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Hallo again to all.

It is just over ten years since flashmobs began to be a delightful feature of urban life in the First World. The originator of the practice says that 'the mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could'. Some flashmobs involve organized-but-impromptu dance routines, pillow fights, snowball fights, and various kinds of lighthearted pranksterism. Many flashmobs are musical in nature, bringing sacred song out of churches and concert halls, and into open public spaces; memorable examples include Carmina Burana in a Vienna train station, a movement from Bach's Mass in B minor in a MetroNorth station, and the Hallelujah Chorus in a Philadelphia department store. Others are a subcategory called cash mobs or carrotmobs, in which a group of people descend on a business or organization in order to give it a quick boost of financial encouragement. All flashmobs make use of modern telecommunications to gather large groups together for the execution of a one-off activity. When the event in question is over, the group and its performance venue do not continue a relationship, except perhaps in a Youtube video.

Of late, we have watched with some interest and mystification the development in the Roman Catholic Church of a kind of liturgical flashmob, the Mass Mob. With origins in Buffalo, this movement has grown to embrace at least seven other American cities: Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and Rochester. A century ago, these cities could boast an abundance of churches full of very large numbers of communicants. Many such churches were of architectural significance and had congregations with strong ethnic-cultural identities. Today, the same cities host the same church buildings with very much smaller populations of worshipers and more diverse cultural backgrounds. In extreme cases, a handful of parishioners continue to worship in a church building able to accommodate many hundreds of worshipers at a time.

In response to these demographic trends, Mass Mobs use social media like Twitter and Facebook to organize large ad hoc congregations to attend a given church on a particular date. This entirely wholesome undertaking is reported to involve 300 to 500 additional worshipers at a time. Visitors to a church have an opportunity to appreciate sacred architecture of a sort uncommon in their suburban churches, and to learn about the history and needs of Christian communities that have fallen on hard times. The stalwart parishioners of the churches who receive Mass Mob visitors undoubtedly have a chance to experience what it was like in days of yore when their pews were full and communion lines were long. Both visitors and parishioners can share a sacramental expression of the unity of their faith despite their varied temporal circumstances. The 'bare ruined choirs' of Shakespeare's sonnet undoubtedly themselves enjoy the larger congregations.

In advance of this Social Media Sunday, as proclaimed by the Episcopal Church in the United States, we've done much thinking about what Anglicans can learn from the nascent Mass Mob movement. We're not sure that one can make a useful translation of the Mass Mobs into our own religious idioms and culture; Mattins Mobs could well be the stuff of an excellent Monty Python sketch, but it seems doubtful that they would lead to the kind of stable and sustained worship and formation so important to us. How, for example, would a struggling parish's life be substantially changed a month after it had been visited by the equivalent of a Mass Mob? Would it not continue to struggle with its own numbers—financial and personal—despite the momentary boost in morale?

We see a happier and perhaps healthier model of Christian alongsiding in the Anglican tradition of companion diocesan relationships. These connections involve the long-term pairing of institutions with different kinds of resources and strengths, and the mutual exchange of those gifts over weeks-long mission trips, year-long clergy exchanges, and decades-long friendships rooted in direct and prolonged encounter. We're also aware of companion parish relationships in closer geographic proximities, which allow members of one stronger and larger parish to offer support over a period of time to a smaller parish with more challenges to its own survival and good ministry. In both the diocesan and parochial types of engagement between Christian institutions, it is the durable quality of our Anglican models that allows for possibilities of tangible enrichment over the long term. Without any discounting of the good works and intentions of the Mass Mob organizers, we tend to want to lift up flashmobs as a creative platform for urban cultural enhancement, but probably not as a viable strategy for really improving the lives of struggling congregations. Our hearts look beyond the social media-informed flashmob ideal to a vision of time over the longue durée, enriched by John Keble's understanding of each day all year as a little Easter on which to rejoice and be about the Lord's business:

Enthronèd in thy sovereign sphere,
Thou shedd'st thy light on all the year;
Sundays by thee more glorious break,
An Easter Day in every week:

And weekdays, following in their train,
The fulness of thy blessing gain,
Till all, both resting soil employ,
Be one Lord's day of holy joy.

Then wake, my soul, to high desires,
And earlier light thine altar fires:
The World some hours is on her way,
Nor thinks on thee, thou blessèd day.

See you next week.

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29 June 2014

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