What have people missed?

What did the first survey tell us?

A woman prays in Westminster Cathedral.
A woman prays in Westminster Cathedral.
© Mazur/cbcew.org.uk

The restrictions placed on church buildings and activities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have clearly been significant on the whole range of church users. While the instruction during the first lockdown to ban in-person corporate worship was arguably the most striking of these restrictions, our findings show the impacts were felt across all three categories in our survey.

Though many church members appreciated the efforts made to continue worship services in some capacity - and some actually preferred the new approaches - there was nevertheless a sadness among many that they were not able to experience all that worship in its previous form used to offer. The reasons for this varied, from the high ritual of the sacraments to the informal social time over coffee at the beginning and end of worship, something that many people said was difficult to emulate in online platforms.

“I still feel a part of the church family, but am really missing services where we can sing, share the peace, and take communion together. What we are managing to do is good - but it's just not the same.”

Town Church Member, Aged 31-40

“I haven’t really felt a part of it as I found the online versions of church were not very personal or interactive so I’ve dipped in and out of a lot of different churches and resources. I felt a bit like I’m wandering between lots of things”

Suburban Church Member, Aged 51-60

Yet the role of the church in any community goes far beyond the Sunday morning worship. Whether from regular church attenders or members of the wider community, our initial survey showed how valuable the community groups run by churches are to people around the country. These are seen as particularly valuable sources of social interaction - something that was desperately missed during a period of exceptional isolation:

“I have missed Mum and baby groups. Im on maternity leave this year with my first baby. I’ve found it really tough being isolated at home with nowhere to go during the day. I miss learning from other mums and getting support.”

Suburban Member of the General Public, Aged 31-40

A fitness class inside a church hall.
Prior to the pandemic, many churches and church halls hosted community groups such as fitness classes. Credit: Church of England

It is not only the activities that churches run that have been missed by users and members, however. While church buildings have been allowed to open for private prayer since the early summer, many churches opted to remain closed or significantly limit their opening times as a result of anxieties over the safety of volunteers and users, as well as the additional requirements of health and safety guidance. Yet it was precisely the opportunity to spend time alone in a peaceful, sacred environment in a time of personal and national crisis that was most desperately missed by many members of the wider community.

When we asked how they might have wanted to use a church/cathedral building during the pandemic if they were given the opportunity, 75% of the general public said they would have wanted to use the space for quiet reflection. This was reflected in the responses people gave when asked what aspect of the church closures was most significant to them:

"Quiet reflection - I felt enormously overwhelmed by everything at the start of lockdown and would have loved to sit quietly in a church and try to block out the doom and gloom."

Rural Member of the General Public, aged 61-70

Dean of Rochester lights candles for every Covid death in Medway Hospital
The Dean of Rochester lights candles for every
COVID-19 death in Medway Hospital Credit: Association of English Cathedrals

For others, what was most deeply missed during this time was the opportunity to commemorate and mourn loved ones they had lost during this period in the way that they - or the deceased - would have expected or wanted. The accounts of those impacted by this was often heartbreaking, and could be seen across all the different groups we surveyed.

When we asked our General Public group which aspect of the restrictions on church buildings and activities had impacted them most personally, for example, many people mentioned the impact on funerals and grieving:

"Not being able to hold a funeral in a place that meant a great deal to the person who had died, and the family. Not having the opportunity to gather together with friends and family to remember someone and mark their life in a meaningful way in the place they would have wanted."

Town Member of the General Public, aged 51-60

“I lost a dear friend and wanted to do what I have always done, sit in church, say a prayer and think of them and others that have gone before”

Rural Member of the General Public, aged 61-70

What do we want to find out this time?

In our new survey, we’re particularly interested in finding out which aspect of the restrictions on church buildings and activities have had the biggest impact not only on wider community needs, but also on your own personal wellbeing - whether you are a church leader, regular attendee, or member of the general public. This might concern aspects of worship services, community groups, social action projects, the solace of a building, or other aspects. This will be useful for understanding in greater detail the personal impact of these restrictions, as well as how churches can most effectively respond going forward.