Olga Fabrikant-Burke is Chaplain at Trinity College. She is also completing a PhD in the Hebrew Bible at the University of Cambridge. She reflects on the opportunities and challenges of Virtual Evensong.
Choral Evensong has been the lifeblood of our College Chapel for centuries. As the lockdown descended, we were faced with the formidable task of reinventing this venerable tradition for the virtual medium in the space of just a few short weeks. This was no easy task. There are many moving parts in the complex machinery of Evensong: beautiful music from our excellent choir, a sense of community and belonging as we gather together, a warm welcome, stimulating readings, thought-provoking sermons, an uplifting atmosphere, and the majestic grandeur of our ancient building, to name but a few.
Virtual Evensong has created fresh opportunities for us to engage with our regular Sunday congregation as well as the wider College community which we serve. Over the course of this term, Virtual Evensong has developed as a genre in its own right, with a certain informal and intimate feel to it. The clergy, readers, and preachers tend to record their parts in their homes and gardens, which are then streamed into living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across the world. As we ‘visit’ each other at home, we feel connected in a new way and get to know one another in a more casual and relaxed setting. We have been delighted with the enthusiastic response to this service. Many students have volunteered to record a reading, at a time when they are facing exams in unprecedented circumstances. It has been wonderful to see familiar faces from every corner of the world, and we are also reaching new people.
Alongside such new and exciting opportunities, Virtual Evensong has also presented a series of challenges. For one thing, Evensong, by its very nature, is a corporate experience. As the day draws to a close, students, Fellows, staff, and members of the public make their way to the Chapel to gather together. We say certain parts of the service – the so-called congregational sections – together, in unison. We face one another as we sit in the stalls. Together, we turn east to say the Creed. This corporate dimension of Evensong is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate on screens. For this reason, while we cannot meet together physically, we have decided to use recorded congregational sections from our archives. Using past recordings of our corporate worship allows a sense of fellowship and immersion to be fostered as we are transported back into the Chapel.
Another segment in Virtual Evensong is the prayers. Early on, we realised that when offering prayers, no one wants to stare at the clergy. Nor would the clergy feel comfortable being in the spotlight during the prayers! To provide a more appropriate focus, we use a variety of images to inflect the words and bring the prayers alive. Carefully selected, this gentle visual accompaniment links our virtual congregants not only to the College and the University, but also to the local community and the world at large.
As Chaplain, I am grappling with this new reality too. Technology has no doubt been instrumental in keeping us connected. Its usefulness notwithstanding, the virtual medium can sometimes feel unnatural and confusing – and never more so than when leading services or preaching. Normally, the clergy face and address the congregation. In so doing, we receive direct interaction and response, as the people nod, smile, laugh, and contemplate – or indeed doze off! This sense of engagement with the congregation forms the warp and weft of any service, not least Evensong. This term, when I sat down to record my thought for the day – a shorter version of our usual Evensong sermon – I was struck by the sudden realisation that I was completely on my own, staring at my own face on the computer. Hard though I tried, it was impossible to shake off the feeling that I was, ultimately, talking to a machine. Not to mention that the silence was deafening when I tried to crack a joke! I cannot wait to see you all face to face once again.