ONLINE worship did not satisfy the majority of people, and should be used as a supplement, not a substitute, for on-site worship, concludes a Church Army report, Zoomed Out?, on Anglicans’ experience of distanced church amid Covid-19.
Experiences of holy communion in particular — where more than 80 per cent described their experience as having worsened — along with corporate prayer and corporate worship, were rated as “worse” or “much worse” by the majority of the 607 individual participants and the several focus groups who took part in the detailed research project.
“Worshippers from more sacramental traditions questioned the validity of a digitally mediated sacrament; others simply found it to be experientially inferior,” it concludes. “There may be good reasons for online Holy Communion, but we do not advocate its practice in the absence of these.”
For participants from less sacramental traditions, the pandemic “exacerbated pre-existing frustrations around the exclusively clerical celebration of Holy Communion, particularly when it was possible to meet others but not to take communion with them due to the lack of an ordained minister”.
Non-conferenced live-streamed services disappointed many. Churches referred to poor bandwidth and the inability of the congregation to engage online as reasons why they chose not to offer these. “Being able to see the faces of the participants during a live stream meant a higher likelihood of improvements to corporate prayer, corporate worship, and an ability to care for others in the congregation,” the research found.
“It also helped to maintain a sense of belonging and feeling loved and encouraged. We recommend that churches scrutinise digital platforms they use to ensure that they best serve those who make use of them.”
But there were also unforeseen benefits of video conference meetings. One participant, a woman from an Anglo-Catholic parish, said: “When we were on Zoom it was as if people were given the ‘OK’ to speak”.
One participant of online Bible study said: “It becomes a little bit more democratic in a way; you’ve actually got a voice: an informed dissenting voice and an informed encouraging voice. It’s less centred on the character of the vicar . . . which I find really rewarding and helpful.”
That the data collection method itself had to be online further exposed the technological disadvantage of the oldest and poorest during the pandemic, the report acknowledges. Its findings accord with national statistics in 2021 that 21 per cent of UK citizens over 64 did not use the internet at home.
The researchers report trying to set up a focus group of respondents from the most deprived 20 per cent of UK neighbourhoods. Multiple invitations to the 14 eligible participants yielded no sign-ups. They acknowledge: “The lack of qualitative data pertaining to the experiences of this group is an alarming gap in current knowledge that leaves open the possibility of the needs of the most deprived being neglected as a post-Covid church takes shape.”
The report recommends that, with the last of the legal restrictions removed, churches make offline interaction safely accessible for the most vulnerable. It warns that the return to church buildings is threatening to exclude the many worshippers still shielding from Covid-19.
One responded: “When lockdown started to be lifted — I’m vulnerable and shielding — I felt very marginalised. What challenged me most of all was a letter [that said] ‘Wasn’t it wonderful that we were all able to join together as a family last week?’ I found that very hurtful . . I’ve never felt so marginalised by my own church.”
Some worshippers confessed to taking a “pick and mix” approach, seeking services from other parishes or denominations when local provision had not met their requirements. It led the researchers to reflect on whether new digital options for worshippers could further exacerbate the existing fragmentation of the Church of England.
They pose the question: “How how can churches resist taking a consumerist approach to church in a context where it might be easier than ever to pick a favourite flavour of church? How should pastoral responsibility be managed if attendance at multiple churches becomes more common?”
There were very few respondents for whom all changes were positive, or for whom all experiences remained the same. A participant’s opinion of the advantages and disadvantages of distanced church was found very much to depend on their own “personal ecclesiology”, their own perception of what church ought to be.
Those at churches of Charismatic tradition were more likely to report an improved experience of “hearing from God”. Responses from Anglo-Catholics on “confessing to God the things I’ve done wrong” were evenly balanced as to whether the experience online was better or worse. Respondents at churches of an Evangelical tradition were more likely to report worsened experiences of “being able to experience something beautiful at church”.