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Feeling bleak, mid-winter? A carol service will cheer you up, new study says

24 December 2021

Liverpool Cathedral

Carol service in Liverpool Cathedral

Carol service in Liverpool Cathedral

ATTENDING a Christmas carol service at a cathedral has a positive impact on mental health and well-being, a newly published study carried out at Liverpool Cathedral suggests.

The study was designed to discover what effect such services had on those attending, whether they were regular or occasional visitors. The Church can take the findings seriously, says one of its co-authors, the Revd Dr Leslie Francis, Professor of Religions and Psychology at the University of Warwick, and Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral.

The study is part of broader research into the positive impact of Anglican cathedrals on the local communities, and the relationship between religion and happiness. Using the psychometric scale of the Oxford Happiness Inventory, the team surveyed more than 1000 people: 383 before and after the Holly Bough Service in Liverpool in 2019, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and then 802 attending Christmas carol services that same year.

In terms of religious identity, 81 per cent of the survey participants described themselves as Christian. Of their churchgoing, 18 per cent reported it as weekly, six per cent at least monthly, 14 per cent at least six times a year, and 44 per cent at least yearly. Eighteen per cent never attended, and one per cent preferred not to say.

People were asked to respond to the same 29 multiple-choice items, designed to reflect incremental levels of happiness. Of the 29 items, 17 were positive observations: “I feel like life is very rewarding”, “I feel able to take anything on”; and 12 negative: “I’m not particularly optimistic about the future”, “I feel that I’m not especially in control of my life.”

Participants were invited to rate each in answer to the prompt: “How I have felt over the past week about me,” and then, afterwards: “How I am feeling about me now.” The results showed “a robust difference” in the scores between the two tests, the second being completed during a five-minute organ voluntary towards the close of the service.

The study observes that the experiences of the evening Holly Bough Service and the afternoon carol services differ in two key ways: the former belong to the mood of the liturgical season of Advent, and the latter anticipated the mood of Christian celebration.

Speaking to the Church Times this week, Professor Francis explained how psychometric measurement works. He said: “The scores recorded on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire were designed to capture a broad coverage of psychological wellbeing and mental health. The differences between the two sets of scores (recorded before the service began and just as the service ended) were greater than differences that could have been expected from chance fluctuation.

“This finding indicates that participation in these Christmas services is reflected in a changed perception of the frequency and degree of positive affect or joy, the average level of satisfaction over a period of time, and the absence of negative feelings such as depression and anxiety.”

The research acknowledges that the building itself plays an important part in creating the environment for change. It identifies Liverpool (Anglican) Cathedral as the largest cathedral in England, the fifth largest in Europe, and the seventh largest in the world. Previous studies have reported the benefits to cathedral visitors of peace and quiet, and of spiritual and emotional connection.

The Dean of Liverpool, the Very Revd Dr Sue Jones, commented: “I am really encouraged by these findings. We say that the cathedral is a place of encounter — a place to encounter the God who knows and loves us, and a place in which people can feel affirmed and loved. And now we know that works; not just for churchgoers, but for all the people of Liverpool.

“The Cathedral is adding something to Liverpool’s sense of well-being. And I praise God for that.”

Professor Francis said: “It is important to test the research in peer-review journals before inviting the Church to take it seriously, and I am pleased to say these findings can be taken seriously.

“But, as a scientist, further research is always needed to test and build on findings. We look forward to examining Christmas in other cathedrals, as well as other highlight events and services at different times throughout the year in Liverpool Cathedral.”

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