Prayer and online religious practice have increased in the island of Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.
“Many faith leaders described an increase in religious practice, linked to moving online. They observed surprising numbers of people tuning in for worship services and other events, noting that people who would not have entered their church building were accessing online services. Some from evangelical traditions wrote of people being ‘saved’ or converting to Christianity during the pandemic.”, said the principal investigator of the survey, Dr Gladys Ganiel from Queen’s University Belfast, in the report.
The survey was carried out between May 6th and 22nd. Faith leaders sent 439 usable responses, from every county on the island. Thirty-five pc of respondents were Catholic (23pc diocesan priests or deacons and 12 pc religious), 18 pc Church of Ireland, 14 pc Presbyterian, 9 pc Methodist, 23 pc ‘Other’ Christian, and 1 pc from ‘Other’ religions.
55 pc of the responses came from the Republic of Ireland while 45 pc were from Northern Ireland. (This means that a greater proportional response came from Northern Ireland and from non-Catholics).
Many faith leaders were surprised by the number of people tuning in for worship services and other events.
“As a scattered, small church it is a pleasure how many people are glad about our online services: we reach significantly more people than before. It is obvious that physical meetings and services are more appreciated, but the new online paths will remain in addition to the physical ones. Another aspect is the increased sense of being responsible for each other.” Wrote a Lutheran representative from the Republic of Ireland.
Before the restrictions, 44pc of respondents did not provide online services or resources, 24pc offered livestreaming and 20pc recorded sermons or services. Protestant churches were much less likely to have online worship opportunities, while Catholics offered mostly Mass livestreaming.
All this changed dramatically in March and now only 13pc of faith communities do not offer online worship, according to the respondents.
Catholics are more likely to provide opportunities once a day or several times per day, while Protestants are more likely to provide once a week or several times per week. This reflects the different kind of worship (daily Mass and rosaries vs Sunday service) of those Christians denominations.
Some faith leaders commented that moving online had sometimes improved interactions within their faith communities and created new opportunities for pastoral care.
Others noted an increased interest in religious practice during the pandemic and a renewed respect for churches and their own ministries:
“Knowing that having gone through the terrible years of abuse within the church globally and feeling slightly irrelevant, that the Church matters more than we fully really realised. Given great hope for the future.” Said a Catholic diocesan priest from Northern Ireland.
Before the pandemic, 31pc of faith communities had no one responsible for online worship while now it is only 7pc. It will be interesting to see how this will continue when the pandemic will be over.
The most common source for guidance about providing online resources was “personal research”. This shows that the churches were not prepared for this drastic change and leaders had to rely on their own initiative rather than proper training and planning. (Methodists were an exception as 93pc said that had received advice or guidance from their denomination).
With regard to the impact of stress on those who were somehow working on the frontline, 46pc said that their ministry had been more stressful than usual, 33pc said it had been the same, and 21 pc responded that it had been less stressful than usual. The difference between the denominations was significant. Methodists (58pc) were most likely to say their ministry had been more stressful than usual, while Catholic Religious (34pc), which includes male and female religious, were most likely to say their ministry had been less stressful than usual. Probably most of the religious are over 70 and were cocooning.
The most stressful experiences were “comforting the bereaved” and “conducting funerals”. 51pc of the respondents said they have conducted a funeral during the pandemic. It should be noted that in the Republic, the Church of Ireland prohibited funeral services in the churches. This element and the limitation in the number of people allowed to attend, were probably the cause of much stress for faith ministers.
When asked how people in their communities have experienced mental health difficulties during the pandemic, 40pc replied that they had experienced mental health difficulties ‘more than usual’.
Some Catholic priests complained about the insufficient pastoral care for clergy. “My Parish is very supportive – my diocesan leadership is not – only two phone calls in two months. Letters were written to school Principals and students – but none to clergy. Sense of value diminished.”, said a Catholic priest.
The results of this survey are in line with a similar one commissioned by the Iona Institute in April, which found that during the pandemic many pray more and value family more.
“When these observations are taken together and set alongside earlier examples of an increase in prayer, it could be argued that there is evidence of a renewal of faith during the pandemic. At the same time, the depth of interest in faith and commitment to greater service and involvement is not clear. In particular, some aspects of online faith could be quite superficial and ephemeral, fading as the pandemic subsides.”, commented Dr Gladys Ganiel in her report.