Thorpe Acre church has a long-running, informal pub group, which met weekly at a local hostelry. That came to a hiatus when the COVID-19 lockdown took hold in March but it fairly swiftly reformed online, first on Facebook Messenger and then, after noting limits to numbers and degrading audio and video quality on busy nights, to Zoom. There it has ticked along successfully and grown to draw in a few more occasional guests and even regulars.
Most pubs are now open again but we aren’t ready to switch back to that setting yet – we would represent quite a large group from different households and we also include a few of our number who need to take extra precautions because of ongoing health conditions. Last night, we tried a half-way step, meeting in someone’s back garden – bring your own bottle and snacks – and it worked quite well although I did come back with a number of insect bites.
In order not to exclude those who didn’t feel able to make it in person, we set up an iPad with a Zoom connection so they could participate. It was a nice gesture but not entirely successful which, I propose, was due to these being two distinct modalities of discourse. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the garden meeting was the ebb and flow of conversations. There were multiple conversations, overlapping and flowing in and out with conviviality and supported by deep seated gestures, like turning toward the particular people you were conversing with. By contrast, video conferencing follows an audience and speaker model; without a spacial context for sound, it quickly becomes impossible to follow if more than one person is speaking at once, exacerbated by the distribution of faces on the screen appearing random and different for each participant.
We did sometimes manage to draw the online participants into the wider group but that often meant that the live setting had to adopt the modality of the video chat; at other times, you could hear conversation going on ‘in the box’, like being in a pub where lack of space means one cluster have to sit at a separate table.
There will probably be more garden meetings and even sub groups venturing to actual pubs but I think we will be sticking mainly with online gatherings for the next stretch. Meanwhile, I’ll carry on pondering what these observations might have to say to how we can begin regathering congregational meetings while also blessing those who have a need for continued telepresence.