Dead and Gone: does embodied storytelling have a post-pandemic future?

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

In 2019 I presented a short paper to the annual SocRel conference on a large-scale, knitted poppy project hosted at a church in Warwick to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War 1 in 2018. The paper explored what this event could show about narratives around death and remembrance. In particular:

· changes to how people approach death, dying and bereavement

· a generalised seeking after transcendence

· an ambivalence between belonging and believing in 21st century culture

· a yearning for nostalgic stories about the past

· changes in communicating religion through social and traditional media

· the unformed nature of contemporary religious experience and faith

A critical element in all this was the material presence of 65,000 knitted poppies and the physical reality of 30,000 visitors over the three months of the event. A much expanded version of this paper subsequently appeared as a section in my book Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning (SCM Press, 2020).

By the time Kingdom Stories appeared in April 2020 the world had changed dramatically and the UK was in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And when Remembrance commemorations arrived in November 2020, England was in a second lockdown so those services and ceremonies were less about the material and physical, and much more about the online and virtual.

With many places of worship closed, the importance of online services and activities has grown. To take just one example, the team that created the physical poppy display in 2018 produced a digital Christmas tree festival in 2020, which can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/stmaryschristmas (accessed 13th March 2021).

Judith Muskett examines another Christmas tree festival in her analysis of how organisational metaphors are used in cathedral and congregational studies (Muskett 2019). One of the metaphors she explores is that of theatre and music halls, which have a place in studies of religion (Bradley 2004) and organisations (Mangham and Overington 1987). These are places of memory and imagination where stories are told and celebrated.

Churches, theatres, cinemas and many other places that have been based on physical encounters for storytelling and story-sharing have faced enormous challenges in adapting to social and organisational change because of the pandemic. In practical terms it is too soon to draw long-term conclusions as to what this means (Cross, Radford, O’Donnell 2021). The impact on how we perceive death, celebrate lives and commemorate this period of shared experience will only become clear in time.

To take one example, I recently had a conversation with a further education college chief executive, and asked her about how the pandemic had changed the college’s delivery of learning. She responded by saying that if she had been asked that question after the first lockdown then she would have thought the move to online teaching was a significant change that was here to stay. But reflecting after the third lockdown she was much more conscious of how students both missed and valued embodied interaction with staff and other students.

As I continue to take and watch funerals during the pandemic that are from both religious and humanist perspectives and which have mourners both in buildings and watching online, I am struck by how this could be the way forward. The marking of death in the future will not be either physical or virtual but, rather, it will both/and. Storytelling around death and remembrance has embraced the online world (Bassett 2018) but it would appear that its embodied forms will continue to be needed in our post-pandemic existence.

Another example from a different area of life is the Mystery Worshipper feature on the Ship of Fools website. Pre-lockdown individuals would join a physical worshipping community incognito and then write a report of their experience to go online. Post-lockdown, many of these reports are about worship that is being streamed from a variety of locations — from a garden shed to a cathedral. The format is the same in both domains and it is interesting to see how many of the questions focus on material experience. For instance:

“What books did the congregation use during the service?”

And then to see how the answers have transposed to the online sphere:

“Depends who you define as being the congregation! Those physically present in the cathedral appeared to have printed orders of service. For those of us watching online, a ribbon kept appearing at the bottom of the screen with plain text and bold text to identify those words we should speak.” http://www.shipoffools.com/mystery-worshipper/lichfield-cathedral-staffordshire-england-2/ (accessed 16 March 2021, for further discussion of Ship of Fools see Tim Hutchins 2017).

Observers continue to speculate how and whether society will return to ‘normal’ after the pandemic. I would argue that if normal means an ongoing state of change then we are already there. All things being equal, our physical and online storytelling will continue — but the ways in which they are being told and how they relate to each other is forever altered.

Vaughan S Roberts is Rector at the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick. He is co-author with David Sims of Leading by Story (SCM Press 2017) and author of Kingdom Stories (SCM Press 2020)

References

Bassett, Debra J. 2018, ‘Ctrl+Alt+Delete: The changing landscape of the uncanny valley and the fear of second loss’ in Current Psychology (September 2018) and available online at https://warwick.academia.edu/DebbieBassett (accessed 6th February 2021)

Bradley, Ian. 2004. You’ve Got to Have a Dream: The Message of the Musical, London: SCM Press

Katie Cross, Clare Louise Radford & Karen O’Donnell. 2021 “Fragments from within the pandemic: theological experiments in silence, speech, and dislocated time,” Practical Theology, DOI: 10.1080/1756073X.2020.1861802 available online at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1756073X.2020.1861802 (accessed 6th February 2021)

Hutchins, Tim. 2017 Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media, Abingdon & New York: Routledge

Mangham, Iain L. and Michael A. Overington. 1987. Organizations as Theatre: A social Psychology of dramatic appearances, Chichester and New York: Wiley

Muskett, Judith A. 2019. Shop Window, Flagship, Common Ground: Metaphor in Cathedral and Congregational Studies, London: SCM Press

Roberts, Vaughan S. 2020. Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning. London: SCM Press

The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/