Say the phrase “Sunday Worship” and a very specific image comes to mind: people seated in rows, their attention focused on the group of people around the altar. Covid-19 turned that image on its head, forcing churches to close their physical doors. 

But God cannot be locked into church buildings. 

When the Diocese of New Westminster suspended public worship on March 18, 2020, technology provided a new way of being church: live streaming. 

Like many parishes, the Cathedral’s journey towards live streaming of Sunday services was a steep one.

The week of March 12, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic,  Andrew Stephens-Rennie, the Director of Ministry Innovation, ordered Slingstudio – a small tower that functions as a livestream switcher and encoder. Andrew also found and purchased two ipods – the last two ipods available, on “last chance” sale at London Drugs, a laptop suitable for live streaming, and borrowed a DSLR camera from the Synod office. By the end of that week Slingstudio equipment was sold out on-line. 

When the Diocese of New Westminster suspended public worship March 18, Andrew was already working to set up a live stream “studio” at the Cathedral. He recruited the Cathedral’s Director of Hospitality, Alberto Jaramillo -whose technical know-how extends far beyond the kitchen – to help.

“We spent a very long afternoon and evening figuring out how to make everything work. Alberto walked through the building looking for parts he could use to solve problems we were finding. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked,” Andrew recalls. 

That Cathedral streamed its first live service on March 22. That first live stream showed the Cathedral staff that it was possible to gather the Cathedral community together virtually. It also revealed some challenges: the audio would just not stream clearly, and limits on how many people could be in the space meant less voices could be included. 

Given those challenges, it was decided to attempt worship via Zoom, streamed to Youtube. The first time Cathedral staff attempted this type of worship service it became a comedy of errors. During the test run, Youtube blocked the Cathedral’s live stream. The Cathedral team had to scramble to find an alternate way to offer the service, less than 24 hours before the service was scheduled to take place. 

To avoid the headaches caused by Zoom, the decision was made to pre-record Sunday services, in the Cathedral, using the Slingstudio equipment. For three months, every Monday the Cathedral’s Communication Specialist Alicia Ambrosio would meet Cathedral clergy on-site and record the Sunday service “live to tape.” She would then edit the service together, adding pre-recorded choral music selected by Rupert Lang, and inserting the sermon which was pre-recorded off-site by the preacher. This took the better portion of the week to put together. 

Knowing that this model was unsustainable, Cathedral clergy decided it was time to move towards livestreaming on Sundays. 

Professional audio technicians were brought in to iron out the issues that had plagued previous attempts at livestreaming, and to set up the space to best capture the sound of the Cathedral musicians who would provide music for the service. Alicia became the livestream technical producer, using her past experience in broadcasting to set up the ipods, create the live stream player, and do the “switching” during the livestream. There were roadbumps, but each week things improved. 

July brought the start of the Summer Festival of Sacred Music. Due to Covid-19 safety protocols only two to four singers could be involved. The singers must be 15 feet  (just over 4 meters) apart from each other and anyone else in the building. But this also presented a new challenge: with special guest musicians coming in for the Summer Festival of Sacred Music there had to be a way to show them on screen. 

The livestream “studio” was limited to two ipods – one used for a close shot of the ambo, the other for a close up of the ASL interpreter-  a DSLR camera in front of the altar,  and the one video camera permanently mounted on one of the pillars in the nave providing an overhead shot of the altar. 

Solution? Connect a staff member’s iphone to the Slingstudio system. This phone was mounted on a juliette balcony using a Gorillapod. There was one snag: none of the cameras could be controlled remotely, and due to the cap on how many people could be in the space, there was no one available to sneak around and adjust any of the cameras if something went wrong. 

The ideal solution would be permanently mounted, remote controlled cameras. Not only would this allow the shot to be adjusted from the livestream desk, but it would eliminate the need to have tripods and platforms set up in the nave. Thanks to a generous grant from Archbishop Melissa Skelton’s special fund for Evangelism, the Cathedral was able to order two remote controlled cameras to be installed in the upper level. 

The two cameras, ordered at the beginning of July, finally arrived in mid-August. The next challenge will be mounting the cameras in the locations where they will be most useful and learning to use the remote control system. 

Parishioners and non-parishioners have taken to the live stream services surprisingly easily. A core group of people who would normally attend services in person log in every Sunday and connect via the Youtube chat box. They comment on the service they miss experiencing in person and what part of the sermon resonates with them most. They even exchange the sign of peace virtually via the chat box. 

The road to being able to offer high quality virtual worship has been a long, and sometimes bumpy one. There is still work to be done and new road bumps to navigate.  If anything the process has reminded the Cathedral staff that the church is not a building, the Church is the people of God, wherever and however they gather. 

If you would like to support the Cathedral’s ability to provide high quality on-line worship, please consider making a financial contribution to support our live streaming capacities. It also takes a team of people to make the live stream services happen each week. If you would like to volunteer to be a part of our live stream tech team, please contact Alicia Ambrosio