Church services are shifting online and Jews are hosting ‘virtual seders’ as worshippers prepare to commemorate Easter very differently this year amid the coronavirus outbreak.

By James Morrow
The Daily Telegraph (paywall)
Wednesday April 8, 2020

This is supposed to be a solemn and joyous time for both Christians and Jews. But not since church services were banned a century ago in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic have believers faced such a challenge in coming together.

But unlike in 1919, today the faithful have more options.

Ever since the pandemic meant his 1100 regular mass-goers could no longer attend services, Father Greg Morgan, who is the parish priest of the Ryde-Gladesville parish northwest of the Sydney CBD, has been streaming masses live on YouTube.

“We get people to participate by sending out bulletins with all the readings. And we stick parishioners’ photos to the pews in the church,” Morton says, not only so that the congregation can feel remembered, but for the priests saying mass as well.

And while the experience may not be the same as gathering together for a church service or holiday meal, Morton says people are adapting to the new way of doing things better than he anticipated.

“We’ve had really good feedback,” Morton says.

“A lot of our parishioners are saying the services help them at a time when they can’t get out of their houses and are feeling a lot of anxiety. Our message is about hope and God’s love and that he hasn’t abandoned us.”

The idea of hope is something Rev. Justin Moffatt, Senior Minister of Church Hill Anglican (which takes in St Philips’s church in Sydney’s CBD and the Garrison Church in the Rocks), says is helping members of his congregation through a difficult time when they can’t share their central experience together – namely, gathering physically.

This Easter, Moffatt will be live-streaming a number of events, including a Good Friday service using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and an Easter service that will bring together worshippers from both his churches and mix traditional and contemporary songs and prayers.

“What we do is prerecord a service every Wednesday night in an empty church, and send out material including a Zoom invite on Friday afternoon”, Moffatt says.

“The order of services gets sent out to everyone on Friday with a Zoom invite who also want to gather face-to-face – it’s ones and zeros not person to person but we can still see each other that way.”

Nor is age a barrier to technology, says Moffatt, who reports that even elderly worshippers have been logging on with enthusiasm.

“We have octogenarians who are setting themselves up on Zoom without any help. And younger members also like it, because it’s what they’re used to – there was a hunger to meet without meeting.”

For Jews, who traditionally mark Passover with seders, or ceremonial meals with friends and family, the inability to visit one another in person is likewise giving rise to virtual feasts where guests can eat, drink, and pray together online.

“At 6am on Friday I will be connecting with cousins from places as diverse as Hawaii, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Israel, New York, and Los Angeles”, says Vic Alhadeff, chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

“This will be a great connection for a lot of us, because this is something we don’t ordinarily do”.

At Passover, says Alhadeff, “Jews are supposed to regard themselves as if they had been personally liberated from Egypt.”

But remarkably, he notes, “the central part of the entire Passover history is the plagues which descended on Egypt – and this year, a plague has somewhat trumped the observation of this!”