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Research

COVID-19 and Church-21

Survey to research the impact of lockdown on churchgoers.

Interior of chapel

What now and what next?

Results of our 2021 survey

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 (PDF, 0.2 MB)

 


Key findings from the survey to date

The 2 surveys enquired about a range different topics, some of which were covered in only one 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

The survey in the first lockdown separated responders into those who had offered ministry and those who had received it.

Based on these responses we were able to get some idea of how these groups had experienced lockdown in different locations. Comparison of 1001 people who received ministry in rural areas with 1823 who received ministry elsewhere suggested fairly similar experiences in terms of accessing online worship and support from their churches.

Rural worshippers were slightly less likely to access worship from their own churches. Comparison of 274 rural stipendiary parochial clergy with 507 counterparts ministering elsewhere suggested their churches were equally busy in offering online worship. Rural clergy offered more Services of the Word, and fewer Communion services. Although the support and care offered by clergy was similar in both sorts of area, rural clergy seemed better placed to serve their local communities and to offer occasional offices. Rural clergy felt better supported by the public, the national church, and funeral directors.

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 are currently working on a paper that will report responses to worship in relation to a range of predictor variables.

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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 will look at how this varies between clergy and lay people in the different denominations in the UK and North America.

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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.

In all, around a fifth of people had given up on at least one of those things, usually online worship. We have analysed the data and are producing a paper that explores what factors might predict who gave up on what.

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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 had a section in the second survey looking at that and are preparing a paper looking factors that predict who was most likely to believe God was in control during the pandemic.

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

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