Coronavirus in church: 2020 vision on the meaning of faith in our lives
Online church service users nearly doubled in lockdown and time of reflection
Bernadette Sweetman, Gareth Byrne
Once churches reopen, less than 1 percent of survey respondents said they would only or mainly worship online. This suggests a deep significance associated with physical gathering in a sacred space.
As faith communities prepare to resume public worship from June 29th, churchgoers in Ireland are in a new space, both physically and emotionally. If Beckett was right, that “habit is a great deadener”, then might the jolting out of habit be a great reviver?
Prior to lockdown, Irish adults of faith probably had some sort of routine regarding prayer, worship and church attendance. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has, it seems, caused many people to stop and really think about the role of faith in their lives.
Dr Bernadette Sweetman: “The lack of opportunities for adults to explore religion and faith is one reason for misunderstanding between people of different perspectives. Not everyone grew up in a faith, but a substantial proportion of us did.”
Making the conscious decision to find opportunities to join in online worship, creating time and space for family prayer, or wondering about one’s beliefs and values in a time of crisis are all ways in which people may have suddenly found themselves in a reflective space.
The research team at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education (MDCCE) at Dublin City University has been engaged in a research project on Adult Religious Education and Faith Development since 2018.
Cognisant of the unique impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our lives, the research team decided to empirically investigate the particular ways in which Covid-19 has affected the faith of Irish adults.
In mid-May, in partnership with York St John University, MDCCE launched a nationwide online survey in Ireland called “Coronavirus, Church and You” .
The findings provide an indication as to how Irish adult churchgoers in general have responded to recent circumstances in a number of ways, including reflecting on their overall wellbeing, on how they have engaged with their faith during lockdown, and on how they envisage their future faith lives and churchgoing practices post-Covid-19.
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As of June 7th, 1,349 people had completed the survey. The vast majority (over 85 per cent) were lay people. Two-thirds were aged 40-60 and 58 per cent were female.
Given the central importance of a sense of belonging and solidarity in faith communities, it was valuable to examine the impact of the unavailability of public worship in this regard.
Even though little more than one-third (37 per cent) of respondents said they attended church at least weekly prior to lockdown, almost double that (63 per cent) revealed they accessed church services online in recent weeks.
Greater proportions accessed services in their local community, such as parish webcams, than availed of national broadcasts or other online worship options.
A total 62 per cent felt the same closeness or even closer to the church during this time, while 77 per cent felt either the same as or even more prayerful. Almost 80 per cent (79 per cent) felt either the same as or even closer to God.
The same pattern was evident in other related areas such as how thankful, hopeful and neighbourly they felt. All of these aspects are relevant not just to how one thinks about one’s faith but how one lives it.
As parishes prepare to reopen, the significance of the church building has increasingly become a topic for discussion. Had the free access to this sacred space prior to lockdown been taken for granted?
How might adult churchgoers respond to being able to physically attend their church and practise communal worship in person again, while keeping socially distant?
Church buildings were seen as central to Christian witness in the community
The local church building was seen as crucial to their identity as Christians by respondents at a ratio of 3:1. Church buildings were seen as central to Christian witness in the community by an even greater proportion of respondents (5:1).
When asked how they intend to continue with online worship once churches reopen, less than 1 percent of respondents said that they would only or mainly worship online. This suggests a deep significance associated with the physical gathering in a sacred space for public worship for most respondents.
Drawing upon the findings of this survey, when Irish churchgoers have the opportunity to step foot into their church, it is likely to be a decision made with the heart as much as with the head, as many responses demonstrated strong emotions.
Articulating why one chooses to worship and how one creates or avails of such opportunities has been an unexpected feature of 2020 for many churchgoers. It has been an opportunity to look anew, with 2020 vision, on the meaning of faith in our lives