The Churches and the Lockdown Legacy

I am part of a conversation on ‘The Churches and the Lockdown Legacy’ on today’s Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster), also featuring Passionist priest and commentator Fr Brian D’Arcy and Rev Norman Hamilton, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Tune in at 9 a.m., or listen back here.

The discussion is wide-ranging and includes reflection on the possibility of the permanent closure of some churches when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, how churches have moved on-line during the pandemic, and what the practice of Christianity might look like as the pandemic recedes.

During the Radio Ulster conversation, I briefly mention some ongoing research on religion and the pandemic. The compressed nature of a radio conversation means that I didn’t delve deeply into the emerging results and insights. I’ll do that now.

Survey of Clergy, Ministers and Faith Leaders on the island of Ireland

I am currently running an online survey of clergy/ministers/faith leaders on the island of Ireland, which explores questions about faith online, grieving and coping, faith and the wider community, and stress and ministry during the pandemic.

The survey has been distributed to the largest Christian denominations through collaboration with the Irish Council of Churches/Irish Inter-Church Meeting; and sent directly to ministers of some other smaller denominations (i.e. those not affiliated with ecumenical bodies) using publicly available email addresses. This survey closes on 22 May and I will immediately begin analysing the results. (If any serving clergy reading this have not received an email and would like to complete the survey, please contact me on [email protected]).

Religious Practice during the Pandemic

Two recent surveys have given us some idea of how faith is being practised in Ireland and the UK during the pandemic. Both surveys are weighted to be nationally representative.

In Ireland, the Iona Institute commissioned questions on the Amarach omnibus survey, which was conducted during the first two weeks of April. It found that 27% of people have watched or listened to a religious service online, on television or on the radio during the lockdown. This number is around what I would expect, because it is roughly in line with mass/church attendance during pre-lockdown times.

In the UK, Tearfund commissioned a survey, which was carried out by Savanta ComRes between 24 and 27 April. It found that 24% of UK adults had watched or listened to a religious service during the lockdown.

This number is larger that I would have expected, given that pre-lockdown church attendance in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) is less than 10% in any given week. The UK is one of the few countries in the world where more than half of the population now identify as having ‘no religion’. Tearfund announced the results of the survey with the headline, ‘Many Brits Look to Faith During Lockdown’.  

Of course, tuning in to a religious service once during an extended period of lock down is a pretty low bar for measuring religious practice. But at the very least, it signals that significant minorities of people in Ireland and the UK are interested enough to click a mouse or turn a dial to access religious services. The Tearfund survey also found that 5% of people who have accessed a service since the lockdown have never gone to church. Yes, 5% may sound small but when you consider that is one in 20 British adults it is still more than I would have expected.


The surveys also indicated that sizeable minorities of people are turning to prayer during the pandemic.

In Ireland, 18% of people (15% of men and 22% of women) said they were praying ‘more than usual’ during the lockdown. When the 43% of the population who said that they ‘don’t pray’ are removed from the overall figures, 32% of people who pray are praying ‘more than usual’ (27% of men and 38% of women).

The Tearfund UK questions were different and more extensive. The survey found that 44% of the population pray. Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland was the most devout region in this regard, at 65%, followed by England (44%), Wales (36%) and Scotland (35%). The survey also revealed that 5% of people who did not pray before the lockdown have started to do so. Northern Ireland again scores the highest here at 8%. Intriguingly, the survey shows that 6% of people who prayed before the lockdown have stopped doing so, with Northern Ireland at 9%. It seems those who have started praying are ‘cancelled out’ by those who have stopped! There also are several questions about the efficacy of prayer, with 51% of those who pray saying they’ve witnessed answers to their prayers and 56% of those who pray agreeing that prayer changes the world.

Young People

For me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of both surveys were findings about religious practice among young people. We know from previous surveys, conducted over a number of years, that in  Ireland and the UK people under 35 are the least likely to practise religion. They also are the most likely to identify as having ‘no religion’.

But in the Iona Institute survey, 24% of those aged 18 to 24 said they were praying more than usual. When this excluded people in that age bracket who do not pray at all, 52% were praying more than usual. These figures are markedly higher than the 18% of the overall population who are praying more than usual (32% of those who pray). The Iona Institute described this as an ‘unexpected’ finding. At the same time, this possible hint at youth devotion sits alongside the 54% of people in that age group who don’t pray at all. In the overall population, 43% of people do not pray at all.

In parallel, in the UK people aged 18-34 are more likely to have watched or listened to religious services since the lockdown: the figure is 34% for this age bracket compared to 24% for the overall population and 19% of people older than 55. Those aged 18-34 were also more likely to pray at least once a month (30%) than adults older than 55 (25%).

I was not quite as surprised by these results as I might have been, because my 2018 survey on Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland also indicated that young people were more likely than other age groups to be open to ‘the Francis Effect’: a more favourable view of the Catholic Church since Francis became Pope.

My survey, which also was part of a nationally-representative Amarach omnibus poll, found that a sizeable minority of the general population (22 percent), practising Catholics (39 percent), and 18-24-year-olds (27 percent) have a more favourable view of the Church since Francis became Pope. It also found that there have been changes in religious practices among a minority, in a direction that could be described as more devotional, especially among practising Catholics and people under 35. People under 35 were more likely to report that their religious practices had changed or would change as a result of Francis becoming Pope or his visit. The most popular change was praying more often (15 percent of 25-34-year-olds and 12 percent of 18-24-year-olds). People in these age brackets also anticipated going to religious services more often (10 percent of those under 35 versus 5 percent overall) and going to confession more often (10 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 6 percent of 25-34-year-olds versus 3 percent overall).

While the overwhelming evidence is still that young people in Ireland and the UK are the least likely to identify with or practise religion, the measures of increased devotion revealed in these surveys indicate faith is not entirely dead (and in fact may be alive in ways we don’t yet realise) among the younger generation.

Have Your Say

Finally, if you are a churchgoer living on this island you have the chance to take part in a survey on ‘Coronavirus, Church and You’, which is currently being conducted by the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at Dublin City University.

It is conducted in parallel with a survey in the UK by York St John University, and invites you to ‘record your experience of the pandemic, the ministry you have given or received, and what you think will happen to churches in a post-pandemic world.’

Further Reading

Writing this week in The Tablet, Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University in London also ponders the fate of churches after the lockdown. Though operating primarily from a British Catholic perspective, he raises issues that are pertinent on this island. Bullivant also has penned a free e-book, Catholicism in the Time of Coronavirus. It is written in a popular, even devotional, style and includes fascinating comparisons with the Church’s responses to past pandemics. It also features serious reflection on the future of the Church.

Image: Clonard Church in Belfast, closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo sourced on Clonard’s Twitter.



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