By Dr Jonathan Romain in THE TIMES, 20 March 2021
One year on since the first national lockdown in March 2020, when government handling of the pandemic is under scrutiny, what is the verdict on faith and the role it has played?
We have witnessed an extraordinary range of scenarios we would never have imagined possible: from priests being barred from entering their own churches to cathedrals transformed into vaccination centres.
The former was intended as a safety measure but may have been a religious own goal, for it quickly became clear that while our bodies needed protecting, our souls still needed nurturing.
The latter was a wonderful example of faith buildings playing a crucial role in public life and showing how they can serve society in many different ways.
There have also been those who questioned how God could let Covid happen, taking away so many loved ones, and they found their faith disappeared. Others have seen it not as divine punishment, nor a test — just another challenge that this random life continually throws up, with religion being there to help us respond courageously and altruistically.
The lockdown has also highlighted differences between the faiths. For some, their religious life revolves around a sacred place, so prayers at home lack the same spiritual power. For others, worship is not dependent on location and they have suffered less disruption.
Another division has opened up with regard to numbers. Jewish prayer, for instance, is communal prayer and there are significant parts of the service one cannot do without a quorum of ten people. Christianity, by contrast, places more emphasis on personal prayer, which can be done more easily alone.
Religious authority has been challenged, whether it be anger at the archbishops for closing down churches, or exasperation with Orthodox rabbis who refused to do Zoom services on the Sabbath because it involved using electricity. There are many in the pews who are saying to their clergy, “Get real”.
Lockdown also highlighted the need for religious leaders to come to terms with technology that many had ignored for far too long. Those who had already introduced live-streaming facilities in their buildings found themselves far better equipped to conduct online worship than those zooming from their kitchen table.
What has been striking is that virtually all religious groups have reported a higher attendance at services online than they would normally have had in person.
Many newcomers felt the need to connect, either with others or with God. They wanted the warmth of community, but also to fill a spiritual void and gain a sense of something greater than everyday concerns.
The increased participation was also because online access allowed people who had always wanted to attend, but who had mobility problems or were living too far away, to join in.
It begs the question of what will happen once the lockdown is over. The one certainty is that religious life cannot simply carry on as before. No doubt some of those new attendees will drop away, while those who used to come in person will (like high street shoppers) find it more convenient to continue online.
Here lies our key challenge: we cannot abandon those who have become internet regulars, but we also want to encourage as many people as possible to come physically.
Services will need to be conducted via a two-tier system, addressing both those in the pews and those on a screen (which means investing in the hardware and connectivity). Clergy will have to get used to facing two audiences, as well as not appearing to prefer one to the other.
Many other practical issues will abound: what will happen to the sign of peace if parishioners are reluctant to shake hands? Or dispensing Communion? Or the tables of refreshments at the end of synagogue services, which are seen as an essential part of the Sabbath experience? How do we avoid religious life becoming safer, but colder?
Might the crisis from loss of income speed up long-discussed religious mergers — the Church of England and the Methodists, or Reform and Liberal Jews — with financial survival trumping theological differences?
Like the heavenly organ music that gave comfort to those having their vaccines in church, faith groups will have to marry tradition and change creatively, offering new forms of worship to those who emerge nervously from lockdown into the sunlight.
Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue