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Press: The case for and against a spiritual revival

08 May 2020

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Has the pandemic brought about a spiritual revival?

Has the pandemic brought about a spiritual revival?

NEW arguments make a refreshing change. The virus has, of course, proved everyone right about the thing that they were right about before; so it shows either the folly or the necessity of Brexit so clearly that only a malevolent idiot could fail to understand; it shows that the State has been brutally cut under austerity until it can no longer perform its basic functions; or else it shows that its appetite for power is terrifying and threatens us all. About the only simplifying delusion to which no one in this country is prone is the belief that President Trump is capable of doing any good, even inadvertently.

Yet this week an argument emerged that was inconceivable two months ago: has the pandemic brought about a spiritual revival? The case in favour was put first by Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington on the New Statesman website: “The pandemic has triggered a ‘historic spiritual moment’, says Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who is unsurprised by the growth in Bible-reading. He notes that engagement with online church services is also booming, and that it is a response to feelings of disorientation, fragility and fear caused by the crisis.

“Since lockdown began, one of the UK’s largest churches, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), has seen turnout double for its online Alpha course, a space for non-believers to ask questions about faith and Christianity.”

Later, there was The Observer’s coverage of a Savanta ComRes survey, commissioned by Tearfund, which showed — apparently — that more and more people were turning to prayer in the face of the pandemic. This is one of those stories that so obviously ought to be true that no one should be surprised when the data turn out to show no such thing.

“A quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began, and one in 20 have started praying during the crisis, according to a new survey,” The Observer reported. “The findings of the poll reinforce indications of an increase in the numbers of people turning to faith for succour amid uncertainty and despair.”

That seemed an entirely straightforward lead; and so it would have been had it not been for the researchers’ conscientiousness. They did not only ask people what they had started doing since the lockdown; they also asked what they had stopped doing. And, here, it turns out that rather more people have stopped praying (six per cent of the sample) than have started (five per cent). Similarly, more people have given up on meditation in this crisis (eight per cent) than have taken it up (five per cent).

The contrast between meditation and prayer is illuminating. People think of meditation as a practice requiring concentration, special bodily postures, and perhaps solitude. That is obviously difficult at a time of stress and distraction such as this. The definition of prayer is very much more flexible. Even in church, among Anglicans at least, hardly anyone drops to their knees to pray any more. In a sociological sense, it is considered a much less sacred activity: one that is less distinct from ordinary life.

Perhaps the likeliest grand explanation for all this is that the pandemic has not gone on for nearly long enough to make large and lasting changes to behaviour.

 

I WAS greatly struck by an account in the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter of a Swede who in his twenties spent four and a half years as a hermit.

Markus Torgeby lived alone in a primitive shelter in the forest, emerging every few months to buy supplies. He had no explicitly religious motive: he just needed silence and solitude to cope with the trauma of his mother’s death when he was a child.

The cold and the loneliness were very hard to deal with. He said that it took him three months to overcome the restlessness of having nothing to do. “Then I could sit on a stump for five or six hours every day and do nothing, and things grew slowly easier.” But his fear of the dark proved much more difficult to manage. At those latitudes, the winter is not only snowbound, but has only four or five hours of daylight. It took him months not to fight his fear or suppress it, but simply to accept it.

Now he is married, has three children, and lives in a mountain hut, earning his living as a carpenter and author. It would be good if his doctrine of deliverance from busyness through boredom were to catch on, but I can’t see the lockdown turning out that way in Britain.

 

IN COMPLETE contrast, Reuters carried an excellent story from Torvaianica, a coastal town near Rome, where a group of immigrant transgender prostitutes were starving, until they appealed to a priest, who passed the problem up to the Vatican. Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, immediately wired the money to feed them.

“‘I don’t understand why this is getting so much attention,” Cardinal Krajewski told Reuters by phone on Thursday. ‘This is ordinary work for the Church, it’s normal. This is how the Church is a field hospital.’”

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