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Move to online worship a loss, not a gain, say universities’ researchers

29 September 2021

But positive for those with disabilities or no provision near by

Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s service for Easter 2020 conducted online from his kitchen in Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s service for Easter 2020 conducted online from his kitchen in Lambeth Palace

A “DEEP-SEATED dissatisfaction” with online worship during the Covid-19 pandemic has been identified by new research published this week.

The key finding of the report British Ritual Innovation under Covid-19, the result of a year-long joint project by the University of Chester and Manchester Metropolitan University, is that, “by almost every metric, the experience of pandemic rituals have been worse than those that came before them. They are perceived as less meaningful, less communal, less spiritual, less effective, and so on.”

The report, published on Wednesday, concludes: “Our research has revealed both considerable innovation in, and deep-seated dissatisfaction with, digital worship during the pandemic. There have been important positive developments and adaptations which will strengthen British religious life in the long term, but for most people, the move to online ritual has been one of loss, not gain.

“Rituals — regular weekly worship, funerals, baptisms, festival celebrations, and the like — have been exceptionally difficult for most participants and leaders during the pandemic.”

It notes, however, that there is “a tremendous appetite for religious ritual online”, and that online services are “particularly inviting for those who are seeking out new communities, experiences, and modes of worship”. It observes: “While the disembodied nature of online practice could make some rituals feel distant or inauthentic, the ability of worshippers to join communities far from their homes has nevertheless been perceived as a significant positive development that is likely to continue. This is especially for people with disabilities, for those who do not have a local congregation that serves their religious needs, or for members of faiths whose numbers in the UK are relatively small.”

In addition to an online survey of 604 religious leaders and congregation members (described as not representative of the British population as a whole and including 175 C of E respondents), conducted from September 2020 to May 2021, 15 specific case studies were conducted.

The report notes: “Human connection seems more important to congregants than technical quality or spectacle.” Worshippers tended to prefer forms of online worship that were “more interactive” — such as those conducted over Zoom — over those that delivered better quality such as streaming video. Its findings, it suggests, point to “a limit to the potential of online-only communities. Some form of online-offline hybrid seems likely to be the way forward.”

Participants in larger communities were significantly less positive about pandemic rituals than those in smaller ones, suggesting that the latter’s “convivial, small nature was a source of resilience rather than a weakness”.

Among the findings was that, for the C of E, the gaps between the experience of leaders and participants was “quite marked; leaders’ experience of ritual during the pandemic were marginally worse than those before, but for participants, the gap was considerably larger”.

This was not recorded for other religious groups, and the report suggests that there is “a serious experiential gap between clergy and laity for the C of E. . . For whatever reason, C of E clergy seem less aware of or attuned to the experiences that their worshippers have had during this pandemic than others. We would suggest that this experiential disconnect, even if mended by a resumption of ‘ordinary,’ in-person services, is likely to affect the relationship between C of E clergy and laity going forward.”

It speculates that one cause could be that clergy were able to conduct worship in the church buildings.


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