Other than saying 'White Rabbits' on 1 March (as my mum always did), I've never been at all superstitious. But Friday 13 March 2020 was the last time our Gosforth-based Christian music group Phoenix Praise held a practice in the flesh – 5 years to the day since Friday 13 March 2015 when we learned that St Bees School, where my husband Keith and I were both working, was about to close.
By Wednesday 18 March 2020 we had learnt that communal worship, choirs and groups meeting in church buildings were now banned; by Monday 23rd the whole country was in lockdown. But Phoenix had a booking for the evening of Sunday 29th, at The Meeting Place (Egremont Methodist Church), so Keith and I began to wonder: could we somehow honour it over the internet?
The next day, with the help of a few willing volunteers on the other end of phone lines, we started to experiment with Zoom; like most people, we had never used it before. On the Friday we ran our first 'virtual' Phoenix practice, from the comfort of our own front room. On Sunday 29th some brave Phoenix pioneers, along with some even braver folk from Egremont, helped us get our first Zoom service off the ground, and the experience proved positive enough to encourage us to hold another service the following week. By this time it was almost Easter, so we decided we couldn't stop before then. And here we all are, more than a whole year later, with over 50 online services and almost the same number of Friday night practices under our belts.
In the intervening months we have made many mistakes and had a lot of fun learning from them. The whole enterprise, just like Phoenix itself, has become joyfully ecumenical – well over 60 people have been attending the services regularly, from Anglican, Roman Catholic, URC and various independent free church congregations as well as Methodist, along with some who don't currently belong to any other church. Every age group is represented, from the under 10s to the over 95s. One of our Phoenix members who is a student has even been able to join us regularly once againwhile away from home at Uni. There is a big team involved in keeping the show on the road: preachers, readers, musicians and prayer-leaders, ensuring things stay varied and vibrant, and technical wizards without whom the whole thing would quickly fall to pieces. What many of us like best about it is that it is completely live and interactive; apart from the occasional backing track, nothing is pre-recorded, and we can see and hear our friends worshipping with us. Those able to stay for a while after the services can chat to each other informally and even interrogate the preacher if he/she stays too! People who are housebound, others who have moved away from the area, and even a few who have never lived in Cumbria, can all worship with us.
Of course we – well, some of us! – miss being able to hug each other, and Phoenix members in particular really miss singing together in harmony – though some of the less musical folk attending our services reckon it a bonus that others can't hear them singing at all! (Everyone has to 'mute' themselves while singing 'live' in services because of time-lag problems over Zoom – but we do all say 'The Lord's Prayer together unmuted, which is rather a muddle to say the least, (but God hears each of us loud and clear.) We are sad that a few of our regular Phoenix members don't (or won't!) have the internet in their homes – though those who do have it have kept others in touch with what's been going on as far as possible, and in increasingly ingenious ways.
It may be that the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel is getting brighter at last. So where do we go next with Virtual Phoenix? Perhaps we shall all be so sick of Zoom once 'normality' returns that we never want to use it again. But at the same time, it seems a shame to let go of all that we have learnt, and to lose the opportunity of worshipping with those who could never hope to gather with us physically. Are 'hybrid' services – simultaneously physical and virtual -the way ahead, or should we hold some services in our church buildings and others online? In the next few weeks we'll be posing these and other questions to all regular attenders. In the meantime, anyone else who would like to join us would be very warmly welcome. Just email mailto: email@example.com to join in, or visit our website www.phoenixpraise.org.uk to find out more about the band and about our activities both in and out of lockdown.
Jill Hudson 22.3.2021
(Photographs of Phoenix Praise in action were taken prior to lockdown and restrictions)