I grew up Southern Baptist and met my wife while working as a videographer at a summer camp run by Lifeway. My first real job was making videos and short films for worship at a large Bible church in Arkansas. When it became clear that Anglicanism was going to become my ecclesial home, I assumed that my love and passion for filmmaking would be less relevant than it had been in the world of megachurches and Baptist camps. Anglicanism—particularly Anglican worship—seemed to have little interest in what videography could add to its robust worship life.
Yet within Anglicanism I found a treasure I had always sought for, even before I knew I was seeking it. You can see it in the architecture of some of the great Anglican cathedrals and even amongst many simple parishes. You can hear it in the music of the composers and hymn-writers who called this corner of Christianity home. Most obviously, you can read, smell, and taste it in the liturgy. Anglicans value aesthetics. Anglicans both value beauty and seek to understand its importance through a robust theological lens.
I finally found a home that helped me articulate why paintings, orchestras, and poetry matter in God’s kingdom. I was not upset that this meant I was unlikely to find myself serving in churches where my particular medium was heavily relied upon. In a way, I felt that I’d rather be a doorkeeper in this house where the love of beauty was grounded by the pursuit of truth than to dwell in a land where video was valued for what it could do but not necessarily given serious consideration theologically.
Then a pandemic struck and the world changed. Suddenly video was the primary means by which Christians could safely engage with a larger congregation or Sunday morning worship. Pastors and priests everywhere turned into videographers. Anglican parishes were no exception. For many, it was likely the first time a video camera had been utilized on a Sunday morning. For most it was, undoubtedly, the first time the camera had become so integral.
Certainly, there are Anglican parishes where video and livestream were already present before all of this occurred. Yet, even in these cases the camera is no longer there simply to capture a packed house on a normal Sunday morning. Instead, the nave is abandoned or sparsely populated. Almost overnight, the camera has become an integral aspect of Sunday morning worship.
Regardless of your level of familiarity with video, I hope this article will encourage and help you where you’re at. I’ll offer two simple areas to consider. This is by no means an exhaustive approach to the theological or technological considerations we must all undertake. Rather, here is some simple advice for those who have added video to their services in such a short timeframe.
Mostly this is an appeal for your thoughtful engagement. It is my earnest desire that, if the medium of video is to be utilized, that it would be treated with as much consideration as any other aesthetic category present on Sunday morning.
A great deal of time has been spent over the centuries crafting the collects, prayers, and movements of the various services in our prayer book. These moor us as we live among the swift and varied changes of this world.
Video requires similar thoughtfulness. It brings certain benefits and carries certain liabilities. Like music, you run a risk when you include video. What if all the musicians in your congregation lack skill? What if you can’t afford to fix the organ? Do you just forego music altogether? Maybe. More likely, you learn how to include music in a way that fits your congregation.
Music varies throughout the Anglican Communion, across our Province, and even within each diocese. We should not be surprised to learn that video is similar. Some congregations will have more resources for videography—just like certain parishes have large choirs or grand organs. What we ought to be concerned with is not what we don’t have but what we do have.
The large choir would probably feel out of place in a small wooden building whereas a single piano or lightly strummed guitar may make that same space come alive. This does not mean that musicians in the small parish have nothing to learn from the congregation with all the resources. Yet it is also the case that the larger parish may have much to learn from the smaller congregation.
This is true in the film world as well. I may be stretching myself too thin if I try to emulate the computer-generated effects from the latest Star Wars movie. Yet, I might be fully capable of emulating a particular kind of framing or the use of certain lighting techniques from the same film. Also, big-budget movies are constantly inspired by smaller ones.
For one, very few directors start with huge budgets. Take a look at the majority of directors for the big-budget Marvel Studios movies and you’ll find that most of them have previously made much smaller films. Also, speaking of Marvel/Star Wars/Disney, if deep pockets and blockbuster aesthetics were the only markers of value in the world then these movies would win every film award there is (they don’t). Often, though not always, the films that do win the awards are much smaller in scale and budget.
Please don’t confuse fittingness and craft with what is “slick” or “overproduced.” Such words can no doubt be applied appropriately to certain video productions. Yet we know that our homilies, our choral performances, or even an entire Sunday Mass can have similar descriptions lobbed at them if we aren’t mindful. The goal is to avoid the trap of being inauthentic while still crafting sermons, songs, services, and videos with the dual prongs of skill and discernment.
This is the goal of fittingness. You know it because you think about it all the time in other ways. Now think about it with video. Sure, glance around and see what other people are doing. But also look at your own people, your own space, and your own music. The question isn’t what you can do but what you should do. What fits?
Now we must ask the question, “What does video do?” For some, it may appear a very difficult concept to consider. Preaching, Scripture, liturgy—even music! —these are things most pastors have some working knowledge of already. But video? That’s another story.
Others may assume that they already understand the medium quite well. After all, it is part of the water in which we swim. We watch dozens of television shows, movies, and YouTube videos. We take pictures of our children or FaceTime our parents. Certainly, this all must have some effect on our ability to create. Undoubtedly it does. Perhaps some of these experiences are helpful.
However, I listen to a fair share of music, but I would not do too well if I were shoved on stage with a guitar. Or, perhaps more appropriately, I drive my car quite a bit but if I had to replace my own brakes, I’d be in trouble.
Familiarity can breed false confidence in things that we may not fully understand. I see this all the time with my students. This year I’ve been teaching a class called “Intro to Media Aesthetics.” Plenty of folks take film classes thinking it’ll be a GPA booster only to realize how much work and thought goes into good media creation.
Of course, there’s no reason you need to go back to school for a mass communications degree before thinking through how to use video in your parish (though there may be an argument for adding a church media class to seminary education after all this is over—as if theological education weren’t already overloaded as it is!).
So, back to our question, what does video do? Without getting too technical, it amplifies certain senses. It radically increases our ability to see. I can behold cities I may never visit in my lifetime, view vistas on planets we cannot currently land ships on, and, of course, look at close-ups of famous people falling in love or singing songs or saving the world from yet another imaginary threat.
Yet we must remember that film and video is an audio/visual medium. Therefore, it also affects what we hear in much the same way—crowded streets and unfamiliar languages, a quiet windswept desert on Mars, the whisper or shout or battle-cry of the celebrity.
This is what you are doing on a Sunday morning with video in the sanctuary—you are amplifying the liturgy. No longer does someone need to enter your building on a Sunday morning to see the sights or hear the sounds of your worship. It is going out into the world.
Yet, with all this amplification comes complications. Again, there are certainly theological questions we ought to ask about all of this. Yet, for now, I simply want to focus on the complications faced by everyone who tries their hand at media making. The primary problem is noise. Distraction. Uncertainty about where to look or what to listen to.
When engaging with this medium of amplification, we must endeavor to achieve simplification. Of course, we know that aiming for simplicity is never easy. The task of the media-maker is to strip away all that is not helpful so that only what is necessary remains. The book I teach from says that the artist first perceives something about the world, then she seeks to clarify and, at last even to intensify. This is all so she can communicate something about the world to others.
Certainly, this is not limited to film or video. Isn’t this what Jesus does by telling parables? Or what Paul is after when structuring a chiasm? Or what you do when choosing hymns that fit together with lectionary readings? We perceive something about the world, the text, a reality of God’s world or His Kingdom and then we seek to use whatever means we can to clarify it and, just maybe, intensify it so that others can see it or hear it also.
This requires guidance. It demands that we structure elements in a certain way so as to aid the communication process (let the reader understand—or, rather, help the reader understand!). In a lot of a pastor’s job, it means looking for the right words. In video, it means helping us know what to look at and what to listen to. This is how you simplify what is being amplified.
How? There are many tools—lighting, color, lens choice, editing transitions, sound, etc.
Again, you could take a whole class on this stuff. But the basic question you should ask yourself is this—what am I guiding people to look at or listen to right now? We can certainly debate whether this medium makes participation possible (a relevant question for Anglican worship). Yet, leaving that aside for now, focus on the fact that this medium has undeniable power to guide us in contemplation. What do you want your congregation to contemplate in this time? What words, images, and sounds can they meditate on together?
Of course, you can just go with the simple wide-angle lens in the back. That familiar C-SPAN or CCTV view that aims for objectivity. Yet, should objectivity be our goal? How are we to understand this Work of the People if we think of the people as mere objective observers? Moreover, you don’t have to puzzle about it too long before you realize that there are no objective viewpoints. Every angle is a choice. Just like every word in your homily or the Book of Common Prayer is chosen for a reason.
You are still guiding people with a camera in the back, perhaps just not guiding them well.
What else can you do? Closer shots, lighting to direct our eyes, and, I would say above all, the highest quality sound you can muster so that we are not straining to hear. This last bit is the worst part of the camera in the back of the room, assuming the camera is also capturing the audio—it will pick up everything equally (the A/C will share the same space as the voice of the reader or guitar).
When we are sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning, we do this naturally. We tune out certain noises or focus our eyes on particular people. So, while the distant angle may seem to be replicating most people’s position in the nave, that’s not actually the case given how much we naturally filter out ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to focus on a video that isn’t telling us where to look or what to listen to.
I hope those two categories—fittingness and simplifying what is being amplified—are helpful for you as we move forward. Of course, as I mentioned throughout, there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked that have more to do with the why than the how.
I admit that I have not had the time to think through the implications of broadcasting the Eucharist. Some will appeal to a broad sketch of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman to argue that broadcasting the Eucharist necessarily means turning it into entertainment. I’m not so sure. In my experience, we are quick to throw this relatively young medium under the bus because we know how toxic televisual communication can be. But misuse of a medium doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically bad.
It seems to me that we are far less likely to deny the possibility of finding some real good in the pages of a book even though there are so many bad novels out there. Nor do we write off the prospect of discovering a certain virtue in a human being because most of the people we know (including ourselves) are lacking in it.
Bringing video into any liturgy, let alone the Eucharist, is a valid topic that we must endeavor to treat seriously. Yet, I will say this in support of it—our Anglican form of worship is nothing if not a beautiful story, and filmmakers have always loved stories. Anyone who has studied the history of motion pictures knows how quickly its early adherents tired of turning their cameras on locomotives and cityscapes and began to seek out narratives.
You know how to tell a story. You do it every Sunday in the movement from procession to confession, from proclaiming forgiveness to freely offering the body and the blood. Now, you can serve your people by doing it with a medium that seems built for narrative. Or, perhaps, take the time to seek out cinematically-inclined people within your congregation or even your city.
Whatever path you take, do so in a way that guides us in the way we should go. Tell us the story in such a way that we don’t miss a beat.
Finally, if you’d like to learn more, I suggest that you take a look at Herbert Zettl’s Sight Sound for & Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics (Cengage Learning, 2017).
Matthew Aughtry is a priest in the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). He serves as an Assisting Priest at Christ Church Waco in the Diocese of Fort Worth. He is the Assistant Director of Worship, Technology, and Communication for Chapel at Baylor University in Waco, Texas where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Film and Digital Media. He completed his MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Brehm Scholar for Theology and the Arts.