THE PEOPLE NEED TO SEE US DOING SOMETHING



Our intent for the drafts of our respective editorials for this issue, written before the shutdown was imposed in the face of COVID-19, was to address the problematic distribution of “clergy time” in the structure of parish administration. But that was then. Now that the shutdown has required clergy to create alternatives to “normal” parish life and pastoral care, clergy time has become an exception to the rule and thus our original analysis became less than applicable.


But a state of exception is a revelatory state: the suspension of the rule exposes much of what was once considered “necessary” to have been arbitrary all along; on the other hand, whatever is retained no matter the cost is revealed to be the actual rule that constitutes the order of things -- the rule that persists in spite of the exception.


The shutdown is clearly such a state of exception, of exposure. And for our parishes, where services have been indefinitely cancelled, it has exposed the underlying rule that determines, among other things, the actual function of clergy in the parish. To navigate the remainder of the shutdown and beyond will require us to face the hard questions that the relative predictability of the old rule allowed us to ignore. It will require us to face the exception, which is the same thing as accepting that a new rule is now in place.


At first, my main concern was specifically with how clergy time is consumed by compensatory labor: the efforts whereby clergy attempt to fill some vacuum in the life of the parish. Aside from accounting for a great deal of time and effort on the part of clergy, I also began to notice how the distribution of clergy time was being directly conditioned by church decline and the subsequent drop in lay leadership in the organization of parish life. Compensatory labor is thus a category of its own, neither directly pastoral, liturgical, or even administrative in nature, though it will often take the shape of one of those latter functions. As its name suggests, compensatory labor represents the excess investment -- of time, energy, emotion -- demanded from clergy to supply for the lack thereof in the parish.


While this was clearly evident in the familiar situation where clergy instinctively started running programs that were once handled by parishioners, it was particularly found in the effort required to maintain the parish’s online presence -- a task that often falls to clergy. It was these communicative tasks -- performed in the frequent production of “content” across multiple social media platforms and even in just the act of informing the congregation about what’s going on -- that suggested that something more was going on than priests making sure that the altar frontals were switched out.


That so much compensatory effort is being directed to parish communication reflects a basic alienation between clergy and their parishioners. People’s lives are distracted and fragmented, and this puts enormous pressure on a structure of parish life and ministry that presupposes people’s routine availability. And since this is a social and relational alienation, the imperative for clergy to compensate for it entails a significant demand upon their affective resources as well. Clergy obviously do what they do because they sincerely care for their congregations, but this compensatory labor has a way of exploiting the sacrificial character of the priesthood, such that clergy begin to literally care for their congregations -- as if on their behalf. They must find in themselves alone the emotional investment that would ordinarily be supplied from the congregation as a whole.


As I saw it at the time, the impulse behind this compensatory labor was to maintain the existing structure of the parish at whatever cost. The parish must always appear to be what it always has been, with everything in its right place and maintained accordingly. But it has been remarkable to watch this all develop in the midst of the shutdown. Clergy should no doubt be commended for their valiant efforts at “keeping the candle burning,” but this crisis has nevertheless exposed the underlying incoherence of how we “do church” -- or at least of how we did church. Vital questions have emerged about the role of the priest vis-a-vis the laity; the minimum requirements by which a mass is considered “lawful”; the extent to which a liturgy can be abstracted through virtual communication technologies before it ceases to be a “liturgy” in any meaningful sense; and what, if anything, we are being spiritually and theologically deprived of by the prolonged suspension of the mass. All of these questions orbit around our basic uncertainty about the nature of the parish and the relationship of the clergy to it.


But a more immediate question concerns the widespread production of live-streamed liturgies. Because, notwithstanding the obvious benefit that they are providing at the moment, live-streaming liturgy epitomizes this compensatory and communicative labor. To be clear, no priest could possibly be faulted for making use of the technologies which can facilitate virtual liturgy in the middle of the shutdown. Nevertheless, it is still important that we understand the broader context in which these technologies were already situated. We find ourselves in what theorist Jodi Dean has called [1] “communicative capitalism” -- that is, “the form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy materialize in networked communications technologies” But the values that are “materialized” by communicative capitalism are not limited to those of democracy or politics; the values that would be more recognizable in our churches -- those of community, hospitality, fellowship, and accessibility -- are also included. Of course, even before the shutdown, few of us ever imagined that Facebook or Instagram were purely benign or neutral, but it’s their necessity to the operation of communicative capitalism that accounts for the feeling that we simply have to participate in them; our sense that they are somehow imperative. Because communicative capitalism “directly exploits the social relation at the heart of value,” our social relations themselves are now the primary generators and markers of value. Under communicative capitalism, in short, the social “value” of an individual or institution becomes increasingly measured in terms of the “visibility” of their online presence -- the visibility as seen by a distant beholder, that is, who registers their experience by “liking” the content, thereby increasing the affective “capital” represented by the profile. To not participate in the frequent production of content; to not configure one’s relationships or institutional identity on the platforms of social media, is therefore to withdraw from the communicative exchange of value altogether -- which is to effectively become isolated and invisible.


While parishioners have a legitimate need for clergy to produce virtual liturgies during the shutdown, one can detect that clergy are motivated by an implicit need of their own, which is that the people need to see us doing something -- to see us, that is, online and on social media. These communicative technologies have enabled us to imagine that there is a realm in which worship and parish life can be conducted that is entirely other than that of actual life; that a parish can and must “do church” on two fields at once, so to speak. All of this was in effect well before the shutdown was imposed, just as clergy were going to great lengths to ensure that people could see that they and their parishes were doing something. Not only is this a near-perfect expression of what Mark Fisher identified [2] as the “meta-work” of administrative labor -- the “simulation of productivity” that substitutes for the actual productivity that is ever more elusive -- but it also reveals the extent to which clergy have unwittingly accepted the reconfiguration of value as determined by communicative capitalism.


The people need to see us doing something.


The irony of the shutdown is that it has restricted parish life and ministry to the very technologies by which its value in society is being measured. So, while it’s entirely possible to affirm the benefits that these technologies have provided, their continued use could likely bring the life of the parish -- particularly its liturgical life -- into further alignment with the logic of communicative capitalism. Because the effects of the shutdown will almost certainly outlast its immediate restrictions, this means the virtual simulation of liturgy and fellowship will not remain a merely temporary alternative for long. And with regard to clergy time, specifically, the shutdown and its aftermath could potentially reinforce and even expand their compensatory function. In the absence of masses to celebrate, programs to run, classes to teach, people to visit -- all of which presuppose the participation of the parish -- clergy could find themselves tasked with the responsibility to represent the parish in a way that would even impress the clericalism of ancient times. All while further obscuring the intelligibility and necessity of a localized and offline mode of parish life.


One does not have to look back more than a decade to recall a time when none of the technologies that are presently facilitating our virtual liturgies existed. If a pandemic were to have required a shutdown back then, clergy would have gone about caring for their people as best they could -- with phone calls and notes and emails -- but there would be little visible evidence of any of it. Nor would it have occured to anyone to expect there to be. To remind ourselves of this is not to engage in some kind of luddite contrarianism, but is rather to insist that what is deemed to be “necessary” at any given moment is rarely singular or exclusive. More often than not, there are multiple “necessities” that one can choose from -- each of them inextricably bound to the present situation, of course -- but nonetheless distinct from each other. The reflexive impulse to live-stream everything is no more a “necessity” than the decision to consider instead -- as Tony did in our last issue -- the fact that both clergy and laity are so geographically dispersed and dislocated from the local parish and respond accordingly. Likewise, the impulse to produce videos for parishioners so that they aren’t left without any spiritual exercises betrays our anxiety about the impoverished state of our formation and private devotion. Acknowledging that wouldn’t automatically resolve the issue, but it would at least refrain from presuming what is always the optional use of social media and communication technology.


The acceptance of the actually-existing reality need not ever be defeatist. So we should probably keep producing virtual liturgies and maintaining a mostly online parish life. However, the time will soon come when we will have to attend to the question of what the parish actually is -- of what parish ministry consists of -- beyond the makeshift exceptions that we have arranged for the moment. And while the shutdown required us to set aside the problem of clergy time, the shutdown itself will insist that the problem remain front and center. The compensatory labor of clergy is a rule that has persisted in spite of the exception, which means that the shutdown won’t break it for us.


Caleb Roberts

Champaign, Illinois



[1] Jodi Dean. “Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle.” Spheres: Journal for Digital Cultures. November, 2014.

[2] See “The Privatisation of Stress” and “Democracy is Joy” in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writing of Mark Fisher.



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