The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

Is your Quaker community struggling with decisions about online worship, in-person worship, and how and when and whether to combine them? If not, great. But if your community is finding this difficult, it might help to know that you’re not alone. In this blog post, I want to share some things I’m hearing from Quakers in meetings around Britain, and pose some questions which I think need further exploration. Please share your own experiences in the comments – there are clearly a wide variety of situations and it’s beneficial for all of us to hear from as many as possible.

So far, I’ve heard…

…that some meetings are having a lot of success with blended worship (with a group in a room together, perhaps in a meeting house or rented space, connected via microphone, speakers, camera and screen to a group online, usually on Zoom). When it works well, it gives everyone the option to attend in-person or online as they choose, it brings the whole meeting together, and everyone can see and hear each other. Even when there are minor problems, it shows a willingness to work to include everyone, and we can keep improving. It needs enough people to act as hosts and elders and provide technical support, and when it works, it can be flexible and gathered and moving. I put this first because although it’s not everyone’s experience, it’s important to know that it is good for some communities.

…that some meetings are experiencing conflict over the options. This is often a hard thing for Quaker communities to admit, because we would love to be wonderful peaceful loving harmonious pacifist groups, but we also need to be truthful about it. In a way, it would be surprising if we didn’t have some conflict over major and complex transition periods. The last nineteen months have been hard on everyone, but the effects have been very different, and some people have experienced bereavement, illness, loss of income, isolation, and other effects of the pandemic much more directly and extensively than others. As the pandemic continues but social expectations shift again, everyone is constantly renegotiating everything from meeting locations to mask wearing rules, and this affects our Quaker meetings as much as any other community. So it’s not really a surprise, even if it can be difficult to accept, that there might be painful disagreements and arguments over questions like the use of technology in worship and the range of worship options we offer at the moment.

…that some Quakers need, or really benefit from, being able to attend meeting for worship online. That might be worship in general, or it might be a specific Quaker community. It might be because of distance, health, personal preference, risk, or other things. It might be to do with the pandemic, or something which existed anyway. It might be related to the individual’s risk factors for coronavirus or to the infection risk they carry to others. This message has been around for a long time (and some Friends with long distances to travel or other situations preventing them attending in-person worship were meeting online before the pandemic), but the forced move online prompted by lockdown meant that it has been understood much more widely. I hope that we won’t lose it in the next round of changes.

…that some Quakers don’t experience online worship as fully gathered. The awareness of physical separation, the distractions of being at home, the intrusion of computer screens and other kit, difficulty settling down, loss of body language and other nonverbal connections, emotional and spiritual reactions to the situation, and probably all sorts of other things make it difficult or impossible for some Quakers to worship online, or enjoy the same quality of worship online. This is also not a universal experience – there are plenty of people who report that online worship is just fine or better for them – but it’s widespread and important. Some of the issues apply to computer screens, microphones, and other kit in the physical meeting room as well as to meeting entirely on Zoom.

…that it’s easy to unthinkingly talk about one experience as ‘real’ or ‘better’ and put down the other side. All sorts of comments can reflect assumptions that either online or in-person worship is the actual meeting and the other kind is an add-on. These might be based on markers that Quakers do traditionally take as important. For example, consistency in attending worship is often valued, so people who worship every week online might think of themselves as the real community when people who only attend in-person seemed to vanish during lockdown. (Even when we know intellectually that it’s an illusion, we can feel or speak that way.) Alternatively, some people put a high value on physical presence with people or in a specific place, and might think of returning to in-person worship as restarting real worship after making do without or with a feeble approximation. If both of those views are present in one community, at least some people are likely to feel put down and dismissed!

…that Quaker communities are already working on, and sometimes struggling with, decisions about how to move forward. Learning about the spiritual and practical needs present in a worshipping community, finding ways to meet them, balancing different and sometimes conflicting needs… none of this is new, but it has taken new forms, and lots of communities are facing decisions about online, blended, and in-person worship at the moment.

With all that in mind, questions I’m interested in exploring further include:

  • Do you recognise yourself and/or your community in the things I’ve said here? What else is happening?
  • How do we make sure we are finding out about the needs of everyone in our communities? What about people who are on the margins or who want to join but can’t or who aren’t made welcome? How does internet technology affect our ability to discover these things?
  • What do our discernment processes need to do to enable our communities to make good decisions about these issues?
  • Whatever format our worship takes, how do we ensure its quality and depth? What helps to make a meeting gathered? How do we detect that, how do we talk about it, and how do we support one another to participate in worship as fully as possible?

10 responses to “The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

  1. Well, what a comfort to read such a familiar description of these issues. After losing my job several years ago, I moved to a much smaller town that doesn’t have a meeting. I fantasized at first that I would attend sometimes, but I never made the hour drive. So I just left my meeting, for years. I didn’t join any other church, and just prayed on my own (well, with God, at least some of the time I think).

    During the pandemic last year, suddenly it occurred to me to check whether my meeting had an online meeting. They did! I started attending, and it was so wonderful to see my old fFriends.

    Then, this year, as most members were vaccinated, meeting moved back into the meetinghouse. The Zoom meeting became a handful of folks who like me live away from meeting, plus those who were being especially careful about infection or were quarantining that week. I love them but I miss being part of the whole.

    What has been really hard is to hear and hold the strong resistance in many members to having a screen and a camera, or at least a mic, in the room so we remote members can feel a part of the rest of the meeting. For now we are separate. We are experimenting with a blended meeting by allowing some in the meetinghouse to join the online meeting in our library. I’m not sure how it will play out. I’m trying to listen and hear and understand the perspectives of those who don’t think the remote meeting is a real meeting. I have been gone for years and have I guess in that sense not been a real member of the meeting anymore, so pressing for incorporation of the remote worship into the meeting room feels wrong.

    I find myself wondering if there could be a purely online Meeting? For folks who lack access to an in person meeting and do feel gathered online.

    But for now I think we have to stay together, experiment, and muddle through.

    Anyway thank you for the post.

    • Thank you for sharing, Jessica. I do think there could be an purely online Meeting, but there’s a bit of work to do to make sure it provides pastoral and spiritual care as well as meeting for worship, and to fit it into the rest of the structures of the Yearly Meeting.

  2. Great post, thank you. I was amazed in lock-down by how well Zoom MfW worked, not always, but often. We organised it for the whole Area Meeting and there was a great turn out (more than 50). The meeting often felt gathered (though I have no idea how to measure that, nor really how to talk about it). There were more frustrating examples too. I spend my working life battling with computers so when I found myself in a meeting which was dominated by someone noisily demanding that we all partake in their IT issues I found it impossible to stay generous-hearted and I’d have to leave.

    Now that we can meet in person we have a blended meeting set-up. This works well, as I expected it would, but I do have one niggle and that is to do with the layout of the meeting. I know that gathering in a circle is a relatively recent thing (before that, weighty Friends and Friends traveling in the ministry sat on a raised platform at the front) but I find the equality a circle gives important. The technical set-up at Jesus Lane is great, but the big screen inevitably feels bigger, and thus more important, than the other Quakers gathered. It felt a little like a presentation at work, albeit a very quiet one! I do not know how to avoid that feeling.

    The other worship group I am part of is one that has really flourished online, and that’s the monthly Meeting for Worship plus Creative Conversation (MfW + CC) that we have been organising in the Nontheist Friends Network. We open the meeting 15 minutes early, so that people have a chance to say “hello”, then we go into a 20 minute Meeting for Worship, followed by a 20 minute talk, followed by a discussion (sometimes in smaller breakout rooms, sometimes not). These have been amazing. We’ve had a great turnout (nearly running the risk of overreaching our 100 person Zoom limit!) including Friends from all over the world. Again I would struggle to put into words why these meetings are so successful, and I agree with you it is something we need to work out how to talk about and how to involve everyone in the surrounding discernment.

    • Yesterday we had a blended MfW for Business. I was in the screen abs at one point caught a glimpse of it as someone was speaking next to it. It did feel like we on screen participants were larger and sort of dominated the space. I agree that is not ideal, I very much prefer the non hierarchical feeling of the circle. At a Catholic-run retreat center I went to once, they had the modest sized screen placed literally within the circle, and it felt more natural, almost like the online folks were in chairs nearby.

      The monthly meeting with conversation sounds wonderful.

  3. Nigel Geoffrey Barnes

    dear Rhiannon

    We shared our thoughts and experiences of on line and blended meetings at allendale recently and agreed this minute which may be of interest to Friends

    Nigel Barnes on behalf of Allendale LM

    2. Online and blended worship. As Friends gain more experience of the various options provided by online screens we have some concerns about whether blending face to face and online worship is the best use of these resources. We appreciate that for business and other meetings blending may be a valuable option. We are also mindful of the lack of adequate internet coverage at our meeting house, until the community broadband comes on stream. We ask area meeting to give consideration to supporting the development of the provision of online worship, possibly on a Sunday evening so as not to clash with regular MFW, for those friends for whom face to face worship remains problematic and also to enable more shared worship across the area and possibly beyond.

  4. This is a very helpful post, with equally helpful comments. I thank you, Friend Rhiannon, for making it all available. My experience with blended gatherings, both inside and outside our Religious Society, has been generally positive. (We had some blended gatherings at work before the pandemic.) The organizations in question have tended to work through the logistical quirks. I am a non-resident member of a Meeting in New England, who usually attended a Meeting in Canadian Yearly Meeting in person before the pandemic. I was able to work my my schedule around to participate in both while everyone was on Zoom. On the months with five First Days, I tended to add in the Meeting in the New England community in which I was an undergraduate more years ago than I care to remember. That Meeting is holding hybrid Meetings for Worship with what appear to me to be increasing success, but I was unable to attend the last business meeting due to conflicting obligations at the Canadian Meeting and thus don’t have the most recent progress report. The Canadian Meeting is still on Zoom for its regular Sunday Meeting for Worship due to social distancing and other pandemic-related issues, although a worship group has fewer restrictions, and summer midweek Meetings in Friends’ back yards (“gardens” in English parlance) or the Meeting House car park have been feasible if weather and COVID levels have permitted. These in-person gatherings have no meaningful Internet access. (Two Friends, socially-distanced from each other, tried to use data to join Meeting for Worship on one occasion from the car park, with mixed results.) The situation in the Canadian Meeting is unlikely to change in the next couple of months, and the longer-arrangements cannot be predicted. Since July of 2021 the Meeting in the community where I was an undergraduate has running simultaneous in-person Meetings at a town hall without Internet access and Zoom sessions while waiting for renovations to the meetinghouse to be completed. I’ve not attended in any format since this started but expect to “go” there on Zoom if they try a hybrid setup once the renovations are finished, which I believe they plan to try out.

    These Meetings are all in the Eastern time zone of North America and all are in areas which have snow and ice for several months during the winter. This consideration will no doubt influence deliberations, although it may not be the deciding factor. (It was one of several factors in the Meeting which decided to go hybrid very quickly.) In fact, when my workplace, my adult music lessons, arts events, and my Quaker gatherings all went remote in March of 2020, my first thought was, “No more worrying about sliding into traffic in bad weather!”Reduced levels of influenza and other “bugs” are other benefits, along with getting as close as humanly possible to being in two places at once (something I’ve always dreamed about). Then there’s the fact that a front-line healthcare worker is a member of my immediate household. For all of these reasons I can put up with a lot of technical inconsistencies. So hybrid is my bias.

    I have not “attended” a Meeting in Britain since the pandemic began. I requested and received a Zoom link for “bumbledad’s” home Meeting, Jesus Lane, because my spouse and I met there way back in the early 1980’s. However, I must admit that getting up at 5:30 a.m. our time to Zoom into Jesus Lane didn’t mesh well with our pick-up of our on-line grocery order at 8:00 a.m. “Bumbledad,” I appreciate your comment about people on screen appearing oversized in the otherwise well-appointed setup at Jesus Lane. (By “well-appointed, I am taking into account a fairly recent photograph of the premises, which shows those excruciatingly uncomfortable benches relegated to the side area on the right in the Meeting Room; they were in a square in the front of the room in our day.) Since I tend to use a virtual background, I don’t know if Jesus Lane Friends would have been amused to see our cats, which appear several times their normal size in a virtual Zoom background, hovering over all of you like enormous tigers in the space once occupied by our dearly beloved late Friend Anna Bidder. But if you are still on a hybrid setup at Jesus Lane, I will try to reach out to my contact there before the end of the year. I promise not to use the background with the cats.

    Once again, thank you all, Friends. I look forward to reading the rest of the comments.

  5. Thank you Rhiannon for this objective presentation.
    Since the beginning of the pandemic, Geneva group has organized a number of online meetings, e.g. mid-week meeting, “Spiritual Deepening” meetings. With another Friend, we choosed to continue the face to face meetings at Quaker House, all over since March 2020. I wrote about it: “so that the walls remember”. Sometimes alone, often in pairs. Gradually other people came, and for a few months now blended meetings have also taken place.
    One aspect is not mentioned in this article. The Internet has become a very raw material-intensive and polluting industry, the people working at both ends (the mines and the waste) are real slaves. This industry is also energy intensive, by multiplying virtual meetings we contribute to environmental degradation, and, in-fine, to the conditions allowing the next pandemics.
    It is therefore also necessary to mention a conflict of values, as the extensive use of the Internet is contrary to our Quaker testimonies.
    I wish this aspect was also shared when mentioning online worship 🙂

  6. An excellent overview which reflects much of what my own community a world away (Wisconsin, USA) is experiencing. Thank you!

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