Church of England Experiences of Distanced Church Amidst COVID-19
Read tHE ZOOMED OUT? REPORT ONLINE HERE
This report presents the findings of a mixed-methods research project investigating the ways in which engagement within the Church of England was modified by COVID-19. The primary sources were a survey of 607 people and focus groups/interviews with a total of 16 participants.
Online Can’t Do Everything
Online church did not function as a wholesale substitute for onsite church to the satisfaction of the majority. Experiences of Holy communion, corporate prayer and corporate worship were rated as ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ by the majority, and most respondents reported more negative changes to experience than positive. We therefore recommend that online practises are used to supplement, rather than substitute, other forms of church life.
Online communion was rarely experienced as communion
The overwhelming majority described their experience of holy communion as having worsened, with over half of respondents describing it as ‘much worse’ than it had been prior to the pandemic. Worshippers from more sacramental traditions questioned the validity of a digitally mediated sacrament, whilst others simply found it to be experientially inferior. There may be good reasons for online holy communion, but we do not advocate its practise in the absence of these.
FACE-TO-FACE CONTACT WAS A LIFELINE FOR MANY
Respondents who engaged in onsite, face-to-face interaction with others were more likely to have had improved experiences of feeling loved, being encouraged, and praying corporately. Focus group participants described such interactions as a ‘lifeline’. Now that the British government have removed the last of the legal restrictions, we recommend that churches make offline interaction safely accessible for the most vulnerable. In this sense, we affirm and echo the apostle Paul’s eagerness, having been ‘away… for a short time’, to see his brothers and sisters ‘face to face’ (1 Thessalonians 2:17 NIV).
EVEN ONLINE, IT’S IMPORTANT TO BE FACE-TO-FACE
Not all livestreams are created equal. Being able to see the faces of other participants during a livestream meant a higher likelihood of improvements to corporate prayer, corporate worship, and an ability to care for others in the congregation. It also helped to maintain a sense of belonging and feeling loved and encouraged. We recommend that churches scrutinise the digital platforms they use to ensure that they best serve those who make use of them.
‘PICK ’N’ MIX’ CHURCH?
Anglican experiences of distanced church were incredibly varied – just as varied, in fact, as Anglicans themselves. Where local provision did not meet the requirements of local worshippers, some confessed to seeking services from other parishes or even other denominations. Could new digital options for worshippers exacerbate the existing fragmentation the Church of England?
MARGINALISATION IN THE RETURN TO THE BUILDING
The return to the church building threatens to exclude the many worshippers who are still shielding from COVID-19. It also threatens to remarginalise those whose experience of distanced church preceded the pandemic. This latter group have had a more positive experience of distanced church during the pandemic than most. Having been formerly marginalised, will they be marginalised once more?
THE EXCLUSION OF THE OLDEST AND POOREST
The poorest and the oldest are often the least well-equipped to engage online. They have been excluded from digital church provisions, and unable to participate in this and other similar research. Locally and nationally, great care must be taken to listen to their voices and provide for their needs.