Not just for the faithful

Churches and other places of worship are not just for the faithful, they are uniquely placed and ready to play a key role in our recovery as they reinstate and expand their contribution in the face of growing need, a new report states.

Places of worship: Not just for the faithful, new report says as churches get ready to re-open on May 17

And the pandemic has shown that provision for the sick, dying, and bereaved needs to be increased, including supporting church ministers as key workers in the community, and greater investment in hospital chaplaincy to care for both patients and NHS staff, it concludes.

The report, based on research undertaken between August 2020 and May 2021, shows just how vital existing church networks will be to restoring individual and community wellbeing and building future resilience.

It comes as churches and cathedrals prepare to fully re-open from May 17, in line with Step 3 of the Government’s four step road map out of restrictions.

But Dr Dee Dyas, of the University of York, who led the research team warned:

“Being allowed to reopen to visitors is only half the story. Churches have an even bigger job to do now because of increased need – that means they will need to find further support and resources to maximise what they can offer communities.

More than 5,500 people, made up of non-church members, congregations and church leaders, took part in surveys and interviews from August-December 2020 and February-March this year, providing testimony and grassroots data on the human cost of the pandemic when places of worship were closed and unable to play their usual role as crisis centres and places of comfort in times of national need and anxiety.

Take a look at the full infographic here – Church and COVID

The report gives examples of the impact closed churches had on the loss of social contact and support for both children and adults, and the widespread impact on mental wellbeing the restrictions on funerals and other support in grief had on people during the pandemic.

It was the closure of places of worship and the subsequent suspension of essential community activities during the first wave of the pandemic that prompted the University of York led Churches, Covid-19 and Communities research project.

uniquely placed and ready to play a key role in our recovery as they reinstate and expand their contribution in the face of growing need, a new report states.

Dr Dee Dyas said: “Normally churches act as a ‘National Wellbeing Service’. They are vital community hubs, providing cradle-to-grave activities for everyone to access and are usually key places of comfort and refuge in times of crisis. “

Despite the COVID regulations, the survey shows that churches still managed to have a presence through foodbanks and other practical help, including more recently, working with the NHS as vaccination and testing centres.

“One very striking aspect of our findings is how strongly non-church members have been affected by the closure of buildings and activities and the resulting increase in isolation and need at a time of major suffering across all social groups, “ she added.

“If there was one clear message from non-church people it is summed up in this quote from one of the respondents who said: ‘These places must remain open. They are essential to the community … especially for times such as this. Keep them open!'”

The survey found:

  • 79% of all respondents identified social isolation as a key issue in their community
  • 75% of non-church members wanted access to churches as places of quiet reflection and comfort.
  • 87% of churches regularly contacted the isolated
  • 91% of churches offered online engagement

Diana Evans, Head of Places of Worship Strategy for Historic England, one of the funders of the project, said:

“This report gives voice to the pain people experienced when places of worship were locked during the pandemic, leaving individuals and communities without access to spaces where they felt safe to mourn, find respite in beauty, and seek peace. It also shows the potential of local places of worship for people of all faiths and none as the country moves towards recovery; acting as symbols of their community’s long-term survival while serving as local hubs for social care, practical support and companionship.”

The report draws on evidence from experts in key fields such as bereavement, and Public Health, as well as collating reports by many secular and church organisations.

It cites the All-Party Parliamentary Group Keeping the Faith Report conclusion that faith communities were integral to the immediate civil society response to the pandemic.

Local authorities said they had discovered a new appreciation of the agility, flexibility, and professionalism of faith groups in their responses to the pandemic.

The report also cites Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture (in part of a pre-recorded speech given to the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance’s Big Update in March) when she said:

“Time and again, we have seen listed places of worship and the people who run them making a massive difference, from making phone calls and keeping in contact with vulnerable people, to hosting blood donation and testing and vaccination centres, to helping with child support, to shopping for food and medicine for those who are shielding. The work you have done under such challenging conditions has been astounding. And I think this has highlighted to everyone, the continuing value of faith and the unique buildings to our national life.”

Dr Dyas said:

“Based on what churches normally offer and their responses to the pandemic, it is clear that they have an indispensable role to play in recovery. There is renewed recognition from local and national government of the incredible value of churches and other places of worship as community partners, and the contribution they can make in supporting wellbeing, and levelling up across communities. This national network of hubs of community care needs and will reward investment to play its part in these important goals.

“ Our places of worship have huge potential to be at the heart of our national recovery, but you can’t do community care without a roof on,” she added.

The report makes clear the wide-ranging effects of closing church buildings and suspending activities and states that every effort must be made to keep buildings open to support emergency social care, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and other community benefits.

It also stresses that experts and individuals on the ground agree that the country is facing an “epidemic” of unresolved and unsupported grief and loss which will take years to heal. And specialist support and a return to normal social activity are vital if people are to be helped to move forward.

A key recommendation is that this summer is a vital time for consultation with grassroots practitioners and communication of the latest scientific guidance, so churches can stay open safely and maximise their contribution to recovery and wellbeing, even in the event of further waves of virus transmission.

The report is available to read here at churchesandcovid.org and is being circulated to national and local government, MPs and senior church leaders.