Churchgoers and clergy alike are concerned that the pandemic has put the future of their parish churches in doubt, according to research from the University of Warwick and York St John University.
The first national lockdown closed churches across the UK and severely restricted ministry in areas such as pastoral care, fellowship groups, and serving the community. Church services moved online with varying degrees of success.
The Coronavirus, Church & You survey, a major study of the impact of the lockdown on churchgoers, clergy and lay people was conducted online from May to July 2020, and gathered more than 10,000 responses. A second iteration of the survey is currently in progress.
End of the road for fragile churches?
In their paper Impact of Covid-19 on Fragile Churches: Listening to the Voices of Lay People , published today  in Rural Theology, Canon Leslie Francis, Andrew Village, and S. Anne Lawson analyse the results of the survey in order to explore the views of lay people about the future of their parish church, and contrast them with the views expressed by the clergy.
Comparing responses from 745 Church of England clergy engaged in full-time parochial ministry and from 2,496 lay people living in England and identifying as members of the Church of England, they find that within rural parishes, the clergy are more pessimistic than the parishioners:
- 34% of clergy serving rural parishes feared that their church buildings will not be financially viable as they attempt to rebuild after Covid-19. 22% of parishioners shared this concern.
- 29% of clergy serving rural parishes feared that key lay people will step down and be difficult to replace after the pandemic. 23% of rural parishioners agreed that this was likely to be a problem.
Comparing views between types of parish, the study finds that there is more concern in rural areas and less in the inner cities:
- 22% of laity living in rural areas considered that in the light of the impact of Covid-19 their church buildings will not be financially viable. The proportion was lower among laity living elsewhere: 16% in towns, 15% in suburbs, and 8% in inner city areas.
- While 23% of laity living in rural areas feared that key lay people will step down and be difficult to replace, the proportion was lower among laity living elsewhere: 18% in inner city areas, 17% in suburbs, and 16% in towns.
These findings support the “fragile church hypothesis,” a set of indicators developed by Anne Lawson which, when present, suggest that a church has an uncertain future.
End of the road for older churchgoers?
Older churchgoers are often the stalwarts of a congregation so the study has also focused on the impact of lockdown on churchgoers aged 70 or older. This group not only lost access to church buildings but were also instructed to shield within their homes by the government for protection from the pandemic.
What would be the impact if this group simply gave up attending church?
Canon Francis said “We identified a real concern that the lockdown (discouraging this age group from maintaining social contacts), coupled with the lock-up (removing the opportunities of church attendance and of visiting the local place and sacred space central to sustaining their faith) would finally close the door on this generation’s church-related activity and have the consequence also of finally closing the door of some local churches.”
To explore this the Coronavirus, Church & You survey asked for views of the laity on the Anglican leadership, on closing church buildings and virtual church, and on how the crisis might affect the Church in the long term.
Taking the data provided by the 2,496 lay participants identified as living in England and attending Anglican churches, and analysing it by age rather than location, data from the 867 aged over 70 revealed:
- older churchgoers aged seventy or over held a less positive attitude toward the national leadership than younger parishioners – just 36 % considered that their denomination at the national level had responded well to the crisis
- older churchgoers placed more value on the physical church building than younger ones, seeing it as a sacred space and as a place of community focus. Fewer than half agreed that closing church buildings was the right thing to do; with 36% agreeing that church buildings should stay open whatever the circumstances.
- 22% of those aged seventy and over were concerned that after the pandemic key lay people will step down and be difficult to replace, while 20% fear that their church building would not be financially viable after the pandemic, two of the indicators of a fragile church.
Commenting on the results, Canon Francis said: “These findings have important implications for the Church of England as it seeks to build back after the pandemic and fulfil its vision of a Christian presence in every community.
“There will be older churchgoers who have been shielding and who will have lost touch with their habit of churchgoing and who may have lost confidence to return. There will be older churchgoers who have been shielding and who may feel neglected and uncared for. They may have effectively become church-leavers during the extended period of the pandemic.
“Research on church-leavers, however, indicates that it is easier to persuade a “dechurched” person to return than to recruit someone who has never been a church member.
“Strategic development funding invested in reconnecting the lost to their churches may be wiser than investing in new churches.
“A strategy rooted in local discipleship, centred on local people, local initiatives, and local finance could also come to the rescue of those fragile churches placed in jeopardy by the pandemic.”
14 May 2021
Authors and affiliations:
- The Revd Canon Professor Leslie J. Francis is Professor of Religions and Psychology at the University of Warwick and Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral, England.
- The Revd Professor Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology at York St John University, York, England.
- The Revd S. Anne Lawson is vicar of Acton, Church Minshull, Worleston and Wettenhall and Chaplain to the Cheshire Agricultural Society in the Diocese of Chester, England.
The two papers referenced in the release are published in May’s edition of Rural Theology:
- Impact of Covid-19 on Fragile Churches: Listening to the Voices of Lay People. Leslie J. Francis, Andrew Village and S. Anne Lawson https://doi.org/10.1080/14704994.2021.1895422
- Shielding, but not Shielded: Comparing the Experience of the Covid-19 Lockdown for Anglican Churchgoers aged Seventy and over with those under the age of sixty Leslie J. Francis and Andrew Village https://doi.org/10.1080/14704994.2021.1895421
Media Relations Manager
University of Warwick