Leading academics have begun a wide-ranging study into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on UK Christians.
Professor Francis Davis of the University of Birmingham is working with Professor Leslie Francis of the University of Warwick and Professor Andrew Village of York St John University to do a survey of UK Christian responses to the crisis and its potential impact.
Researchers found “surprising” numbers of people tuning in for worship services and other events. Many people who would not normally go into a church building are accessing online services.
“Moving faith online has created new opportunities for religious practice. In some cases, lay volunteers have assisted faith leaders in moving faith online. This is an opportunity to increase and enhance lay involvement in many aspects of ministry and should be encouraged,” Dr Ganiel said.
“Religious practice will continue to feature a mixture of online and in-person elements. Faith communities should invest in training and resources for faith leaders and laity to develop blended online and offline ministries.”
Before the pandemic, 44 per cent of faith communities did not provide online worship opportunities. Now just 13 per cent of faith communities still fail to provide these opportunities.
Seven in ten of faith leaders agreed agreed that they would retain aspects of their online ministries when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
More than seven in ten faith communities from the largest denominations – Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist – are also providing social services to the wider community.
Nearly nine in ten faith leaders said that faith is helping people cope with stress during the pandemic. They provided examples of people praying more and people who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith or religion tuning in to religious services or seeking prayer.
However, nearly half also their ministry had been more stressful than usual.
Dr Ganiel said: “It is hoped that the results of this survey can inform and improve the practices of faith communities as the people of this island continue to negotiate the effects of the pandemic and lockdown.
“It also affirms the important role that faith leaders and communities continue to play across society, documenting the scale and character of their services.”
During the pandemic, clergy and religious staff have been designated key workers by both the Irish and the UK Governments, signalling their important role in burying the dead, comforting the grieving, and providing focal points for communities.
The survey, People Still Need Us, was distributed to over 2,000 faith leaders via direct email throughout the island of Ireland, with 439 responses.