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COVID-19 and Church-21

Survey to research the impact of lockdown on churchgoers.

Interior of chapel

COVID-19 and Churches

We ran 2 surveys during the pandemic, one from May to July 2020 and the other from January to July 2021.

Over the last 2 years we have published reports, academic papers, and newspaper articles that together have built up a wide-ranging picture of how clergy and lay people were affected by the pandemic. In all we had over 10,000 responses, which have allowed us to examine many different aspects of church life during these 2 lockdowns.

The COVID-19 and Church-21 survey ran from January to July 2021 and was intended as a follow up of our first Coronavirus, Church and You survey.

It repeated some of the questions to see how wellbeing and attitudes had changed since the first lockdown. It also included new questions looking in more detail at what churches had offered by way of services and ministry during lockdown, the experience of producing services, and the experience of worshipping both online and in church.

Although aimed mainly at the Church of England, the survey was also used by Roman Catholics in the UK and Ireland, by other denominations in the UK, by Anglicans in North America, and by Baptists in Canada.

In all we had over 10,000 responses, and we are now in the process of publishing the new results.

We have outline reports on:

A full list of outputs from both surveys is available here: Articles from the 2020 and 2021 surveys (docx, 20.6 kB)


Key findings from the 2 surveys

The 2 surveys enquired about a range of different topics, some of which were covered in only 1 survey and some of which appeared in both.

Follow the links read more and find links to published material.


Fragile church

Even before the pandemic there were questions within the Church of England about how far some churches were viable in terms of finance and filling key roles such as church wardens.

This idea arose from studies in rural churches but may apply to others. In our first survey, a third of rural clergy and nearly a quarter of rural laity endorsed the thesis, a higher proportion than in non-rural areas.

New data from the COVID-19 and Church-21 Survey conducted during the third lockdown from January 2021 demonstrate that both rural clergy and rural laity had grown more pessimistic regarding the future of the rural church. The proportion of rural clergy who consider that as a consequence of the pandemic key lay people will step down and be difficult to replace increased from 29% to 49%. Among rural laity, the proportion increased from 22% to 32%.

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Psychological wellbeing and support in lockdown

Mental health and wellbeing have been central concerns during the pandemic in the UK and around the world.

Both of our surveys contained measures of how people perceived changes in their wellbeing since the pandemic began. We used the ‘balanced affect’ model that considers overall wellbeing to be a combination of positive affect (did people feel more or less happy, excited, thankful, hopeful, or confident) and negative affect (did they feel more exhausted, anxious, stressed, fatigued, or frustrated).

Our paper from the first survey showed how wellbeing varied between young and old, different traditions in the Church of England, clergy and laity, and people living in different locations or with children living at home. We also showed how underlying psychological disposition could predict how people coped during lockdown.

The mitigating effects of relevant support were evident for both clergy and lay people. A key finding was that it was those sources of support that were least often used that may have had the strongest positive effects on wellbeing, particularly on those groups where wellbeing was lowest.

The data from the second survey showed how wellbeing declined into the third UK lockdown, and we have shown in more detail how positive and negative affect changes were shaped by different factors. Changes in the key sources of support from the first lockdown were evident, with church-based support for clergy appearing to be more effective in promoting wellbeing in the third lockdown.

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Attitudes during lockdown

The 2 surveys contained questions assessing attitudes towards church buildings, lockdown, and virtual church. Results from the 2020 survey showed how positive regard for physical church buildings varies between traditions, with more Catholic traditions seeing buildings as more important than those in more Reformed traditions. Surprisingly, it was younger Catholics and Anglo-Catholics who rated buildings as most important.

Using the first survey data, we explored how attitudes to buildings, lockup of churches and virtual churches varied between groups and with psychological dispositions. The results suggested that those most likely to embrace a future with a significant role for church life online are women (rather than men), the middle-aged (rather than younger or older people), intuitive (rather than sensing) and feeling (rather than thinking) psychological types, clergy (rather than laity), those living outside the inner cities, those who prefer modern (rather than traditional) forms of worship, those with more liberal (rather than conservative) views on doctrine and morality, and those who embrace Evangelical and Charismatic (rather than Anglo-Catholic) church traditions.

In the pipeline are studies looking at attitudes in the third lockdown, specifically at optimism or pessimism about the future of offline or online church.

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Experience of worship and ministry in lockdown

Our experience from the first survey enabled us to develop more detailed measures of what it was like to experience online or in-church worship during the third lockdown.

We developed a scale for measuring affect responses to worship (Scale of Perceived Affect Response to Online Worship (SPAROW) and used it to look at how clergy and lay people in the Church of England experienced leading and accessing online and in-church services during the third national lockdown in England.

The data demonstrated that for both those leading services and those accessing services, online worship was less rewarding than in-church worship, even as expressed within the context of Covid restrictions. Moreover, pre-recorded online services were less rewarding than live-streamed services both for those leading and for those accessing services. Among leaders, the return to in-church services was most rewarding for older leaders, lay ministers, Anglo-Catholics, those working in rural churches, extraverts and the emotionally stable.

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Holy Communion in lockdown

Holy Communion is a distinctive and important part of Christian worship. The physical act of participation using bread and wine was unavailable to many during the lockdowns. We asked people about their experiences and beliefs about Communion in lockdown and have shown how this varies across different groups in the Church of England. Our results show just how differently this ritual is understood, even within a single denomination. We asked a slightly different set of questions about Communion in the second survey and looked at how this varied across different church traditions in the UK.

We used a 6-item 'Scale of Attitude Toward Virtual Communion' (SATVC) to assess attitude related to receiving communion during online services, the necessity of priests for consecration and lay presidency of communion at home.

Church tradition predicted attitude in ways that were in line with historical understandings of the Eucharist and ecclesial debates about the necessity of priests to preside over ritual. Within traditions, other factors operated in different ways, producing a complex web of interactions. Older people were more positive about virtual communion than younger ones, but mainly in Catholic traditions. Clergy were more negative in most traditions except Free Church. Having a generally conservative doctrinal stance drove Catholic and Reformed traditions in opposite directions. Liturgical stance predicted SATVC independently of doctrinal stance, and more traditional stance tended to lead to more uniformity, rather than divergence, between traditions.

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Men and women, young and old in lockdown

We have compared responses to the pandemic by sex and age and found significant differences in many cases.

In general, men seemed to have had a more negative response to some aspects of pandemic worship and showed less enthusiasm for virtual church.

We confirmed the widespread trend that younger people tended to show poorer psychological wellbeing than did older people.

When it came to online worship it was the middle-aged people in their 40s and 50s who were most positives, while younger and older people were less so. Younger people are more wedded to buildings and traditional worship than you might expect.

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Spiritual awakening and Spiritual wellbeing during lockdown

Despite the evident decline in psychological wellbeing, a consistent trend has been that many churchgoers felt closer to God, more thankful, and reported better spiritual health during the pandemic.

We investigated this using a few items from the first survey, looking at laity and clergy separately to try and see what factors predicted who were most likely to feel spiritually renewed or spiritually deflated.

Experiencing spiritual awakening during the early months of the lockdown was associated with religious, theological, and spiritual practices, as well as with personal and psychological factors. We are now investigating this in more detail using data from the second survey.

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Giving up on online worship, going to church or God

The 2 surveys were taken by a population of largely committed clergy and churchgoers, so you would not expect a high proportion of people to indicate that they had given up on church during the pandemic. Nonetheless, this has been an important question in church circles, where various studies have tried to assess how far losses of previously committed members would be offset by the arrival of new people attracted to online worship.

In the second survey we included a section that was aimed at those who were not ordained or in licensed ministries that asked if they had given up on online worship, attending socially distanced worship in church, or on God. We had a sample of 826 'non-ministering' Anglicans living in England. Of these, nearly a quarter had given up online worship, attending off-line services in church, or both: 15% had given up on online worship, 13% had given up on going to church, and 5% had given up on both. Giving up was significantly correlated with negative experience of services. Those under the age of 40 and Anglo-Catholics were most likely to give up online worship. Women and extraverts were most likely to give up on socially-distanced services in church. The results indicate the sorts of people who might drift from the church post-pandemic and what the Church could concentrate on to prevent this process.

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Was God in control of the pandemic?

There has been little public or even in-church debate about how God featured in this pandemic.

In past times God would often be seen as the originator of plagues or disasters, or the one to whom humans should pray for the suffering to cease. The rise of science and its ability to help control pandemics has been more evident with COVID-19 than ever before. What did church people make of the relationship between the power of God and the power of science? We used data provided by 1,841 clergy and lay people from the Church of England to explore this topic by looking at percentage agreeing with various statements:

  • The pandemic is punishment from God, 2%
  • God sent the pandemic to test our faith, 4%
  • Science will save us from the pandemic without God's help, 12%
  • The pandemic is a result of human sin, 18%
  • God could stop the pandemic at any point whatever we do, 36%
  • The pandemic is a solely 'natural' event without any relation to God, 44%
  • God will save us from the pandemic through science, 54%
  • God's power to save us from the pandemic depends on human co-operation, 67%
  • God has always been in control during the pandemic, 69%

In a more detailed analysis, we looked whether belief in divine control over the pandemic was related to self-perceived changes in psychological wellbeing. After controlling for personal factors (age and sex), psychological factors (psychological type and emotional volatility), contextual factors (education level and ordination status), and ecclesial factors (conservative doctrine and charismatic influence), the data demonstrated a positive association between belief in divine control and change in positive affect, but no association between belief in divine control and change in negative affect.

  • Francis, L. J., and Village, A. (2022, 13 May). Prayers for deliverance during the pandemic. Church Times, 16.
  • Village, A., and Francis, L. J. (2022, under review). God is in his heaven, all’s right with the world: Psychological wellbeing and belief in divine control during the third Covid-19 lockdown among Anglican clergy and laity in England. Journal of Psychology and Theology.

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Spiritual, mental, and physical health in lockdown

It has been widely suggested that there is a link between spiritual health and mental and physical health. Our second survey asked participants to rate changes in their physical and mental health since the pandemic began. Using a sample from the Church of England in the second lockdown, we found that better change in spiritual wellbeing was positively correlated with better change in both mental and physical health. These relationships were retained after controlling for changes in psychological wellbeing. Negative affect may have mediated the relationship between spiritual wellbeing and both mental and physical health, and positive affect may also have mediated the relationship with mental health.

  • Village, A., and Francis, L. J. (2022). The effects of spiritual wellbeing on self-perceived health changes among members of the Church of England during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Manuscript submitted for publication]. School of Humanities, University of York St John.
  • Francis, L. J., and Village, A. (2022, 22 July). Benefits of soul care are more than spiritual. Church Times, 1.

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Use the link below to see more detailed results from the 2020 Coronavirus, Church and You survey.