WHY IS THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND INVESTING IN VIRTUAL REALITY?
Amaris Cole, head of digital at the Church of England, explains how the organisation is using virtual reality to bring its new audience of digital churchgoers to in-person parishes post-pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Church of England has produced a national online service from a local parish church across the country. While many of our buildings have reopened, and the traditional pattern of worship has begun again, the online weekly services remain.
These videos have premiered on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram each Sunday at 9 am since March 2020, with nearly 100 services, totalling more than 2,500 hours of video.
As the pandemic developed, it became clear the national service was providing more than a simple replacement of an onsite Sunday service. Instead, we saw a community grow of regular viewers from the UK and around the globe. Some have created a Facebook group; others get up in the middle of the night to watch live and participate with other viewers from across the world. This regular worshipping community know one another by name, as they would in one of our onsite services.
Each service receives nearly 200,000 views and 300 comments. They’ve seen more than 46.8 million times and 1.2 million total engagements so far. Half of the viewers watch every week. Each service is unique and involves its own logistical or technical challenges for the Digital Team, who leads in editing these services. We also fulfil the community management role – integral to their success.
Viewers are encouraged to actively participate, rather than passively watch. Services are monitored each Sunday at 9 am by the in-house digital team, who engage with the community directly. And we haven’t just been able to reach regular churchgoers who couldn’t get to our buildings. The videos have reached new and fringe audiences. 20 per cent of viewers identify that they are not regular churchgoers – 15 per cent of people said before lockdown they went to church monthly or less.
With our local churches now open and worshipping, why are people still joining us online at 9 am each week? This new audience is complex. Some have accessibility considerations stopping them from attending onsite. Others live in Japan, America or Italy. Multiple viewers have told us they’re shielding and so this service is a lifeline. And others? They’ve never been into one of our buildings – at least now for a regular Sunday service.
We needed an innovative way to demystify what happens in our 16,500 parishes. VR was an obvious solution. So far, we’ve piloted one short service, called a Blessing of the Light, traditionally said before Evening Prayer, but the feedback from our online worshipping community has been incredible.
This is an ancient tradition, first seen in early Christianity, brought to a new audience online through virtual reality. The seven-minute act of worship, filmed at the parish church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, can be accessed on any computer or device, without special VR equipment.
People can experience ‘standing’ among the choir and can explore in 360-degree vision during the worship. Other members of clergy have been asking for us to visit their local church and do the same – they want to share this on their website for those wanting to find out more about their church. They want to share on social media so local people can ‘step inside’ for the first time. They want it on their YouTube page so that the people who have joined their live-streamed services since the pandemic can feel part of the community.
Producing innovative worship content like this in-house means we can continue to meet people where they are, on whatever device they might be using, with prayer and worship. This technology offers the Church an exciting opportunity to go a step further and enable people to explore worship in our church buildings - perhaps for the first time.