INCREASED need means that churches will have an even bigger job to do as they reopen, says a report, Churches, Covid-19 and Communities, published by the University of York on Monday.
More than 5000 people, comprising non-church members, congregations, and church leaders, took part in surveys and interviews that contributed to the research. It provides testimony and grass-roots data on the human cost of the pandemic, when places of worship were closed and unable to play their usual part as crisis centres and places of comfort in times of national need and anxiety.
The report reveals the extent to which churches and other places of worship are regarded as not just for the faithful, and suggests that existing church networks will be vital in building future resilience.
It shows how churches have demonstrated their presence through foodbanks and other practical help, including, more recently, working with the NHS as vaccination and testing centres.
The leader of the research team, Dr Dee Dyas, said on Monday that non-church members had sent a clear message that they were essential to the community, especially at times of crisis.
“Normally, churches act as a ‘national well-being service’,” she said. “They are vital community hubs, providing cradle-to-grave activities for everyone to access, and are usually key places of comfort and refuge in times of crisis.”
The report found that 75 per cent of non-church members surveyed valued access to churches as a key issue in their community. The same percentage of non-church members valued access to churches as places of quiet reflection and comfort; 87 per cent of churches were shown to have contacted isolated people regularly; and 91 per cent had offered online engagement.
The report draws on evidence from experts in key fields such as bereavement and public health. The head of places-of-worship strategy for Historic England, Diana Evans, said that the report “gives voice to the pain people experienced when places of worship were not open during the pandemic, leaving individuals and communities without access to spaces where they felt safe to mourn, find respite in beauty, and seek peace.
“It also shows the potential of local places of worship for people of all faiths and none as the country moves towards recovery, acting as symbols of their community’s long-term survival while serving as a local hubs for social care, practical support, and companionship.”
The Minister of State for Digital and Culture, Caroline Dinenage, has described the work of places of worship under challenging conditions as “astounding. . . This has highlighted to everyone the continuing value of faith and these unique buildings to our national life.”
The report refers to the conclusion of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society’s report, Keeping the Faith, that faith communities were integral to the immediate civil-society response to the pandemic. Local authorities had acknowledged a new appreciation of the agility, flexibility, and professionalism of faith groups in their responses to the pandemic.
As the country faces an epidemic of unresolved and unsupported grief and loss, specialist support and a return to normal society activity will be vital in helping people to move forward, the University of York report concludes.
Dr Dyas emphasised: “Our places of worship have a huge potential to be at the heart of national recovery, but you can’t do community care without a roof on.
“This national network of hubs of community care needs and will reward investment to play its part in these important goals.”
To read the report, visit churchesandcovid.org