Church of England launches virtual carols for people shut out of Christmas services

The Church of England has launched its first virtual reality carol service in a bid to bring the Christmas spirit to “people uncomfortable with coming inside buildings”.

The choir of St Martin’s Voices, of St Martin-in-the-Fields, near London’s Trafalgar Square, have recorded songs such as the Advent carol Like a Candle Flame, and filmed them in 360 degrees.

People wishing to take part in carol services from home are invited to use their smartphones, televisions, laptops, tablets – and virtual reality headsets, if they have them – and move their device around as if controlling a camera to be “transported” to the historic church.

The launch of the virtual carols comes after The Telegraph reported that church carol concerts and nativities had been cancelled across the country, amid pleas from vicars to “put their foot down” and continue with planned events over the Christmas period.

The rapid spread of the omicron variant means churches have “taken the matter into their own hands”, despite there being no government restrictions regarding indoor gatherings.

Amaris Cole, head of digital at the Church of England, said that the campaign, entitled #AtTheHeartofChristmas, would enable people “to bring the church into their own home”.

“This means that wherever people are this Christmas, they can be transported to a church from whatever device they’re using and join in with this tradition of singing carols in their own homes,” she said.

Experience the Advent carol ‘Like a Candle Flame’ in virtual reality. 🕯️

Stand among the choir of @StMartinsVoices and explore @smitf_london in 360 degree vision, from any device.

Go to https://t.co/YqV3SkG6w5.#AtTheHeartOfChristmas #VirtualReality

— The Church of England (@churchofengland) December 20, 2021

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday: “You will be on your own singing these songs but it will feel as though you’re transported to the church where we recorded these, and you’ll be able to look around you and see the impressive building – you’ll feel as though you’re amongst the choir and it will feel like a new experience for people wherever they may be this Christmas.”

Speaking of congregants who are unable to attend church services this Christmas, Ms Cole said that from the start of the pandemic, the Church had used technology to reach people whom it had never connected with before, “and to reconnect with people who haven’t felt comfortable coming into our buildings”.

“This allows us to connect with people that perhaps for accessibility reasons can’t visit us in our buildings we’re able to connect with them in this innovative way,” she added.

A Church of England spokesperson said that there was no central policy regarding churches opening over Christmas during the pandemic, and that churches and local settings were responsible for their own risk assessments.

The carols have been uploaded to the Church of England’s YouTube channel, which has almost 20,000 subscribers.

There was, until earlier this month, a ban on congregational singing, to the dismay of both clergy and laypeople. Speaking in the House of Lords in July, the Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek, criticised the Government and called for clarity around the restrictions, “given that singing is not an add-on to worship but integral to it”.

Under Plan B, face coverings have become compulsory in most public indoor venues.

However, in accordance with the current government guidelines, there is a “reasonable excuse exemption” which allows people to remove a face covering in places of worship whilst singing if they wish to do so.

Cathedral deans have also urged carol singers to wear masks and take Covid tests at Christmas even though they are not mandatory.

Under current Plan B restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus, coverings have become compulsory in most public indoor venues.

‘We’re asking people to behave responsibly’

However, in accordance with the current government guidelines, there is a “reasonable excuse exemption” which allows people to remove a face covering in places of worship whilst singing if they wish to do so.

Despite this, cathedral deans across the country are taking matters into their own hands, and urging those entering their buildings to take extra precautions.

The Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, said that he has not made radical changes this Christmas, but has insisted that carol singers continue to wear masks.

“We haven’t changed a lot of the things we have been doing throughout the year,” he said, but “we’ve reduced the numbers we were planning to have for Christmas – it’s surprisingly a bit more than at Durham [cathedral], given that Southwark is smaller, so we’re going to have 400 people in church.

“We’re not asking for passports or lateral flow tests but we are asking people to distance and behave responsibly to their neighbour.”

Regarding asking people to continue singing while wearing masks, he admitted: “It is difficult.”

“It’s particularly difficult when you’re wanting to sing carols, which demands singing out loud, but we’ve got used to this because we’ve been singing behind masks since singing was reintroduced, so we didn’t take the opportunity of asking people to remove their masks – but it’s not the best.”

The Very Revd Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham Cathedral, said that every Church of England cathedral has had to undergo a risk assessment, and for Durham Cathedral, that means having just 350 people inside the building.

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