Christopher Smith


Last autumn, I was not surprised to see a headline in the Church Times that ran, ‘Move to online worship a loss, not a gain, say universities’ researchers’.  Some academics had spent a year studying the matter, and had produced a report entitled ‘British Ritual Innovation under Covid-19’.  Their conclusion was that, ‘by almost every metric, the experience of pandemic rituals have (sic) been worse than those that came before them. They are perceived as less meaningful, less communal, less spiritual, less effective, and so on’.

Online worship was always going to be fraught with danger for low-tech clergy, which, let’s face it, is most of us.  And, however good the AV, microphones can still end up in the wrong place, and cameras at the wrong angle.  Hark how Father bellows the hymns into his clip-mic.  Behold that server taking the crucifix to the back by carrying it over his shoulder like a builder carrying a drainpipe.  And did you see that bishop in his garden on Holy Saturday suffering the indignity of his little paschal candle crashing to the ground during one of the readings?

The Church Times article was illustrated by a still of the famous celebration of the Holy Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his kitchen during the period when clergy were banned (or not, depending on how history is currently being revised) from going into their own churches at Easter 2020.  There’s the family calendar hanging from a door-handle on the Welsh dresser behind him, with the Portmeirion visible through the glass.  People certainly wanted something rather than nothing, yet the researchers observed ‘both considerable innovation in, and deep-seated dissatisfaction with, digital worship during the pandemic.  There have been important positive developments and adaptations which will strengthen British religious life in the long term, but for most people, the move to online ritual has been one of loss, not gain’.

Here in Holborn, we put out pre-recorded material rather than attempt live broadcasts, but the point is the same: people wanted to be worshipping together, which is why most of us didn’t hesitate to open up again as soon as the law allowed.  Christians instinctively know that there is a difference between watching and worshipping, and we can only enter fully into worship by being present.  And, as Catholic Christians, we understand that the fullness of worship is found when we are together at mass, when Jesus assures us of his presence—‘Do this for my recalling’.

So it was wonderful to see people bouncing back into church in the summer of 2020, and, in a somewhat less Tiggerish fashion, re-returning as the ‘wave’ of early 2021 began to abate.  But there are problems which we are still working through, and to which we need to be alive.  The institutional Church of England estimates that it has lost something like 20% of its worshipping community since March 2020.  That’s a shocker of a statistic, and some other denominations are reporting an even greater reduction.  And, as I look around church now, I am aware that, although we’ve gained a few, numbers are indeed down: there are people who have become less frequent attenders, some now worship on another shore, and a larger number have grown increasingly frail as 2020 passed into 2021.  Some have suffered mentally, and some are now almost too afraid to leave their flats and re-enter normal society.

I do think the government’s ‘fear’ messaging, embraced by the Church of England, has to bear some responsibility for that.  Perhaps the fierce ‘nudging’ (such as those particularly blunt ‘People will die’ posters) ought to be considered by the forthcoming Public Inquiry.  We seem to have discovered that it is quite easy to put people into a state of fear, but rather harder to bring them out of it!  A friend of mine died of heart failure in April last year having been very cautious about leaving home. I suppose the system believed it was protecting him—he was elderly and rather vulnerable—but the restrictions and the fear with which they were enforced in fact denied him any social life in what turned out to be his last year.  He wasn’t allowed to take the risk.  Whatever happened to the original pandemic plan of ‘Keep calm and carry on’?

Well, the Public Inquiry into our national response to the epidemic is beginning its work, chaired by Heather Hallett (now Baroness Hallett), who, until recently, was Vice-President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.  She is nobody’s fool, and I do hope she considers, among many other things, the use of the ‘Nudge Unit’, officially the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ at the Cabinet Office, and its pandemic offspring, ‘SPI-B’.  It was one thing using social engineering to try to get people to install loft insulation, but making them too terrified to leave home is quite another.  

I also think that, to paraphrase the Watergate questions, we should be asking ‘What did we know, and when did we know it?’  From thence flow many other questions, and we could ask some in church life too.  Why did it take so long for there to be any pushback against government policy, and why were we told, in many respects, to go beyond it?  Maybe we need our own ecclesiastical enquiry.  Any suggestions as to who might chair it?