LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A new survey shows the vast majority of Catholics in the UK supported the decision to close church buildings during the COVID-19 lockdown, but worshipers are eager to return to in-person Masses.
The Coronavirus, Church & You report was commissioned by Catholic Voices, and was part of a wider survey of Christian responses in the UK to the COVID-19 crisis.
The UK went into lockdown on March 23, closing all church buildings to the general public – Most of the country allowed churches to reopen for private prayer in mid-June, with public liturgies beginning in July. In other words, Catholics in Britain were deprived of the sacraments for the longest period since the Reformation.
“This sudden crisis for Churches was a mixed experience,” the report states.
“On the one hand, the lockdown severely restricted the sacramental life of parishes, impacted on pastoral care, and constrained social and charitable activities. On the other hand, for those with online access, worship took on new and innovative forms. Many clergy and lay leaders rose to the challenge of operating in the virtual environment. The crisis proved to be a tragedy but also an opportunity. For the Catholic community, where Mass is so central to worship and identity, online worship detached many people from a central pillar of their faith,” it continues.
The survey covered a number of other topics, including how the lockdown affected people’s attitudes and mental states.
Brenden Thompson, the CEO of Catholic Voices, said he was surprised by some of the generational differences, both in terms of experiences and attitudes, during the crisis.
“In terms of the impact of lockdown, younger Catholics described on average being more negatively affected by lockdown than did their older counterparts. This generational divide also extended to some beliefs and attitudes with younger Catholics more likely to be opposed to lockdown and feeling more strongly about the importance of church buildings than older people who were surveyed. More work would need to be done to interpret these findings fully,” Thompson told Crux.
Around 93 percent of those surveyed said they participated in online worship, although the authors of the report cautioned this number was probably artificially high due to the way the participants were selected – bishops and other clergy promoted the survey, meaning the vast majority of the 2,500 people polled were regular churchgoers.
Compared to the Anglican Church, Catholics were much more likely to worship online with a service not conducted at their local parish – 50 percent of Catholics stuck to home, compared to 82 percent of Anglicans.
The authors of the survey attributed this at least in part to the fact Catholics were attracted to liturgies services provided by the Vatican, different religious communities, and parishes around the world. However, Catholics were less likely than Anglicans to participate in services not affiliated with their denomination.
The survey also sought a better understanding on how people participated in online worship, asking if they were mere viewers or actively took part in the liturgy.
“We asked people whether they had been invited to do various things actively during online Mass, liturgies or other virtual devotions and if they had participated when they were asked (e.g. sign of peace, prayer). The most obvious activities were praying, reciting or responding to liturgy, or singing … Invitation rates seemed relatively low for things such as prayer or reciting or responding to the liturgy, though most who were invited to do so did join in. Actively inviting people to actively respond where appropriate might be something that parishes and local churches could enhance as they learn more about what it is like to be a recipient,” the report says.
The survey also looked at the practice of online participants consuming bread and/or wine during the liturgy, noting the practice – sometimes encouraged by Anglican clergy – was practically unheard of during Catholic ceremonies.
“As one might expect, Catholics were significantly less likely to adopt the practice of taking bread and wine at home as part of an online service than those in the Church of England. This was a controversial subject: This practice, which involves taking presumably unconsecrated bread and wine, would be an alien practice to most Catholics and not reflective of Catholic teaching and practice regarding the Eucharist. Interestingly this tendency was also reflected among Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England. Those with more Protestant or ‘evangelical’ leanings in the Church of England tended to be more in favour of this idea,” the report notes.
However, this high level of online participation doesn’t mean people have gotten too comfortable with watching Mass from their couch, although many said they would like it to continue as an option.
“What might happen after lockdown when churches re-open (fully)? Well over half (61 percent) said they would revert back to services in church, but 35 percent said they would use online worship sometimes if it was available. There seemed little danger of a mass exodus to the virtual world, with only 4 percent thinking they would worship mainly or entirely online,” the report says.
“It seems that virtual worship during the lockdown has been generally well received. While it may remain something that some people might dip into in the future, few would stop attending church altogether,” it says.
Thompson said he was surprised by how hopeful he felt reading the results.
“I, perhaps like many others, have had concerns that online worship might become for some become a convenient replacement,” he explained.
“At least according this this survey, whilst many Catholics have been grateful for the online provision, they are on the whole ready to get back to the real thing. Many priests I am speaking to, at least anecdotally, say that as many as 30-50 percent of their parishioners have returned since churches have reopened. The results of this survey make me cautiously optimistic that, in time, many more will also return,” Thompson told Crux.
However, he warned the memory of life in lockdown and the looming prospect of further waves of infection is creating a climate of fear and isolation.
“The Church must continue to find ways to respond to the crisis with creativity. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary evangelisation. In this regard, we can draw inspiration from the concrete examples of evangelistic innovation and practical charity that many clergy and laity have so admirably modelled throughout the crisis. We must share these stories of faith, hope and charity far and wide,” he said.
Thompson also expressed trepidation about the prospect of a more “virtual” social setting in the post-pandemic world.
“While communications technology, especially video calls, have been a lifeline for many during this crisis, they a poor substitute for a handshake of a hug,” he said.
“In a world where our relationship with technology is rapidly evolving and more of our lives are being mediated virtually, we must not forget the primacy of the personal. We must be challenged by the invitation of Pope Francis, to ‘think of a thousand ways to be close to people so that they don’t feel alone’.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome