an in-depth have a look at the preliminary outcomes
What was the survey?
THE UK Government imposed a lockdown in response to the Covid-19 virus outbreak on 23 March. The following day, the Church of England closed all its churches completely, including for private prayer. This was applied to clergy as well as to lay people. This restriction has been widespread across many other Christian denominations.
During the lockdown, clergy and lay ministers had quickly to find new ways of fulfilling their duties to care for their congregations and the wider community. This involved learning how to do things in the virtual, online world, as well working out what things were essential and what things could be done safely without risk of spreading the virus.
This sudden crisis was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the lockdown severely restricted ministry in areas such as pastoral care, fellowship groups, and serving the community. On the other hand, for those with online access, worship took on new and creative forms. Many clergy and ministry teams rose to the challenge of operating in the virtual environment. The crisis proved to be a tragedy, but also an opportunity.
It seemed important to find out quickly how this was affecting churches and churchgoers. One way to do this was to ask clergy and those in senior positions to report their perspectives of what was happening. The Church of England, for example, asked archdeacons for their opinions, and this gave a rapid overview. Such surveys tended to rely heavily on the standpoints of clergy, and did not necessarily collect information in a way that would develop a deeper understanding of what was going on.
The aim of this survey was to try to reach a large sample of churchgoers, clergy, and lay people, and ask them not just what they did, but also what they felt about the experience, and what they thought the future might hold.
How well did people cope with the pandemic? Did it strengthen or weaken their faith? How was it for clergy and ministry teams trying to work in this new environment? How have those receiving ministry found this novel experience? Will virtual ministry become part of the post-pandemic landscape, and will this be a good move for churches?
In April, we consulted with bishops, clergy, and lay people, and put together an online survey which we entitled Coronavirus, Church & You. We used previous experience of surveys in the Church Times to launch it through that newspaper, which happened on 8 May.
We also asked bishops and clergy to promote it directly, and other denominations also joined in. Although the focus was mainly the Church of England, we tried to make it useful for these other denominations as well. After the launch, we were asked to create versions specifically aimed at Roman Catholics in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
This is the initial report on the data collected up until the 13 June through the main survey. This covers the period from the height of the lockdown until restrictions began to ease in the second week of June. Churches opened for private prayer on June 15, marking the start of the reversal of the closure after 11 weeks of lockdown. The survey remained open after that, and we will report on the final data after it closes.
Who has taken the survey so far?
About 6000 people have taken part in the main survey so far. As this was promoted mainly through the Church Times, it is not surprising that most respondents are from the Church of England (79 per cent). There are, however, over 300 responses from Wales, and over 100 from Scotland. The survey was mainly geared for Anglicans, but other denominations have begun taking part, notably Methodists (over 100 replies) and Baptists (over 200 replies), and we expect this number to grow.
For this initial analysis we will look at replies received so far from the Church of England: we will delay reporting from other denominations until we have the largest samples possible.
Of the 4701 replies from members of the Church of England, 60 per cent identified as female and 40 per cent as male, with a handful selecting “other” or “prefer not to say”. As you would expect, the proportion of women was higher among lay people (65 per cent of 3,277) than among clergy (46 per cent of 1,332), and these figures match what we know from other studies, suggesting that the sample in this respect may reflect the Church in general.
When it comes to age, we might expect an under-representation of older groups, who may be less likely to spend time online. For lay people, 23 per cent were under 50, 47 per cent were 50-69, and 31 per cent were 70 or older. Clergy had a slightly younger profile, with equivalent figures of 28 per cent, 56 per cent, and 16 per cent.
There was an even split between city, town, and country, with 34 per cent selecting “Rural”, 31 per cent “Town”, 24 per cent “Suburban”, and 10 per cent “Inner city”. The survey asked people to indicate how many other people were in their household during the lockdown, and from this it seemed that about 16 per cent were living alone, 5 per cent with children under 6, 8 per cent with children aged 6-12, 10 per cent with teenagers, 62 per cent with other adults under 70, and 24 per cent with adults 70 or older.
Working patterns are complex, and can be difficult to capture because many people combine several roles. The survey asked about work before lockdown, and allowed respondents to tick more than one category. For lay people, 39 per cent were in full or part-time work, 6 per cent homemaker / carer, 1 per cent unemployed, 5 per cent student, and 47 per cent retired. For clergy, 75 per cent were in full or part-time work, and 21 per cent were retired.
Ministry in the Church of England is also more complex than it used to be, with many more varied roles for lay people especially.
Of those who were ordained (1336, 29 per cent of the sample), over half (55 per cent) were stipendiary parochial clergy, 15 per cent in self-supporting ministry, 17 per cent retired but still active in ministry, and only 3 per cent retired and no longer active in ministry.
For lay people (3277, 71 per cent of the sample), 14 per cent had some sort of licensed lay ministry, mostly readers. In the “other” category, there were replies from people who served in many ways, such as churchwardens, communion assistants, musicians, and bell-ringers.
There are well-known differences between the Anglo-catholic and Evangelical wings of the Church of England, and the survey included a widely used scale that identified respondents as "Anglo-catholic”, “Broad Church”, or “Evangelical”. These labels are hard to define precisely (especially Broad Church, which refers to what many call “traditional” or “middle of the road” Anglicans), but extensive research shows that they remain important for understanding how people express their faith.
We wanted to know if these groups experienced the pandemic in different ways. In the sample, 31 per cent identified at the Anglo-Catholic end of the scale, 18 per cent at the Evangelical end, and 51 per cent in the middle. The relatively high number of Anglo-catholics and low numbers of Evangelicals probably reflects the readership of the Church Times.
Overall, this is a sample of the Church of England that included people from a wide range of backgrounds. It is not entirely representative of everyone who attends, not least because the survey was designed only for adults.
In analyzing and interpreting the data, it is important to bear this in mind and not assume that simple percentages can be multiplied up to apply across the Church. What the figures can most usefully do is to show how different parts of this complex and varied group of Christians has responded to the pandemic.
Experience of the pandemic
How people experienced the pandemic may depend on whether they, or people they knew, caught Covid-19, and whether they had to self-isolate in a more extreme way than most. In this sample, 3 per cent (157) definitely had the virus, though a further 19 per cent (867) were not sure if they had caught it or not because the symptoms can be mild or non-existent.
The proportion that reported that they definitely had the virus has not changed significantly over the six weeks that the survey has been running. A much higher percentage (34 per cent) reported that they self-isolated, over and above the normal social distancing and restricted movements imposed on the general population. Just under half (47 per cent) knew someone who had suffered from the virus. In most cases, these people were either general acquaintances (49 per cent) and / or people from church (41 per cent), but for some these were close friends (16 per cent), immediate (6 per cent) or wider (13 per cent) family.
Infection rates varied between the age groups, being more frequent among the under-50s (6 per cent) than those aged 50-69 (4 per cent), or 70+ (1 per cent). This may reflect the likelihood that young people were working, or in a family where someone was working, and older people found it easier to self-isolate.
Effects of the pandemic on well-being
The survey assessed the effects of the lockdown down using a simple scale (negative change (-), no change (0), or positive change (+)) applied to a wide range of aspects of well-being. Responses to each item are shown in Table 1.
It is clear that the effects varied considerably between items. Those that had a more positive response included being more creative, more neighboring, more prayerful, and feeling closer to God. Those that had a more negative response included feeling more exhausted, anxious, fatigued, and frustrated, as well as feeling further from family, church, and others.
Closer inspection shows that some items had similar response patterns, and these could be grouped into scales measuring different dimensions of well-being. These were identified as:
- stress (stress, exhaustion, fatigue, and anxiety),
- Negative affect (lack of excitement, unhappiness, boredom, and frustration),
- Affect positively (thankfulness, hopefulness, neighborhood, and trust)
- Relating to others (closeness to family, church, or others),
- Relating to God (closeness to God, prayerfulness).
These scales were then used to examine differences between various groups of people. Statistical analysis was used to identify which differences were unlikely to be simply due to chance, and the summarized results are shown in Table 2.
Experiences of receiving and giving ministry
The experience of people giving ministry is different from the experience of people receiving it. We decided to separate these two groups in the survey and ask them questions that were most relevant to them.
Rather than make the split between clergy and others, we decided to ask the question “Have you been acting in a ministry capacity (ordained or lay) during the lockdown?” and use that instead. We did not want to be too specific about what a “ministry capacity” might be because we might otherwise have missed important work that would not normally come under the category of “Christian ministry”.
It also allowed lay ministers, who may have been busy during the lockdown, to share their experiences. The downside was that that some people who offered ministry in a limited way (such as reading the Bible or doing intercessions for an online service) may have gone down the “giving ministry route” and then struggled to relate to questions about wider service provision. Some people may have both offered and received ministry, but we did not want them to have to complete both sections in what was already a rather long questionnaire. In general, the procedure seemed to work satisfactorily, though we recognize it was not perfect.
As you might expect, the profiles of those who gave and received ministry were rather different (Table 3). In both groups there was a preponderance of women, but this was higher among those receiving ministry, and the two-thirds / one-third ratio of women to men is typical of many Sunday congregations in the Church of England.
The tipping of the sex ratio towards women among those who were giving ministry reflects the fact that by no means everyone in this category was ordained (where the sex ratio was tipped towards men). The high proportion of lay people among those who offered ministry in the lockdown (41 per cent) suggests their skills and service were not entirely overlooked during this time.
Accessing online worship
Of the 2462 people who received rather than gave ministry in the lockdown, 91 per cent accessed services online. This high figure undoubtedly reflects the fact that this was an online survey: accessing the experiences of those who were free from the entanglements of the virtual world will require different sorts of survey work.
This high figure was more or less constant over the six weeks of the survey, which is surprising because you would think, as time went on, more people would have accessed at least some services online. It may be that those who wanted to, did so early on rather than wait.
Those who did access online worship used a variety of sources (Table 4). By far the most frequently used was worship from a person’s own church. Nearly everyone seemed to be able to see or hear their ministers and / or some fellow congregants worshipping, albeit perhaps in unfamiliar ways.
Nearly half the sample had used services from another Church of England parish, and almost a third had accessed broadcasts from places like the BBC. Around a fifth used diocesan services at some point, and slightly fewer used services provided by the Archbishop (s). Although only 6 per cent ticked “Other’, they indicated in the text box a wide range of sources in the UK and beyond.
People often mentioned that they had accessed several different places, sometimes to try worship that was different from their own tradition. This comment was typical: “I have accessed a range of C of E services using it as an opportunity to experience different styles especially when my usual church was slow to start.”
Participation in online worship
Participation is obviously an issue for online worship. We asked people whether they had been invited to do various things and if they had participated when they were. The most obvious activities were praying, reciting liturgy, or singing (Table 5).
Invitation rates seemed relatively low for things such as prayer or reciting the liturgy, though most who were invited to do so did join in. It might be a something that churches could improve as they learn more about what it is like to be on the receiving end of services launched into the internet.
A small proportion (18 per cent) were invited to participate in Holy Communion, presumably taking bread and wine at home as the priest did online. This was a controversial subject: we asked people specifically about their views on this matter using four statements with which they could disagree or agree. There were some striking differences between traditions in who agreed with what (Table 6)
About half the Anglo-Catholics agreed it was right for clergy to celebrate communion as home without broadcasting, but only a quarter of Evangelicals agreed. There was more agreement that broadcasting a Holy Communion from home was right, but Evangelicals were still less happy to agree to this than were Anglo-Catholics.
When it came to clergy concelebrating in their homes, there was surprisingly less enthusiasm from Anglo-Catholics and slightly more from Evangelicals. When it came to encouraging people at home to take bread and wine during a communion service, over half the Evangelicals had no problem with this, but less than a quarter of Anglo-Catholics agreed.
We can see here some important differences emerging around Eucharistic theology that seem to have practical implications of what people felt could or could not be done during a lockdown.
There was also a consistent trend within traditions (but especially for Evangelicals) for lay people to be more enthusiastic about these communion practices than were clergy. The only exception was that Anglo-catholic clergy were more supportive of taking communion alone without broadcasting than were their lay counterparts.
Not many people indicated other forms of participation, but when they did specify, the range was remarkable.
Many included activities when working with children, or activities associated with trying to make welcome and fellowship more participative. Online “coffee and chat” sometimes replaced the after-service “coffee in the church hall” – though the range of beverages was presumably wider and possibly more alcoholic. Many people also participated by ministering during part of the service as they normally would on a Sunday by reading lessons, offering intercessions, helping with music, and so forth.
Quality of worship and future practice
People generally appreciated the quality of the services: 56 per cent felt they made full use of the medium, 35 per cent felt they made some use, and only 10 per cent felt they made little use. Similarly, 46 per cent felt services were professionally presented, and only 10 per cent that they were amateurish. Despite this, relatively few thought that online was better than normal (12 per cent), 58 per cent felt there was not much difference, while 30 per cent felt worship was worse.
What might happen after lockdown when churches reopen (fully)? Over half (56 per cent) said they would revert back to services in church, but 42 per cent 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 2 per cent thinking they would worship mainly or entirely online.
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. As lessons are learned about how to manage specific activities it may be that we can become better at encouraging participation and finding new ways of doing that.
Contact with ministers and receiving support
Of 2437 who answered the question, 82 per cent said they had had contact with clergy or lay ministers. For these people this contact included “just checking” (65 per cent received this sort of contact), pastoral support (36 per cent), practical help (18 per cent), prayer (21 per cent), and church administration (44 per cent).
The means of contact varied slightly depending on the reason: email seemed to predominate, especially for administration, as you might expect. Phone calls were also used to check that people were doing OK and to offer pastoral support, though not as often as email. Presumably, email is more efficient if it can be used to send out general messages of support, though phone calls may be more effective for particular cases.
How did the support received from the church during the lockdown compare with that received from other sources? It was difficult to separate those who received no support, because that source was not relevant to them, from those who looked for support but did not get it. Instead, we have concentrated on looking at the relative use of different sources and what proportion of those that used the support felt they were supported well (Table 7).
Friends emerged as the most drawn-on source of support – presumably because those who lived alone had no immediate household support, and many people may network more closely with their friends than with distant family members. It may also be that more distant family (such as elderly parents, children, or grandchildren) were contacted frequently, but were not necessarily people who gave support.
Where household support was available, it was the most effective source, with 86 per cent feeling well supported. Local clergy were a source of support for about two thirds of the sample and, of these, about half felt they were supported well. This compares well with most other sources except family and friends. Fellow congregants were an even more important source of support (76 per cent), and a similar percentage of those who received support felt well supported (49 per cent). Fewer people needed medical support, and 44 per cent those that did felt well supported.
Providing online worship
Those who gave ministry included both clergy and lay people, and some may not have known fully what was happening in their church. A few may have been reporting on the same church. This needs to be borne in mind when looking at the frequency with which services were reported as being offered during the lockdown. Despite these caveats, the data suggested there was a lot of activity resulting in a wide variety of services.
The menu and frequency varied between traditions, as you might expect, with Anglo-catholics tending to offer more communion services and daily worship (Table 8).
There was an interesting difference between Anglo-Catholics and others with Sunday communion, where churches from that tradition were much more likely to offer a service where the celebrant received only the elements. Services where people were invited to join in at home with their own bread and wine were much less frequent (not least because this had been expressly forbidden by the Church hierarchy), but Evangelicals seemed the most likely to offer this on some, but not all , Sundays.
During Holy Week, the Anglo-catholic churches tended to offer more services overall, though for Good Friday and Easter Day there was little difference between traditions (Table 9). Overall, 72 per cent reported Good Friday services were produced, and 81 per cent reported that there was an online service on Easter Day. These figures were from those who offered ministry anyway, but they do suggest that by Easter, the third Sunday of the lockdown, four-fifths of churches were able to provide some online access to worship.
Giving care and support
Parish ministry is much more than offering worship, and we wanted to find out how far those who offered ministry were involved in other kinds of work. The pandemic created the need for more practical help (such as delivering food or medicines to those who were sheltering), but also created difficulties in offering pastoral care. The impossibility of visiting patients with the virus in ICU wards, or the severe limitations on funerals, were widely publicized.
We asked about various forms of ministry and, in each case, participants were asked to say what their church had been doing, or tried to do during the lockdown. A consistent difference was between ordained and non-ordained people offering ministry: not surprisingly, the latter may not have known so fully what was going on, so they were more likely report that a ministry had not been tried.
To get a clearer picture, it was better to focus on the people who were most likely to know what churches were doing: parish clergy. There were 705 scholarship parochial clergy who answered this part of the survey, and their churches seem to have been busy with many different tasks (Table 10).
Most churches had tried to do most of the things listed in Table 10, and it was unusual for them not to be able to if they had tried. Delivering food and medicine were practical tasks that were probably done by parishioners. Support for the vulnerable seemed to have been the main tasks for churches on some or most days.
A second question asked more specifically about how well individuals had felt they could carry out various ministries. They were asked to tick only those things that they had tried to do, and to indicate if they have found it impossible, felt it had been done mostly poorly, or felt it had been done mostly well.
Table 11 again shows the results for stipendiary parochial clergy, and is sorted according to tasks that rated most often as either impossible or done most poorly. Things near the top of the list were those that involved networking in the wider community, such as working ecumenically or being a spokesperson, or which were requested but not possible, such as weddings. Funerals were low on this list, so despite the restrictions imposed by crematoria on numbers, clergy generally seemed to have managed well.
Ministers receiving support
A final question for ministers was about the support they received during lockdown. They were asked to indicate if they had no support, some support, or were well supported by a range of people listed in Table 12. They were asked to tick only rows that applied to them, so these were people or places that might have been expected to offer some sort of support for clergy during the lockdown. Again, we focus here on parish clergy, and the table is ordered by those sources that seemed to offer the most support.
Where clergy had others in the household, this was by far the best form of support. Their ministry team (if they had one) and their congregation were the next best sources of support, and funeral directors ranked alongside these in terms of the quality of support when they were needed. Support from the diocese and bishop was next, with over a third of clergy feeling well supported.
The figure was lower for the national Church, and here a quarter felt no support from this source. There was some support from the public and IT experts (perhaps needed more than usual for coping with online service production), but sadly around 20 per cent felt they had no support from either of these sources.
Overall, the picture that emerges from those who gave ministry is that churches were offering a wide range of support during the lockdown, and that most had found ways of maintaining ministry despite the restrictions.
The most difficult tasks were either related to specific restrictions (for example on weddings or baptism), or perhaps things that tend not to be done very often anyway (such as being a spokesperson, working ecumenically, outreach, and mission).
Familiar parts of routine ministry, such as supporting family or congregation, offering worship, and prayer support seemed to happen on most days in many places, and were the things that clergy felt they did best. About half the parish clergy felt well supported by their ministry teams and congregations, but less well supported by more distant parts of the church or by the public.
Attitudes to lockdown
As the lockdown came into force, it was clear that a number of related but slightly different issues would confront the Church during and after the pandemic. The sudden switch from long-established patterns of ministry to a new world of “virtual church” was accompanied by the closure of churches for worship and even for use by the clergy.
Ministers for whom daily work involved face-to-face contact, pastoral work in homes, schools, prisons, or hospitals, worship in buildings, and social gatherings around shared food and drink found themselves having to find new ways to express their vocations.
Lay people were shut out of their churches, and found that going to church on Sunday meant a trip between rooms rather than a morning walk or car journey. People who met only at church lost contact, and questions were raised about the role of buildings in helping Christians to express their faith.
The survey tried to tap into these questions by measuring attitudes to a range of different issues that were surfacing in April. Chief among these were the decisions to close churches, the role of buildings in the life of faith, and the possibility of virtual church becoming more important in the future.
A well-known method of assessing attitudes used by scientist is to produce statements that respondents can agree or disagree with. By offering statements that take a positive or negative stance on slightly different aspects of an issue it is possible to build up a more accurate picture than would be obtained by asking a single question. Those who received and gave ministry were mostly given the same items, though a few were tailored to reflect their differing contexts.
Analysis of response patterns suggested there were three core attitudes being measured:
Attitude toward lockdown of church buildings
Four items were specifically about the decision to close churches to everyone. In the Church of England, it was decided early on that not even clergy should be allowed into their churches. Responses suggested mixed views, but a majority felt closing churches to everyone was the right decision (Table 13).
While the majority opinion was generally with the decisions that had been made, this was by no means universal, and there was clear a minority view that churches should either not have been closed at all, or that clergy at least should have been allowed in.
Attitude toward church buildings generally
The specific act of closing church buildings during the pandemic raises the issue of how central they are for the Christian faith. Like many mainstream denominations, the Church of England has long struggled to maintain its buildings as viable centers of worship. This is not simply about maintenance and running costs, but also because so many are ancient places that do not lend themselves easily to the comforts of modern life. Many incumbents and PCCs know only too well the struggles that can be faced in trying to upgrade heating, seating, and eating facilities.
It would not be surprising if closing these places permanently would come as a welcome relief to some. Yet for others these are sacred spaces that convey profoundly the presence of God. We tried to capture some of this diversity of views within the survey (Table 14).
Large majorities rejected the idea that buildings are an unnecessary burden and agreed that they are an important witness. Opinion was more divided on how central the building is for faith expression or Christian identity, and whether the lockdown had actually helped the church to focus on more important matters. The idea that people might lose faith without churches to go to was not well supported, but a quarter of this sample through that might be so.
Attitude toward virtual church
The flurry of creative work on finding ways of harnessing the internet in the service of the mission and ministry of the Church brought to the forefront a growing phenomenon.
The issue of “virtual church” has been discussed for some time, and before the pandemic there were already churches that existed only as networks of people who worshipped and socialized entirely online. As many others were introduced to this way of being church, it was interesting to see what they made of it. Would they simply return to business as usual when all this is over, or might this be exactly what the Church needs to propel it firmly into the 21st century?
Table 15 shows responses to eight items related to this issue.
While over three-quarters of the sample recognised that the lockdown had helped move the Church into the digital age, only a fifth thought online worship was the way ahead for the next generation. This was seen by many as an opportunity to think about the future, but fewer imagined it would necessarily be a better way of being church.
As with the effects of the lockdown mentioned earlier, responses to these sets of items could be used to produce scales that were a useful measure of someone’s overall attitude in these three areas:
- Lockdown: level of support for the actions taken to close churches during the pandemic
- Buildings: the extent to which buildings are believed to be central for faith and the life of the Church
- Virtual Church: the extent to which online worship and virtual ways of operating are seen as the way ahead for the Church
As you might expect, those who felt buildings are more essential to faith were also more likely to oppose the lockdown of churches, but this was not invariably so. Similarly, such people also tended to be more negative about virtual church, but again this was not the case for everyone.
Using these scales, it was possible to see how attitudes varied between different groups of people in the sample. For these issues it seemed sensible to examine differences between some other groups to those used in Table 2, where the issue was about the effect of the lockdown on things like mood and stress.
Attitudes here are less likely to be affected by whether or not someone lives alone or had to self-isolate during the pandemic. Instead, we might expect things such as where someone lives (in a rural village or an inner city), whether they generally like modern or traditional worship, the generation to which they belong, and their church tradition to be more salient. A summary of the analyses is shown in Table 16.
Some of the trends in Table 16 are very much what you might expect, knowing the sorts of beliefs and practices of different parts of the Church of England.
For example, Evangelicalism emerged from the Protestant side of the Church of England, and Protestant roots go back to those who deliberately simplified church buildings to make them plain and functional, rather than filled with sacred images. Go into an Evangelical Anglican church today and centre stage might well be a stylish Perspex lectern and the paraphernalia of the worship band rather than a high altar.
We would expect Evangelicals to see church buildings as less essential than do Anglo-Catholics, to be less worried about their closure, and to be the most enthusiastic about virtual church, and this is what the data showed. Evangelicals tend to do more modern worship, so we expect parallel trends when it comes to modern versus tradition preference for worship, and this is indeed what the data show.
This was not, however, simply because the two are measuring the same thing: statistical analysis showed that these are partly independent effects, so someone in a non-Evangelical church who liked modern worship would have similar views on these matters to many Evangelicals.
Not all of the trends were so easy to interpret, and some may challenge our easy stereotypes. Take the issue of age, for example. You might expect that it would be older people who were most hefted to their buildings, and younger people who would be more willing to see them go and be replaced by virtual meeting places. Not so it seems: there was no overall effect of age on who how important people felt buildings were.
But the situation was not that simple, because if you look at people from different church traditions, a surprising pattern emerges, illustrated in Figure 1.
You can see the greater enthusiasm for buildings among Anglo-Catholics of all ages, but there is a difference in the effect of age.
Evangelicals of all ages seem to be equally less enthusiastic about buildings, whereas those in broad churches tend to show slightly more enthusiasm in older generations, though the difference in marginal.
Among Anglo-Catholics the trend goes the other way: it is the young people, especially the under-50s for whom buildings are most important. In fact, in all traditions it is those in their 20s (which included just a few 18- and 19-year-olds) for whom buildings seem to be most important.
Similarly, the trend with location might not have been guessed beforehand. We might imagine that it is people in rural areas for whom their church building is most important and who would have been the ones most likely to oppose closing them down. Yet their opinions were little different from people in towns or suburbs.
It was people in inner cities for whom buildings were most important. Is this because this is where Anglo-catholic churches are most often found? Not entirely because, again, statistical analysis suggests this was over and above any tradition effect. To a lesser extent it was also present in the other two traditions (Figure 2).
Similar complexities emerged in attitudes toward virtual church: it was not simply that younger people were the most enthusiastic, but rather those in middle-age.
Younger people tend to have grown up and live in a virtual world, but perhaps the sorts of young adults who respond to surveys like this, who are keen and active participants in church life, actually want something that is different from the everyday world of their peers. We have long had warnings about the dangers and tyranny of trying to be too “relevant”.
There is much more than can be explored in the data on attitudes, but what we have done so far suggests that there are some important lessons to be learnt as we reflect on the lockdown itself and the future that it has opened up:
- People in different traditions within the Church of England have responded in different ways to the closing of churches. This is partly related to fundamental differences in views about the place of church buildings within the Christian faith. While the two main wings of the Church, Anglo-catholic and Evangelical, do not necessarily form the bulk of the membership, the issues that concern them are important across the Church and have ramifications for all worshippers.
- We need to be careful not to make easy assumptions about who values buildings or who is cagey about virtual church: it is not necessarily those in the countryside or older people. The situation is complicated, and responses need to be carefully tailored to local contexts. In particular we need to recognise that the most active and committed young people within the Church might hold views that surprise us and are more traditional than we might imagine.
- More detailed examination of the final dataset from the survey may help to show other factors that must be considered, such as personality differences between people and variations between regions in England.
Our aim is to close the survey once as many people as possible have had a chance to complete it, and when the lockdown restrictions have been relaxed as far as seems likely for the foreseeable future.
We will repeat these analyses for the Church of England, but also try and look at other denominations that took part in the survey. We will perform a more in-depth analysis to try and understand how responses and behaviours varied across the sample, which may help us to better understand the forces that shaped the lockdown experience.
One aspect of the survey that we have not yet analysed are the extended accounts that came when we asked people to report on the lockdown in their own words. Despite some technical glitches with the text box (which some users found did not like the spacebar!), hundreds of people did tell us about their particular experiences.
Interpreting and understanding these rich narratives will take time, but they will add greatly to our sense of how this extraordinary event impacted the lives of ordinary churchgoers.
We think that there will undoubtedly be a need for more surveys to keep track of how churches and churchgoers are adjusting to what could be a long-term change. This survey and others should enable researchers to ask the most relevant and focused questions that home in on the things that really matter.
We think the Coronavirus, Church & You survey has been an important step in the right direction.
Leslie J. Francis