Most Catholics supported the decision to close churches during lockdown, a new survey reveals today.
It comes as many churches have resumed Sunday and weekday services, with social distancing measures in place, and ceased live-streaming of Mass .
But the return to a new “normal” is now once again under threat with the announcement today of what is trending as “lockdown 2” on social media, after prime minister Boris Johnson announced a ban on social gatherings of six or more starting next Monday.
While church leaders are still awaiting publication of the full guidance later today, and the precise implications for churches remain unclear, funerals and weddings have already been mentioned as specific exceptions. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: “After contact with Government we hear that there is no change to guidance on places of worship. Worship is the work of God – not a social gathering – and gives the strength to love and serve.”
The survey of almost 2,500 Catholics published this morning provides an unparalleled snapshot of the UK during lockdown, and reveals that, when church buildings were closed, the Church itself was on the frontlines of community support, providing prayer, food and medicine deliveries to the most vulnerable.
The survey, conducted for Catholic Voices between 19 May and 26 July, found broad support among lay people and clergy for the Bishops’ Conference's actions during the pandemic, including its decision to close church buildings, a move that sparked controversy among some groups at the time.
While the survey, which had 2,500 responses, was mostly completed by people from England, two per cent of respondents were from Scotland, where the Bishops’ Conference resumed public liturgies more gradually, and one per cent were from elsewhere.
According to the research, undertaken by Professor Francis Davis of the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford, Professor Andrew Village of York St John, and Professor Leslie Francis of the University of Warwick, 61 per cent of respondents agreed that closing church buildings was the right thing to do.
Just 22 per cent felt the Church had gone too far in this regard, and only a quarter of respondents, 26 per cent, thought that churches should stay open “whatever the crisis”.
Approval for the national Church’s actions was higher than for the Government: 53 per cent felt that the Church as a whole had responded well to the crisis, but just 21 per cent said the Government had done the same. There was overwhelming support for the NHS, with 82 per cent of respondents agreeing that the health service had responded well to the crisis.
During the peak of lockdown, local churches also provided a large amount of community support, with most of the parishes surveyed providing some kind of practical support like prayer or deliveries in their local community. “Supporting the vulnerable seemed to have been the main tasks for parishes on some or most days,” the report said.
According to clergy respondents, almost three-quarters of churches delivered food on most or some days, and 58 per cent delivered medicines. Nearly all the clergy – 96 per cent – said they prayed for other people most or some days, and 95 per cent spent time supporting the elderly or lonely, the sick (91 per cent) and the bereaved (94 per cent)
Respondents approved of priests’ celebrating Communion in their parish “behind closed doors”, and a very large proportion, 85 per cent, said it was right for people to celebrate communion spiritually from home, such as by making an act of spiritual communion.
The research paints an uncertain future for communal liturgies in the UK, with just 61 per cent of respondents saying they intended to revert back to physical services. While four percent said they intended to worship online for the foreseeable future, questions about Catholic attitudes towards church buildings reveal a shift in understanding of what “church” means.
Less than half, 49 per cent, of people said they felt they needed a church building to fully express their faith, and only 34 per cent worried that people would lose faith without church buildings in which to gather for worship.
Nevertheless, a very large majority, eight in ten, felt that church buildings are central to Catholic witness in the community, and only three per cent thought that lockdown showed that churches “were an unnecessary burden”. A majority hoped that the lockdown would be a chance to re-think the Church’s future, and had helped it move into the digital age.
As other surveys have found, a huge proportion of Catholics used online liturgies, although the researchers point out that the survey was conducted online, which would weight respondents. The proportion of respondents who watched online liturgies was similar to the proportion of Anglicans who did the same, according to a comparable survey of the Church of England. Some 93 per cent of Catholics participated in online worship compared to 91 per cent of Anglicans.
But unlike Anglicans, Catholics tended to choose services outside their own parishes: 68 per cent watched services from a Catholic church other than their usual parish, compared to 46 per cent of Anglicans. Other popular liturgies included services from the Vatican, L’Arche and Taizé communities.
While support for the national Churches’ actions was high, priests said they received the majority of support from their congregations and not from the hierarchy. While almost all of the clergy who responded said they had expected support from the Church nationally, just 12 per cent said they were “well supported” in this way: 52 of the 54 clergy respondents said they expected support from their bishop, but just 29 per cent said they were well supported by him. By contrast, 62 per cent of respondents said they were well supported by their congregations during the lockdown.
Reflecting on the survey’s findings Brenden Thompson, CEO Catholic Voices, said: “I am pleasantly surprised by many of the findings of this survey. Catholics miss their parishes and church buildings and seem eager to return, not just content with ‘virtual Church’. Many it seems, by and large, have backed the Bishops, been grateful for the efforts of clergy to livestream, and many have even felt at times closer to God and been more prayerful than usual. That said, the challenges ahead are real, so if we want to capitalise on this goodwill, we need to start thinking seriously about the conversations that need to happen as more and more begin returning to parishes.”