Religion in public in the Covid era

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In this week's installment of our series of reflections on the various dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic, I'm briefly considering the question: how has Covid-19 revealed the religious orientation of our lives? I'm taking this phrase 'religious orientation' to mean the ways in which our lives, individually and collectively, are shaped and directed towards certain priorities by a religion: a set of habits and practices emerging from a specific worldview and tradition. The pandemic has thrown many of our habits and practices into disarray, and our religious ones are no exception.

Restrictions and priorities

Lockdown in UK churches has meant that, for many, services have become severely limited. The diversity of response across British churches has been distinct. The Church of England initially took a fairly hard-line approach, mandating the complete shutdown of church buildings in the first lockdown beyond government requirements, and has not been visibly quick to encourage renewed physical gatherings. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been several cases reported in the news of churches rejecting or ignoring restrictions and experiencing, perhaps for the first time, the prohibitive intervention of the state.

What particularly struck me, though, was that many people - whether in government guidance or on social media - seemed to have a complete lack of comprehension that church might be considered worth prioritising in any way as restrictions lifted. It was clear, as discussions went forward, that church was generally seen as one of many social venues or occasions, non-essential by definition. That was hardly surprising on one level, given the ongoing decline in church attendance and religious commitment generally in the UK, but it revealed as never before the lack of a religious dimension to our mainstream public life and discourse. Of the various aspects of life that were put on hold in the pandemic, the most highly valued was the social, or rather the sociable - not the sacred.

Prayers and practices

It has been common in my Christian circles over the past year for people to express hope that the pandemic might bring about a change in the national mindset. I've heard many prayers, for example, for people to turn to God for protection; for a recognition that we're not as in control of our lives as we might have liked to think; for a renewed desire to consider life after death and our eternal destiny. I don't think it was wrong to pray or hope for these things, but I think it's fair to say that there has not been a discernible mass movement in any of those directions. One reason for that is perhaps that the religious dimensions of life are so absorbed within the social, even for many Christians, that when catastrophe strikes, the categories that would enable us to respond in a distinctly religious way just aren't there.

Another way of putting this might be: what is unique about church - not 'the church', not Christians, but church as a habit - an ongoing practice? Christians will give varying answers to that question, based on their convictions and backgrounds, but it's worth recognising the fact that it is not a question that even registers in our society in this historical moment. Our habits and practices appear to be functionally indistinguishable, for most people, from the various other social groups and patterns that make up public life.

Witness and the future

This is clearly a problem: Scripture calls the church towards a distinctive, visible witness, using the images of a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand, a family not linked by blood. So when the life of the church is difficult to distinguish from the rest of the culture, we should ask ourselves how our modes of life need to change.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no room for hope in this area, even in the UK! I’m encouraged by groups such as Christians Against Poverty, who combine a mission to address the pressing social needs of debt and financial illiteracy with a recognition that, in order to flourish, people also need friendship, community, and spiritual life; by the new visibility of Christian worship occasioned by the pandemic, both as churches went online in lockdown, and now as we emerge, through meeting and particularly singing outside (as Richard reflected in a previous post); and simply by the likelihood that as things of faith become increasingly unfamiliar to the majority, there will be more and more room for surprise, for the ‘old paths’ to be discovered joyfully by those who need them.

For this last to be true, however, we need – as individuals and as church communities – to reckon seriously with what is distinctive and indispensable about the religious dimension of life: what it is that Christians and Christian communities offer to a world that just wants ‘to get back to normal’.

I hope to explore some of these issues more deeply in future posts – but do comment with your thoughts and experiences, whether informed by the last year or of longer standing.

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