All churches close but streaming takes off

Churches look to technology as COVID-19 lockdown worsens

By Stephen Cauchi

March 24 2020 

All worship and group activities have been suspended within the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne due to the coronavirus pandemic following a directive by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier.

The directive comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that all Australian churches would close from Monday 23 March.

Although Dr Freier’s directive permitted churches to open for prayer and contemplation, and baptisms, weddings and funerals, it is unclear whether the Federal Government’s decision will allow even these activities. 

Many Anglican churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, have dealt with the crisis by switching to online streaming of worship and small groups. The streaming is occurring through Zoom, Facebook and other online services.

In his third Ad Clerum for March, Dr Freier announced that “effective from Monday, 23 March 2020, regular public services and parish organised group activities are suspended within the Diocese of Melbourne”. 

“That means you should not hold regular public services of worship from that date or facilitate gatherings for parish activities that are not on the church premises.”

Churches remained open for “prayer and contemplation”, he said, and “baptisms, weddings and funerals could proceed so long as they comply with the government imposed restrictions”.

However, the tightening of government regulations could force churches to end all face-to-face activities, he said.

Dr Freier emphasised that the changes were not “a closure of ministry.”

“The need for Christian ministry is only likely to be heightened over the new weeks and months but it will need to happen in new forms. 

“We are fortunate to have a range of digital opportunities open to us and more will be said in coming days about opportunities for you to be trained in their use.”

Dr Freier said he was “very conscious of the responsibility that we have to elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups.”

He urged clergy to be conscious of the fact that “many vulnerable people will be self-isolating”.

“For some a home visit will not be welcome at this time, for others it may be welcomed as a lifeline.

“We are entering a very difficult phase where the necessary measures to prevent the pandemic exploding in the Australian population will push some people to more isolation and despair.” 

At the same time, clergy should also ensure they did not spread the COVID-19 infection to others, he said.

He urged clergy to keep in touch with their episcopate bishop and to share “plans and creative ideas” with them, particularly for Easter.

“It is certain that there will be profound disappointment that services of worship during Holy Week and Easter will not be able to proceed.”

To aid with communication, Dr Freier said he intended to “consolidate resources and guidance on the diocesan website so there is a single point of reference.” 

There was a “general mood of anxiety and powerlessness” he added. He suggested reading Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” 

Bishop Paul Barker, who has oversight of the Jumbunna Episcopate, will be leading a weekly traditional Communion service which will be made available as a video on Anglican Media’s YouTube channel every Friday throughout the coronavirus crisis, as well as a service for Good Friday uploaded the day before.

“I want you at home to think of this as your church service,” Bishop Paul said.

St Paul’s Cathedral had been permitting regular worship with restricted numbers, but announced that “from Monday, 23 March, all public worship, all public visiting, and all other Cathedral activities are being suspended.

“Our services will be led by Cathedral clergy, lay and music ministers only, and live-streamed.”

The Dean of Melbourne, Andreas Loewe, said the pandemic was “an opportunity as well as a threat” for the Church.

“It’s an opportunity for us to imagine what church can be like in a technological age. What church can be like when we’re not able to meet quite as freely. This is not something that’s new. It’s happened in all stages of history.”

The early Church and the Church during the Reformation met behind closed doors or at home and this was the case even today in some countries, he said.  

He also urged Christians to be thankful “that we live in a place with an incredible healthcare system … a place where people are being proactive in how to deal with this virus.”

St Paul’s has already been live-streaming large-scale services for some time and will now do so for all services. The streaming will occur on Facebook and a copy will then be made available on the Cathedral website.

About 450 people watched last Sunday’s service online, he said. “The comments that people were able to leave through our Facebook page really spoke of the need that was being met by this, particularly for people who were self-isolating at the time.”

Small groups and classes would be made available to church members via Zoom, he said. 

He added that users did not have to subscribe to Zoom or Facebook in order to utilise their streaming services. 

Currently, St Paul’s is offering a 10am choral Eucharist and a 1pm Mandarin Eucharist on Sundays.

From Monday to Saturday, there is a 12.15pm Holy Eucharist and a 5.10pm Evensong.

Services are also planned for Easter Friday and Good Monday. For details of services and information on streaming, visit

Many suburban Anglican parishes have also switched to streaming their services, including Christ Church Hawthorn.

The Revd Andrew Dircks, the senior minister at Christ Church, said the church switched to live-streamed services only on Sunday 15 March. 

“We did the simplest live-streaming which we could do, which was Facebook,” he said.

“Between the 15th and the 22nd, we taught others how to use Zoom.”

After running two small groups with Zoom, which went “very well”, Mr Dircks went ahead with a Zoom worship service on 22 March.

The benefit of Zoom, he said, was that users could talk and engage with each other rather than simply watch a webcast.

“I was most concerned to [do this],” he said.

However, the church has also been simultaneously streaming to Facebook and the church’s webpage for those who prefer these formats.

Christ Church used to have two services on a Sunday – 8.30am and 10am – but now just has one service at 10am.

“We had a small number of people in the church building who sang and played music and I preached in the church building.

“We had one of the church members from her home do the Bible reading. Another church member from his home led prayers.”

Mr Dircks said the online services were actually better attended than regular services. “We usually have 60 people on the property on a Sunday. I believe that we had more than that engaged yesterday,” he said.

“This is partly because people are anxious and partly because we provided a means by which people can connect from anywhere. 

“A high proportion of our regular members engaged and also some peripheral people or some past members who are now overseas or interstate,” he said.

Twenty people, or groups of people such as couples or families, used Zoom on Sunday, he said. Another 45 used Facebook and an unknown number watched on the church’s website.

Church members were busy educating each other how to use Zoom, Facebook, or even the internet, he said.

“The biggest hurdle (for Zoom) is just persuading them to do it,” he said. “It’s actually pretty easy to do on a phone or a laptop or an iPad.

“But once people do it the first time they can see the great benefits and it’s very easy to keep going with that.”

Mr Dircks said that he was also offering a daily 10-minute “Bible greeting and prayer” three times each morning on Zoom.

Zoom had also worked well for small groups, he said. Two small groups had tried it and “both ran very well with it. We had virtually full participation,” he said.

“It worked very well, everyone who participated was very happy.”

Mr Dircks said the Zoom Sunday services were being performed by 10 people in the church building, including himself and musicians.

But if restrictions continued further, it could be reduced to maybe two or three people – “my preaching and someone else playing the guitar”.

Bishop Philip Huggins, President of the National Council of Churches in Australia, said that “as Lent draws us towards Easter … we need deeper unity in service, everywhere!

“In the grace of Jesus, let’s keep reaching out in friendship together.

“I imagine you are also trying to keep life as normal as possible, while adjusting to evolving news about the coronavirus.

“Speaking personally, I am taking account of the plea from experts that minimal contact for this immediate period should be an organising principle for our daily choices. To save lives!

“Meanwhile, we keep offering our prayers, in the grace and peace of Jesus.”

- with Chris Shearer