Liturgy and Live-Streaming: Two Things That Don’t Go Together


With the outbreak of the Coronavirus we hear calls repeatedly from many priests and hierarchs to practice social distancing, avoid attendance at Liturgy, and rely instead on viewing the live-streaming of liturgical services. Is this good advice?

While temporary absence from liturgical services may be a necessary part of our response to the virus outbreak, the spiritual efficacy of live-streaming is seriously doubtful. Yes, for use in certain circumstances such as for those who are severely ill, bed-ridden or too weak to do anything other than view a television or computer monitor, live-streaming of the liturgy may serve a benefit. Certainly, the possibility exists that hymnography that is sung at live-streamed services may be heard by those who would otherwise be inattentive had they been physically present. Many have benefited from time to time by viewing liturgical services recorded on YouTube which are highly educational and often deeply inspiring. Why, then, would recorded or live-streamed services pose a spiritual hazard to us, especially at this time of grave illness and distress?

The answer is because in viewing a liturgical service in this manner, one additional barrier—the screen—stands between the viewer and the celebrant of the service. This one element, and the posture that it evokes in the viewer, is symptomatic of the very problem that liturgy poses for the modern person. By peering into a monitor to see something that we are meant, instead, to be actively participating in, the Liturgy is once again misunderstood and misused by such a viewer. Instead of being actively engaged as a member of the body gathered together and manifesting its fullness, the computer breaks down the oneness of Liturgy into isolation, separation and division. Indeed, the Coronavirus unleashes a devastating assault on Liturgy by upending everything that Liturgy is meant to be about. We are supposed to brush shoulders with our fellow members, not hold them at a distance of six feet. We are supposed to stand closely together as we work to join our voices in song, not worry about the spread of infection. We are supposed to share a meal intimately with our brothers and sisters, even sharing the very utensils, not eat privately by ourselves in a perfectly hygienic laboratory setting. Liturgy then, is meant to be reflective of life itself, which is neither neat nor clean. And Liturgy—properly understood—is meant to be work, not entertainment, a work that is corporate, not individual. We are meant to struggle, cooperate and work together to bring about the offering to God of the very things that He has blessed us to share in this life.

The computer monitor (what a telling symbol of modernity) simply continues and enhances the estrangement from Liturgy that we already experience, repeatedly. The fact is that for many of the laity, Liturgy is boring, too lengthy, incomprehensible and disconnected from daily life. In our utter passivity, the Liturgy is seen as something to be watched instead of something to be done. It is a peculiar duty to be discharged and acquitted of as easily as possible. It is modern man, seated passively in a pew with his legs crossed and his eye on his watch, who is completely unsympathetic and unaware of the reason, purpose and profound need for liturgical action. Perhaps this gravely estranged person (who is each of us) needs just such a tragedy to serve as an alert, to awaken him and her to an awareness of our complete dependency on God, on God’s mercy, and of God as the source and ultimate arbiter of life.

Now, if this is the experience of Liturgy that some, or many have when it is conducted within the walls of the temple, what kind of experience do we hope to have of Liturgy when we celebrate it—what has been called the liturgy after the Liturgy—in our homes? First, we must acknowledge with deep regret that for many Orthodox Christians, the home is simply not a place of prayer. We have fallen out of the custom and habit of prayer in the home. If we bother to maintain an icon corner in our homes, it remains for many merely a cultural adornment but not a living place of prayer. And for those who do regularly practice the discipline of daily prayer in the home, they know from experience that prayer conducted in this manner is, by definition, work and effort. To stand before the holy icons, to bow and prostrate oneself, to read the prayers out loud and to remember the names of our loved ones, takes time and effort. And it is this time and effort that actually connects our individual, private prayer with the corporate, public prayer of the Church. It is this reliance on the written prayers of the prayer book that unites us to the Holy Tradition of the Church and shapes our thoughts and perceptions. And so it is deeply ironic that when we are faced with an international threat to our health and well-being that some hierarchs are content to substitute the viewing of liturgical services for the exercise (the perfect word here) of personal prayer, instead of commanding the faithful to prostrate themselves before God. The idea that more of the very thing that is our problem, our passivity and complete lack of engagement, could be the solution to the problem, is astounding.

But there is a darker side to internet viewing. We have seen the ubiquitous spread of evil, vice and obscenity in a unique way via this medium. Images of the most sacred aspects of life have been captured and misused in the most base and profane ways. Intimate and beautiful things have been perverted and objectified purely for the sake of sensual pleasure. And now it is suggested that something that is extremely sacred—the liturgy itself—be viewed here. We forget, however, that the Liturgy has certain human requirements. Our worship has a physicality to it that is non-negotiable. We enter the Church (a place) and put lit candles before the icons. We smell the beeswax and the incense. The deacon tells us to bow our heads to the Lord, and we do it. The priest elevates the Lamb, fractions it and places it in the Cup precisely so we can eat it, not look at it. But now, for whatever reason I can’t meet the human requirements of the gathering, the sobor, the synaxis. Rather than recognizing that I am denied something that is ineffable and irreplaceable, in my modern, fallen instinct I prefer to have the same feelings I would if circumstances permitted me to do the necessary work (i.e., the Liturgy) even when I can’t or won’t do it. So I create an artificial world of images in order to gratify myself and produce those feelings. But the Liturgy is not offered for this purpose. Although it may produce feelings of deep emotion in the believer, the goal of the Liturgy is to call mankind to a higher and nobler reality, a noetic reality according to which we acknowledge the very limitations of creaturely life and experience. The path to this noetic reality, however, is not through subterfuge or by objectification, but by restraint of the passions, struggle and asceticism. At least this is what the saints tell us.

We forget that the Liturgy is hierophantic. When I was first ordained, photography was allowed but there were still those who remembered when it was not permitted inside a Church. The services are sacred and the ban of photography was intended to preserve their sacredness, to prevent their depiction as something common or banal. Indeed, something is lost when we artificially reproduce what is purely original in life.

The Coronavirus is a serious threat to our health, many have suffered and died as a result and, to be frank, more will likely suffer in the months ahead. Part of this suffering involves the interruption to our lives, our work, our celebrations, our economy. We need to come to terms with this and to mourn these losses, not paper over them with the appearance of normalcy. Our loss of the ability to celebrate the Liturgy with the regularity and frequency that we ordinarily would is also part of this suffering. We should acknowledge this and then redirect our grief into devout prayer to God, conducted in our homes and before the Holy Icons, in accordance with Tradition and through the prayers of our Holy Fathers.

See also
Anti-Orthodox using pandemic as occasion to attack the Church Anti-Orthodox using pandemic as occasion to attack the Church Anti-Orthodox using pandemic as occasion to attack the Church Anti-Orthodox using pandemic as occasion to attack the Church
As many countries throughout the world continue to issue increasingly stringent guidelines during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, limiting the size of or completely shutting down public gatherings, in many places where the parishes remain open and the services continue, the Orthodox Church is being attacked by those who are ill-disposed towards it.
The Lord is Calling Us to Comprehend Our Own Fragility The Lord is Calling Us to Comprehend Our Own Fragility
His Holiness Patriarch Kirill
The Lord is Calling Us to Comprehend Our Own Fragility The Lord is Calling Us to Comprehend Our Own Fragility
A Homily on the Sunday of the Cross
His Holiness Patriarch Kirill
The Lord calls upon our self-assured technological civilization, which believes everything is available to it and everything is possible, to assess the limits of its abilities and to realize its fragility.
Constantinople allows services to continue behind closed doors in U.S. for livestreaming Constantinople allows services to continue behind closed doors in U.S. for livestreaming Constantinople allows services to continue behind closed doors in U.S. for livestreaming Constantinople allows services to continue behind closed doors in U.S. for livestreaming
On Wednesday, March 18, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople “universally declare[d] [its] ecclesiastical resolution and mandate to cease all divine services, events, and rites, with the exception of private prayer in churches that will remain open, until the end of March.”However, having spoken with Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, informed the Archdiocesan bishops that services could continue behind closed doors, with the faithful joining in through livestreaming.
Valerie Protopapas2/11/2021 7:56 pm
It is not the presence or absence at Divine Liturgy that is the ultimate problem. There are time when one CANNOT be present for perfectly understandable reasons but, frankly, it is the REASON that is the problem. Anyone who has followed this matter should be gravely concerned about a "public health crisis" that came out of nowhere and has been "hyped" beyond belief. Hospitals are given funds if they attribute someone's admission into that hospital OR a person's death to this "virus" though we have the CDC itself saying the pathogen has yet to be isolated! Think about it! We're responding to something that we don't even have as a legitimate pathogen. How can vaccines be created for an unknown pathogen? They cannot. Meanwhile, our State governments permit abortion mills, pot stores and big box stores such as Walmart to remain open ~ but don't dare have a religious rite or a funeral. If this was such a deadly pathogen (and the facts show that it is not!) where are all the homeless dead? These people don't wear masks or social distance, but they seem to do fine as a group. Meanwhile the "death rates" from cancer, heart disease and other "normal" causes of death have fallen off greatly. Why? Because when someone dies of a less politically correct cause, it is usually attributed to COVID. A doctor I know pointed out that there is a difference between dying WITH COVID and dying OF COVID. So many people are living in constant fear and that is what our "leaders" want. A frightened people are an easily coerced and obedient people. We must remember, as St. John said, "Perfect love casteth OUT fear."
Chrysostom4/12/2020 5:58 pm
Dear George, I too am a convert to the faith and initially found it challenging to follow Slavonic and Ancient Greek services. However, I think if you and your family members start by learning the morning and evening prayers in Slavonic and/or Greek (and actually saying them together every day) AND you follow the services every occasion using a book in English, you will eventually get the hang of them. God will see your effort and enlighten you with at least an understanding of what parts of the services are absolutely most Holy and you will find yourself reciting the words and understanding their meaning even without translation. What I did not do (but should have done), however, is take the time to learn Russian and/or Greek fluently. The superficial advantage is that you can understand more of the services (though Slavonic and Ancient Greek are different), however, the deeper spiritual advantage is that you can take advantage of the incredibly large amount of Orthodox resources that exist in Russian and Greek, including living elders on Athos and some of the Russian monasteries. (This is the same for Romanian--and Romania has several elders still with us--but I assume that is a further stretch for you to learn.) Take a look at the Russian version of this site and you will get an understanding of what I mean. It is like comparing the original language menu at a genuine Chinese or Ethiopian restaurant (in China or Ethiopia) to a list of Today's Specials: What's contained in the original menu is far more varied! In other words, while it is a great blessing to have people such as the ones who created this website (e.g., Nun Cornelia Reese, Jesse Dominick, etc.) to translate Orthodox resources for our benefit, it is even better to develop one's own, heartfelt experience of the faith in one of its ancient languages and not wait for its mysteries (small case "m") to be translated into English--which, while more ancient than the Slavonic, honestly, is a very crude language.
George4/11/2020 9:12 am
It is all well and good to show the deep flaw in using the internet to live stream liturgy but I wish there was a greater emphasis on having the Divine Liturgy conducted in English in Australia. I am a convert to the faith and it has been very difficult problem for me and my family.
Katy Goura4/10/2020 4:46 am
Thank you Father John for the information. I wasn't sure whether live streaming was the right way to go but it is now clear to me after reading what you have presented.
Anne3/30/2020 6:10 am
Father John, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the Divine Liturgy. I feel inspired to continue praying at home. Perhaps this difficult time will remind us how important it is to keep the Lord Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives and be actively engaged in our prayer life - whether we pray at home or in church. I was beginning to feel frustrated by well-meaning friends who recommend I watch a live streamed version of the Divine Liturgy, because I know in my heart this is not the way the Liturgy should be experienced. I am glad you wrote this article to help us. Take courage, may God strengthen and bless you always.
Ksenija3/29/2020 9:18 am
Thank you Fr, advice that resonates very much. For a Service for Sunday Absence, this is of great aid:
Al Blazek3/28/2020 6:43 pm
I will take the opposite perspective. First, I need to be clear: Father's opinion is well thought-out and is in the realm of prudence. Those who believe that livestreaming is deleterious to the Faith should avoid it. It certainly is not one-size-fits-all. The only exception I can envision is a Bishop ordering his faithful to attend livestreamed services or Liturgies under pain of obedience. Just like those under Father's spiritual authority should obey him in this matter. I am the father of 7 children. There are no Churches to attend that are fully open. Thank God my local Orthodox Church allows groups of up to 10 to attend, so we can go to Church in rotation. As a result, we also livestream these services (mostly Akathist, praying for deliverance from the corona scourge) and Liturgies. My children not on-site stand before the TV screen as though it were the Church. They cannot attend short of disobeying our Bishop and Priest and breaking the door down. What they can do is worship in unison with those who are worshipping now. Is it the same? Hardly. Is it better than just being 'home alone' Christians? I answer with a resounding yes. It is good for them. It reinforces that Liturgy isn't just optional, that we aren't to take it easy merely because we no longer can attend in person. They know the responses and so can sing along with them. They still get the teachings of Orthros about the celebration of the day, which edifies their minds along with their spirit. One can of course do home services. We do so with Compline and Vespers, which have been eliminated by order of our Bishop. We also still do nightly readings of Scripture, the Prologue of Ohrid and the book of Proverbs. All these non-Liturgical prayers are great and wonderful, but only in the Liturgy do we distinguish ourselves from Protestants who just need a Bible and themselves. That is a very real danger, and for families with children I would strongly argue that this is potentially devastating. Children 'catch' as much as they are directly taught, and so I would see a much greater danger from turning off the screen, as natural as my antipathy is towards is normally, than from attempting to (very) imperfectly worship in the proper hierarchical order. Again: Father's perspective is more than reasonable. If you feel this would be a detriment to your children's souls, then you have a requirement to reject livestreamed services. By contrast, those of us who see the inherent danger of a more Protestant style of worship - isolated and with a confusion as to the proper roles of clergy vs. laity and with no definite end in sight - must balance the relative positive and negative impacts. May St. Nikephoros the Leper and St. Panteleimon intercede on behalf of all of us during these difficult times.
Elizabeth3/28/2020 12:04 pm
I have to agree with Paul. How is it possible that we have priests and bishops who are unable to see that the media is generating this 'pandemic'? There's a virus, sure. However, the mortality rate is that of the regular flu. Everyone needs to turn off the mainstream media. Seek out alternative sources. There are people out there looking for the truth. One place to start is a YouTube channel called Crowdsource The Truth. From there, you'll find others. Be skeptical. These people have managed to shut down our churches during Lent. They are testing our resolve.
Brandon3/28/2020 5:37 am
I think it can be very much like liturgy. Hear me out. When you and your family are at home, watching the liturgy, it is like the priest and chanter are with you, yet they are not. So too, when we are physically in church, all the saints are there praying with us, yet they are not. The liturgy transcends time and physical space, in this short period of hardship I dont think streaming should be completely discredited.
Matthew3/28/2020 4:00 am
Dear Anton, do you have a link for the "Service For Sunday Absence"?
Matthew3/28/2020 3:59 am
Thank you, Archpriest John, for your insights. There is plenty to say about the passive and hypnotic effects of screens. However, we could also look at this present situation as an opportunity for Orthodox Christians to learn more about how the services, particularly the All-Night Vigil, are put together. This ability is extremely valuable in parish choirs, but even for the man or woman standing in the nave, when acquired, such pieces of liturgical knowledge lead to much greater engagement with the services. It would be a shame if the passive nature of live-streaming, however uplifting and spiritual the feelings it evokes might seem, resulted in this opportunity being missed.
Paul3/27/2020 6:53 pm
It's horrifying to see an Archpriest in the church be tricked by the father of lies regarding the coronahoax. He tells us not to stare at screens, while he is completely tricked by a hoax contrived and transmitted by computer and television monitors. He is living in the screen, opposed to life - far more than the ignorant and naive who believe everything they see on the TV. He is supposed to have some knowledge of the serpent. How am I to follow Christ? Does the truth not exist anymore? God cannot be apart from truth. Mass media and the pharma cartel cannot supplant truth. Shame on you for thinking it can.
Anton3/27/2020 6:31 pm
Another approach one could take (as I myself have) is to read the "Service For Sunday Absence". It can be very fulfilling under the current circumstances.
Theophan3/27/2020 6:25 pm
I think of the St. Nicephorus the leper, who lived in perpetual sickness, his response to his sickness was pure. Say the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus have mercy. This prayer will teach you all about God and the Church during your absence. God help us.
Mikhail3/27/2020 5:46 pm
Many of our bishops have failed us.
Hélène Dragone3/27/2020 2:33 pm
Thank you very much for these uplifting and strong words! You express what my heart feels deeply and I am grateful to you. How these words give me joy! It is the integrity and the truth of our Faith and our practice. May this Lent in the Great Lent, lead us into the deepest part of ourselves, which is the place of meeting with the Lord! Glory be to God for everything! Hélène D. (France)
Boris3/27/2020 12:26 pm
I put my laptop on my icon corner, darkened my room , lighted a candle - and in such an prayerful atmosphere I "attended" a beautiful liturgy through live stream. It was a blessed experience. Of course it's not the same, but God sees our struggle & sends us his grace. And if for somebody live stream liturgy doesn't work spiritually, he/she doesn't have to watch liturgy in this way - it's ok. That's just my experience. And I think our theology & preaching should be based on experience of different individuals (especially in Orthodoxy), and not on theories, which we intend to generalize for every believer.
Isidora3/27/2020 12:07 pm
Thank you for this, Father John. Yes there is already enough temptation to treat the Divine Liturgy as a religious spectacle: a performance by priest, deacon, and choir. Add pews or chairs and it's like watching TV. In some parishes one feels like a weirdo for standing and you can't bow without hitting the head of the spectator sitting in front of you. The first half of the Lord's Prayer is the sound of people lumbering to their feet because they were daydreaming in their seat through the Trisagion. Okay, starting to rant, but the last thing we needed was the clergy reinforcing this mindlessness by recommending livestreaming as a substitute. Better for us to learn to miss the Liturgy while it's gone and do the Typica at home. The priest can still conduct private Liturgy with a reader so that Mysteries are available for those who are sick, etc.
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