Since July 2020, I have been part of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, York University research team looking at the impact of Covid-19 on churches. The other partner organisations were Historic England, the Association of English Cathedrals, the Church of England, the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance and the National Churches Trust.
One of the main catalysts for this research project was the decision to close places of worship during the 1st lockdown in March 2020. While acknowledging that these were early days in our understanding of Covid-19 and quick decisions had to be made, it came as a shock to many people that churches were going to close – the first time since the 13th century. And as time went on, there was also a feeling that this period of closure might mean that understanding the importance and significance of the buildings themselves could become diluted as activities including worship increasingly moved online.
Even so, until we started work, we had no idea of the impact that three months closure would have on so many people and for so many different reasons.
More than 5,500 people, made up of non-church members, congregations and church leaders, took part in surveys and interviews between August and December 2020 and in February and March 2021, providing testimony and data on the human cost of the pandemic when places of worship were closed and unable to play their usual role as crisis centres, community hubs and places of comfort in times of national need and anxiety. Many people spoke of how they missed having access to church buildings where they felt safe to mourn, find respite in beauty, and seek peace. For many, key was that these buildings represent continuity with previous generations, that the often historic architecture creates a feeling of stability and survival, but also that ‘the building speaks to you and you can feel a lot of good energy from prayers that has been going on for years’.
One of the very striking aspect of our findings is how strongly non-church members reacted to the closure of buildings. We had so many responses from across all social groups reporting on the impact of activities that couldn’t take place and the resulting increase in isolation and need at a time of major suffering. For instance, 75% of non-church members said they wanted access to churches as places of quiet reflection and comfort.
Dr Dee Dyas, the project lead says that: “if there was one clear message from non-church people it is summed up in this quote from the respondent who said: 'These places must remain open. They are essential to the community … especially for times such as this’."
We also found so much that was positive. Despite the restrictions of necessary COVID-19 regulations, the responses showed that churches still managed to have a presence through online engagement, hosting foodbanks and other practical help, including more recently working with the NHS as vaccination and testing centres.
Many existing partnerships were strengthened such as with local schools and new ones were formed during this time bringing places of worship together with other local charities, hubs and parish councils, local authorities to help those who have been affected by this dreadful virus.
What it has also shown is how vital places of worship are in their role of providing support emergency social care, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and other community benefits. The National Churches Trust’s House of Good Report showed how much churches were doing prior to March 2020, and this report shows how much continued during the last 15 months despite the epidemic.
Recognition of this has meant that many churches saw new people coming to volunteer and/or give donations of food and money because they saw ‘what you are doing’ and appreciated churches as a trusted channel for supporting communities.
The findings of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society’s 'Keeping the Faith' report, highlighted the positive experience of partnership working between local authorities and multiple faith groups, especially churches, during the pandemic. ‘The aspects particularly mentioned by local authorities were faith groups’ ability to add value to partnerships through their longstanding presence in local communities, their ability to access hard to reach groups, providing a pool of volunteer resources, and acting as a source of local leadership.’
Many of the church leaders, we heard from, have already identified areas of increased need and new needs within their community and are already making plans on how to meet them. Common keys areas are around mental health, debt and food poverty.
What we found, all shows the potential of local places of worship for people of all faiths and none to play a key role in the recovery of communities. As the report says, ‘they can act as symbols of their community’s long-term survival while serving as local hubs for social care, practical support and centres for a wide range of activities which deliver community cohesion and stronger communities’.
As one church leader, based in one of the most deprived parishes in the country, said ‘We know that the impact of what has happened is going to roll on for years, and it's going to affect our communities and the people we know, massively. We're going to be picking up a lot of the pieces for ages. And it might just feel like it’s been forgotten. But, it’s those organisations that are on the ground, like churches, that see people face-to-face all the time, and people will still come for support and will still need food and our parish church is committed to the community always.
The report strongly recommends that this summer is used as a time for consultation with grassroots practitioners and communication of the latest scientific guidance, so churches can stay open safely and maximise their contribution to recovery and wellbeing, even in the event of further waves of virus transmission.
You can read the whole report here https://churchesandcovid.org/report
House of Good: research looking into the social and economic benefits that churches provide to local communities and to the UK more generally, National Churches Trust, October 2020. https://www.houseofgood.nationalchurchestrust.org/
Faith and Society: Keeping the Faith Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities The All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, November 2020.
Becky Payne is a freelance consultant and Development Officer at the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance (Heritage Alliance).