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Forces at work during Covid

17 February 2023

What are the lessons of the church surveys, ask Andrew Village and Leslie J. Francis


THE two online surveys that we ran during Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 collected more than 20,000 responses from clergy and churchgoers in the UK, Ireland, and North America. Now seems a good time to reflect on how we went about it, and the key things that we discovered.

So far, we have produced some 25 peer-reviewed articles, 13 online reports, and more than a dozen pieces in church newspapers (full details at yorksj.ac.uk/coronavirus-church-and-you). Here we select a few of the key trends that have emerged in the Church of England from our two surveys, and which have something important to say as we adapt to this post-pandemic world.

Our first aim was to look at how experience of the pandemic varied across different parts of the Church.

When we compared the views of men and women in the first lockdown, we found that, compared with women, men were less favourably disposed to the idea of virtual worship, placed greater value on church buildings, and viewed being locked out of churches more harshly. When we looked at actual experience of worship in the third lockdown, however, men and women seemed be closer in their views.

When we looked at different age groups, we confirmed the wider national trends that suggested that younger people struggled more than older people to maintain their well-being, especially in the first lockdown. Responses to online worship were more nuanced, and younger churchgoers were seemingly less enchanted by what was offered online and showed more attachment to being in church. This was especially so for those in Catholic traditions.

When we compared views of the clergy and lay people, the strains of ministering were evident in the lower well-being among stipendiary clergy in parishes. Lay ministers showed less negative affect, which points to the particular difficulties of trying to run parishes when everything was turned upside down. On average, clergy were more content than were lay people at being locked out of their churches, and generally less attached to buildings, but had similar attitudes towards virtual worship.

When we looked at different church traditions, there were stark differences in attitudes between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. As you might expect, those with more Catholic leanings were less keen on virtual worship and felt the loss of buildings more than Evangelicals did. This might explain why they showed greater declines in well-being, especially in the first lockdown. Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals also differed sharply in what they thought should be done about holy communion in lockdown: longstanding theological difference about lay presidency of the eucharist was heightened by the pandemic.

Across the Church of England, different groups reacted differently to the pandemic. While some of these differences were obvious, and might have been predicted, others were nuanced and harder to spot. The crucial lesson is not to assume too easily that we know how particular people or congregations are likely to react to these sorts of changes. It is important to gather the evidence first.

OUR second aim was to understand how psychological and spiritual well-being were affected in the pandemic, and whether having sources of support made a difference.

We were able to demonstrate that well-being deteriorated from the first to third lockdowns: far from adjusting to the pandemic, it seemed to grind us down as it wore on. On the other hand, we also found that having support made a difference. While lay people often reported plenty of support from family, it was support from other sources, such as neighbours, that, although less often received, was more effective in boosting well-being. Among the clergy, there was little evidence that support made a difference in the first lockdown, but there was evidence that the Church offered more effective support for some clergy by the time of the third lockdown.

While psychological well-being deteriorated in lockdown, that did not seem to be the case for spiritual well-being. There was some evidence that, as things became tougher, many experienced a greater closeness to God and reported something of a spiritual awakening. So much of the gospel is about the coming of the blessings of faith in and through suffering; so it was interesting to see this reflected in actual lived experience.

Our third aim was to look at how far psychological dispositions could predict the way in which individuals reacted to lockdowns. There was much to learn here. The easy prediction that introverts would thrive and extraverts would suffer was soon quashed. If anything, the opposite may have been true.

Pandemic “space” was a complicated and new environment. Those who generally liked new challenges, and welcomed change tended to be best equipped to adjust to virtual worship and lockdown life. Those who were generally prone to emotional volatility consistently reported the worst experiences of being in lockdown. We found that our preferred model of personality once again proved to be a useful predictor of how religious people respond to the challenges of faith.


SO, WHAT next? We believe that we have demonstrated the value for the Church of this sort of detailed academic research. It complements other church-based research on clergy and congregations, and enables us to understand the forces driving opinion and action across different parts of the Church.

Next year, it will be ten years since the last general Church Times survey. Many of the same issues as faced us then face us now, and there are new challenges that need to be tested with evidence, and understood with compassion and care. Watch this space. . .

A big thank you to everyone who took part. Our surveys (and we do a lot of surveys) are not of the two minute “vox-pop” variety: we ask detailed questions covering a wide range of topics. We do that for good reasons, but it does require commitment from our participants. That generous giving of time and thought allowed us to show how people in various denominations experienced an unprecedented trauma.  We also want to thank those who promoted the survey, especially the Church Times who also gave us space to report our findings in Comment section over the last two years. These were not the first surveys on which we worked with the Church Times, and we were able to build on previous experiences to good effect. (You can read about the 2001 and 2013 Church Times surveys in books mentioned at the end of this article).

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, at York St John University.

Results of the two Church Times surveys can be found in:

Leslie J. Francis, Mandy Robbins, & Jeff Astley (2005). Fragmented faith? Exposing the fault-lines in the Church of England. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press.

Andrew Village (2018). The Church of England in the first decade of the 21st century: The Church Times Surveys. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

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