Putting mobile phones in their place

Matthew Schellhorn argues that, though phones can seem helpful, they cause too much distraction.
Coming soon to a church near you: a sea of backlit mobile phone and tablet screens creating a fittingly reverential aura round the People of God.

I often think of the Catholic Church as resembling a symphony orchestra, and my forecast is based on the news of the BBC Philharmonic’s recent technological initiative. From the start of their 2019–20 Season, audience members are invited to keep their mobile devices on throughout concerts. Will they not use the opportunity to check email and do online shopping? Apparently not. As the players go about their Janáček and Kabalevsky, listeners will diligently navigate a purpose-built app to peruse beautifully synchronised nuggets of programme information.

The BBC Philharmonic is no stranger to risk-taking. Apart from regularly programming contemporary music, its recent collaboration with bands such as indie pop group The xx has caused it to trespass onto BBC Radio 1.

Its latest “reimagining” of the concert-going experience means the future is bright, according to Simon Webb, General Manager: “We can’t wait for audiences to start getting even more out of our music than they did before.”

I am sceptical. For a start, music is essentially a nonverbal medium: it does not require or rely on textual or visual stimuli to reveal its secrets or to convey a “meaning”. Moreover, a musical performance in fact involves an exchange between performer and audience.

That the observing, silent party possesses what is in fact an active role in a transcendent discourse is in fact where the comparison with our churchgoing brings to bear. Sacrosanctum Concilium reiterated the teaching of the Church that all the faithful should “fully, consciously and actively” participate in the ceremonies, but it took a musician – the German musicologist Karl Gustav Fellerer – to point out in 1966 that “[t]here is as much active participation in experiencing music as in singing oneself”.

Should people forget how to participate as listeners, it will not be long before – when looking down from the organ loft on a congregation fiddling with Facebook – I and my colleagues fail to navigate a particularly tricksy Alleluia chant.

Do not think it is only the congregation glued to their screens. Over the last decade, I have noticed an increase in professional musicians expecting to use internet-connected apparatus during rehearsal and services. There is clearly a misconception of the collaborative effort, a sense of being “off duty” when not singing or playing at a given moment in time. In turn, there comes a corresponding fall in concentration levels, in group morale, and in the recalling of rehearsal directions to the extent that the correct piece is begun at the correct time.

Although the current obsession with smartphones is alarming, I am assured that my own experience is not unique. I have an orchestral musician friend (in a different top-flight orchestra to the aforementioned) who says that her fellow players perpetually whip out their phones during rehearsals. This they do unopposed by their Chief Conductor: if he objected, he would – despite his advanced years and unrivalled reputation – be told where to go with such an unreasonable complaint.

I know I am a stick-in-the-mud out of step with the zeitgeist. Perhaps the writing is on the wall. No doubt, at the next Easter Vigil we shall be AirDropping a virtual flame to our neighbour’s candid candle. Swipe right for the bidding prayers you support. Vote on the orthodoxy of the homily: hashtag a heretic.

Or not. In our sacred spaces – this includes in their different ways concert halls and churches – we should resist any “advances” that put up barriers between us and our neighbour, or that prevent our appreciation of profound and unrepeatable live experiences. A congregation that comes to associate live music with screen use will come to see attendance at the Sacred Liturgy as mere concert-going (and therefore will it matter anymore in which direction a Sanctuary is orientated?). Likewise, musicians who are habitually distracted by the bottomless pit of the internet will get perilously close to jeopardising standards of professional delivery. Perhaps it is time to refresh our browsers and consider why we as a community are in church (or in the concert hall) at all.

This article was published on on 30/09/2019