CHURCHES in Scotland should focus on the growing online worshipping communities that emerged during the pandemic rather than “rush back” to pre-lockdown ministry and mission, a new report advises.
The report, “Adapt and be Flexible — the Mission Doesn’t Stop”: The Scottish Church and the COVID-19 pandemic, released on Monday, is based on an online survey of 369 congregational leaders of 27 denominations across Scotland. It was compiled by Action of Churches Together in Scotland, Brendan Research, and the Scottish Church Leaders’ Forum.
The survey was open from 26 October to 4 December 2020. Most responses (184: 50 per cent) were from the Church of Scotland, followed by the Scottish Episcopal Church (46: 12.5 per cent) and the Baptist Union (38: 10.3 per cent). Responses were also gathered from the Roman Catholic, Methodist, and United Reformed Churches, the Salvation Army, and the Quakers, among others.
Almost all the church leaders (96 per cent) reported that they had continued with some form of mission and ministry throughout the pandemic, while 92 per cent of the churches in the survey continued or offered online worship for the first time. As a result, online content has grown by 430 per cent, the report states.
Places of worship in Scotland reopened last week after the national instructions in January to close as part of Covid restrictions were ruled unlawful (News, 1 April). A group of 27 church leaders obtained a judicial review at the Court of Session, arguing that the Scottish government had acted beyond its emergency powers by banning in-person worship.
The survey states that just 16 per cent of church leaders disapproved of legal restrictions to curb the virus. Restrictions in Scotland led to a 43-per-cent decrease in the number of church community projects in 2020, it states, but more than half the respondents reported that their congregations were helping more people than they had before the pandemic.
One quarter (26 per cent) of the respondents said that their congregations had increased their mission activity, and 40 per cent said that the pandemic had strengthened their faith.
One minister in the Scottish Episcopal Church said that the pandemic had “opened people’s hearts to a new/renewed neighbourliness; enabled us to be less inward-looking and more ecumenical” and “helped us to think about the cost to the environment of travel and reassess whether face-to-face business meetings are always necessary”.
Not all found ministry rewarding during the pandemic, however. Another Episcopalian cleric said: “Frankly, I’ve found ministry deeply unrewarding during this time, mostly because I miss the interaction with people — especially children and young people. If I had to pick the least unrewarding aspect it would be interactive online worship via Zoom.”
Most church leaders (88 per cent) said that they had felt supported by their denomination during lockdown, but some were critical. One Episcopalian commented: “Very poor support from denomination — [it] feels like we have been left to get on with it. Makes me question the value of being part of a denomination.”
The report makes five recommendations: churches in Scotland should not “rush back” to pre-lockdown ministry and mission; cross-denominational partnerships in mission should be better understood and extended; further research should be done on the social capital generated by the churches; and adequate resourcing should be provided, and further reflection taken, on online worship, which, the report says, “is here to stay”.
The convener of the Scottish Church Leaders Forum, the Revd Mark Slaney, welcomed the findings and recommendations, which, he said, “ground what we already suspected. The necessary shift to online church life has drawn us into a much wider field for mission, ministry and worship, and we must learn to live a new blend and balance of engagement which could release us into new partnerships and places.”
A spokesperson for the Episcopal Church said: “The way our churches have adapted to the difficulties caused by the pandemic has been inspiring to witness, and while it would be preferable to be together physically, worship has been successfully maintained online in very difficult circumstances.
“As the report indicates, in many places audiences have outstripped normal physical attendance levels. It is particularly gratifying to see that online worship has made participation possible again for those who, for issues such as mobility and health, had become unable to attend church.
“However, we also acknowledge that for some churches, online provision has not been possible and we must not forget them, or those who do not have digital access to worship.”