THE lockdown imposed by the Government on 23 March was sudden, and all kinds of systems had to adjust quickly to a new reality. The lockup imposed by the Archbishops and Bishops on churches and cathedrals the next day was also sudden, and needed rapid responses. The Church rose to the occasion. There was the sense that God was calling the Church to new insights and to new ways of being faithful to the gospel. The sowers were going about their business differently.
Our intuition was that there would be a great deal to learn from systematically gathered evidence rather than assembled anecdotes. The Coronavirus, Church & You survey emerged from this conviction, and came to fruition through close collaboration between members of our research group (including the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker), in co-operation with the Church Times as a tried and tested vehicle for distributing surveys, and with the help of ten bishops who promoted the survey in their dioceses.
We were also asked to create similar surveys for the Roman Catholic Church in England and in the Republic of Ireland; these should allow some interesting comparisons to be made in due course.
When I survey
The survey was launched in the Church Times on 8 May (News, 8 May), and, by 13 June, about 6000 responses had been received. The survey will remain open for another three or four weeks, but we have created an initial report that can be found on the Church Times website. The best that we can do here is to give a taste of what the data so far reveal, and to issue a plea for more people to add their responses to the ongoing survey.
Who has responded?
By 13 June, there were 4613 respondents from the Church of England (79% of the total), with more than 300 Anglicans from Wales, and more than 100 from Scotland. Other denominations represented include more than 200 Baptists, and more than 100 Methodists, although, for now, we report on the Church of England respondents: 1336 clergy and 3277 laity.
Experience of the virus
Among the respondents, only 3% reported that they had definitely had the virus, but one in three (34%) had self-isolated for various reasons. Almost half (47%) knew someone who had suffered from the virus, and, for some, these were close friends (16%) or immediate (6%) or wider (13%) family.
Impact of the lockdown on people
The survey included five short scales designed to explore whether the lockdown had been positive or negative for people (see Table 2).
The first scale, exploring stress, shows that, as a consequence of lockdown, more than one third of the respondents reported higher levels of stress (34%), exhaustion (35%), anxiety (38%), and fatigue (44%). Increased stress was most evident among clergy, among younger people, and among Anglo-Catholics.
The next two scales explore the balanced-affect model of psychological well-being, distinguishing between positive affect and negative affect. The balanced-affect model suggests that people can cope better with the consequences of negative feelings if they also have reserves of positive feelings.
The lockdown contributed to negative affect, with higher levels of frustration (43%), less sense of excitement (34%), higher levels of boredom (25%), and more unhappiness (24%). Yet the lockdown also contributed to positive affect, as people felt more neighbourly (61%), thankful (57%), hopeful (28%), and trusting (21%). On balance, resilience was higher among women, the elderly, clergy, and Evangelicals.
The fourth scale, exploring the impact of the lockdown on relating to others, shows that 40% of the respondents felt further from the Church, 40% felt further from other people, and 36% felt further from family. Relationships were less well sustained by men, younger people, and laity.
The fifth scale, exploring the impact of the lockdown on relating to God, shows that, while respondents felt more distant from other people, 41% felt closer to God, and 48% felt more prayerful. The impact of relating more closely to God was stronger among women, the elderly, and Evangelicals.
What did churches do during the lockdown?
The 705 stipendiary parochial clergy who responded to the survey gave the impression that their churches were working hard to keep up with the wide-ranging demands of parish life.
A high proportion of them said that, most days, their churches were praying for people (84%), supporting core members (63%), and supporting the elderly or lonely (62%).
Most days, at least one quarter were praying with people (35%), supporting the bereaved (30%), supporting the sick (26%), and supporting occasional attenders (25%). Their commitment to offering practical support extended to delivering food (19%) and medicine (14%).
What did the laity experience?
Throughout the lockdown, most laity felt well supported by their clergy (51%) and by the members of their church (49%). A high proportion accessed services online (91%), but this figure needs to be read against the fact that these were people also responding to an online survey.
Among those who attended online services, the sense of participation was not as high as may have been expected. About two-fifths reported that during online services they actually prayed (40%) or recited the liturgy (36%), but fewer reported that they joined in singing (27%).
Privatising holy communion
The lockdown brought into sharp focus questions about celebrating and receiving communion. The survey revealed some significant differences between the views of those giving ministry and those receiving ministry. Whereas 41% of laity agreed that it was right for clergy to celebrate holy communion in their own homes without broadcasting the service to others, only 31% of ministers did so.
Similarly, 43% of laity argued that it was right for people at home to receive communion from their own bread and wine as part of an online communion service, compared with 34% of clergy.
The survey also revealed divided opinion between people from different traditions: 49% of Anglo-Catholics agreed that it was right for clergy to celebrate communion in their homes without broadcasting the service to others, compared with only 25% of Evangelicals.
Conversely, only 23% of Anglo-Catholics argued that it was right for people at home to receive communion from their own bread and wine as part of an online communion service, compared with 55% of Evangelicals.
Life after the pandemic
Responses to the survey demonstrated that a great deal of reflection and learning had taken place, and will continue to take place, as a consequence of the pandemic. Things may not be the same again.
On the positive side, the majority of respondents welcomed the way in which the Church had embraced the digital age: 80% of clergy and 76% of laity agreed that the lockdown had helped the Church to move into the digital age.
More than half the clergy (54%) and laity (60%) recognised that online worship was a great tool. More than two-fifths of clergy (42%) and laity (45%) recognised that social media were a great pastoral tool, and 46% of clergy and 43% of laity recognised that social media were a great evangelistic tool.
Support for the virtual Church was stronger among women than among men, among lay ministers than among clergy and other laypeople, among Evangelicals than among Anglo-Catholics, and among people in their forties and fifties compared with those under 40 or 60 and over.
There was, however, little enthusiasm for online worship taking over from offline worship. Just 2% of clergy and 3% of laity considered that virtual contact was as good as meeting face-to-face. Indeed, 90% of both clergy and laity took the view that, after the lockdown, face-to-face contact would be valued even more than it was before.
There was also little evidence that this bold venture into the digital age has sounded the death knell for the offline presence of the Church. Just 9% of clergy and 6% of laity thought that the lockdown had shown that church buildings were an unnecessary burden.
Two-thirds of clergy (64%) and laity (68%) agreed that church buildings were central to our witness in the community. Strength of feeling about the importance of buildings was not evenly distributed, being more often expressed by men than by women, by laity than by clergy, and by Anglo-Catholics than by Evangelicals.
On the less positive side, there was real anxiety expressed by a few about the sustainability of churches trying to re-emerge from the lockdown. This vulnerability derives from uncertainty regarding both financial and human resources. One third of the clergy (34%) and 11% of the laity believed that financial giving to the Church would decline after the pandemic.
One quarter (23%) of the clergy and 18% of the laity believed that their church building would not be financially viable after the pandemic. One quarter of the clergy (24%) and 23% of the laity believed that, after the pandemic, key people would step down and be difficult to replace.
Still to come
A great deal of work remains to be done on these data. What is already clear, however, is that it would be misleading to draw simple conclusions. We have found significant differences among men and women, among different age groups, among clergy and laity, and among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. As the detailed report shows, not all of these differences fit our easy assumptions and stereotypes.
We imagine that further useful insights will emerge when we look more carefully at geographical factors and at personality factors. There is also gold to be mined from the extensive narratives that some of the participants took the trouble to add to their surveys, for which we are most grateful.
Leslie J. Francis
Read a more detailed analysis of the survey results here