like I said, we went live. With all the possibilities of technical problems, of miscues, user error, and other issues that can pop up, we still decided to go live. Because at Old North Abbey we already deal with those issues on any given Sunday. In fact, it’s precisely why we decided to go with live services. As I processed through all the things that could “go wrong” with going live, I realized that those were essential parts of worshiping together anyway.

What if people prayed at the same time, out loud, right in the middle of the Prayers of the People? What if the reader forgot to read the text at the right time? What if we didn’t get a song just right? What if we read a collect out of sync?

Well… we already do that. It’s what makes it church. It’s what I love about worship. It means that we lean in on something bigger than what we can pull off on a Sunday. It means that we can laugh at our attempts and be in awe of God’s grace to meet us through our human efforts. It means, that for us, it was a time of joy. Will it get old? Sure. We aren’t meant for worshiping this way. A screen is not a person. The passing of the peace can’t be done the best through a screen. We still need the sounds of feet on the wooden floors, the children flooding our pews at the passing of the peace, the singing that fills that quaint little space. But, honestly, this last Sunday was amazing. It was the best we could do.

It wasn’t easy though. It took a good deal of planning. So, let me tell you how we pulled off Sunday worship at Old North Abbey, live and online.

ONA online service as captured by a parishioner.

1) We used Zoom. It was the best system for our particular church. We had someone in our parish who is very competent at getting us set up and hosting our worship times. This allowed me to just lead and not have to worry about technicalities that could interrupt me.

2) We bought a simple $8.99/month subscription. This allows 100 units to join in live. We, at our max, had roughly 68 units join in. Each unit averaged 3-4 folks. So we had about 210 people participating in our service.

3) We kept our volunteer schedule for participation in worship. Our readers read scripture. Our deacons read the Gospel. Our Prayers of the People leader led. I made a decision last week to not change too much. We used a combo of Morning Prayers and Renewed Ancient Eucharistic liturgy. This wasn’t done to blend liturgies, but to give our folks a slight change with very familiar pieces. Everyone was able to follow along well. We sent out the order of service to our mailing list. They printed it off and followed along at home.

4) We tried to make it work like a regular service. Readers got online early (at 9:30) and went through the plan. Clergy did the same. We told our parish to start “coming to church” at about 9:45. This allowed those who had responsibilities time to get acquainted with Zoom. They pulled it off perfectly.

5) Preaching was difficult. But I practiced that previous evening by preaching to my computer camera. I wanted people to see me looking at them instead of obviously looking at my screen. It was awkward for me, but I got used to it.

6) During the prayers of the people we decided to open it up for folks to pray. This was super sweet. We got to see people’s faces, hear their voices, but also pray alongside of them. We had very few hiccups. Just as many as we would normally have on a Sunday. It felt like home.

7) After service I had a few announcements. Then something beautiful happened. Our kids were given the opportunity to catch up. For about 30-40 minutes our kiddos took over. Parents got lunch ready and kids played and laughed. It was awesome! I didn’t realize how much of our time together on Sundays is geared around fellowship. Our kids needed it. We needed it. I suggest you try it.

It reminded me of one of the main reasons I became Anglican. I was raised in a church that was mostly two-dimensional observation. I did a lot of watching. Anglican worship, for me, opened me up to a world of three-dimensional participation. I discovered that my participation is essential to the communion of saints. This last Sunday, Old North Abbey still participated. We gathered and moved through the narrative of worship together. We didn’t simply observe. This is why live services are so important for us. The church comes together and participates in the worship of God.

So, we don’t know how long this will last. But, as long as it does we will find ways to make this work. We will do our very best. We will still have our Wednesday night weekly prayers and teaching time. We’re going to open up times for our kids to get together to do activities with one another. We may even have a “Story Hour with Father Aaron” where I tell really fun stories from the bible and our kids can participate. I’ll have to get my old pipe out of its box and my bow tie skills up and running again.

One last thing. I have a flip phone. I don’t like technological stuff. I hate screens and all that jibber jabber. But, I loved last week. I learned some “new tricks” and that has benefited me and my parish.

Blessings to you!

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