COVID-19 presents unusual challenges to religious practice, because most religious people draw comfort from being not alone, but part of a faith community. In a series of 30 interviews, I asked religious leaders in the UK how they were coping, and for their reflections on the rapid transition to online platforms.
Predictably, technology was a significant challenge, and insufficient computer-literacy reduced (and sometimes prevented) participation in online community life. Many did not have a proper infrastructure — technical or legal — in place. Congregation membership lists had to be updated, and consent had to be obtained so that data protection and privacy rights were secured.
Another challenge that faith leaders identified was the competition that technology created. Shifting religious life online created an immediate religious free market. Similar to an economic free market, which has little or no government control, religious adherents (“consumers”) in the religious free market could choose to move from one place of worship to another with little restriction. Technology provided freedom to attend a place of worship anywhere in the world, only a click away.
Rabbi Charley Baginsky reported that members of her congregation also tried the religious services of other faith communities, not just other denominations of the same community. “I can attend a Christian Easter service, or I can go and watch what the mosque is putting on in a discussion. . . How do you maintain a sense of identity in such a marketplace?”
Most faith leaders also reported a growth in attendance, and reaching a wider audience for lectures, community prayers, and other communal gatherings. This was partly because online services do not require a physical crossing of the threshold, which can be intimidating if you are unfamiliar with the practices or members. Exploring someone else’s community is straightforward, because it does not require a face-to-face encounter, and sometimes allows for anonymous presence.
Attendance growth went beyond attracting those living in the same region, as the Nottingham Muslim leader Musharraf Hussain said: “I was actually invited to give a lesson in Italy about a week ago. And I’ve been contacted by some people from India, in Kerala, where they want me to do a series of lectures. . . This whole concept of a global village is becoming a reality.”
MANY of the participants reflected on religion as being, intrinsically, a communal activity. As the United States scholar Robert Putnam found, not only do religiously involved people know more people: religious life provides a sense of community and group solidarity.
Amid the social-distancing guidelines, the Roman Catholic priest Fr Alban McCoy commented that communities needed to “reconfigure the notion of presence”. This was particularly important for Christians, as the Anglican priest the Revd Jack Noble explained: “As a Christian, of course, we have that deep stream of sacramental theology that says: stuff matters. You know, people present bread, wine, oil, water, fire — those things are ways in which God reaches us.”
In addition, only a small number of people were allowed at funerals, and mourners observed safe social distancing. New ways were developed to overcome the lack of physical presence, as Rabbi Reuven Leigh explained: “The way that they’ve been doing the funerals has been driving [the hearse] through the community. People come out on to their doorsteps to offer their last respects, and there’s a video going behind [the hearse].
“It’s strangely gripping. You would think there’s nothing to see, but I sat there for a good half an hour, just watching this column weaving its way through the community.”
This strategy extended the meaning of physical presence at a funeral from the cemetery to the doorstep, and even to Rabbi Leigh’s living room.
MOVING prayer from a house of worship to the home raised many issues, notably concerning gender dynamics. The shift to prayer at home was hard for those who were used to communal congregational prayers, such as Muslim men, who not only had to abandon attending the mosque, but also to come to terms with praying in a domestic space. The Muslim female communal leader, Julie Siddiqi, pointed to the gender implications, which offered Muslim women an opportunity to assert themselves, religiously, in a familial setting.
This raises the question whether religious responses to Covid represent a renewal of practice or a change in it. The reflection of the Hindu leader Shaunaka Rishi Das may help to answer this. “Hindus are spending a lot more time in their family spaces, a lot more time meditating and chanting, and time together as a family. . . It’s not doctrine, this is just how it’s happening.” This suggests that the answer lies not in doctrine, but in our homes.
In the end, as the Revd Dr Michael Volland said: “What we have realised is being with other people is not to be taken for granted. It’s a great gift, a precious gift — and we’re all longing to be together.”
Dr Ed Kessler is founder director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge.
The video Covid-19 Chronicles can be found here.