Those who read The Observer newspaper last weekend might have been reassured that COVID-19, at least in the United Kingdom, is preparing the ground for a religious revival: “British public turn to prayer as one in four tune in to religious services”. One in four! When was the last time the Church of England had that kind of reach! It must mean that the decision to close the church (buildings) while opening the church (digital) was the correct one. Allowing the people of England to see church ministers sharing in the isolation and hardships of lockdown, not hoarding the sacrament or the church building to themselves, was a prompting of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps even a precursor to the revival of religion in England?
The article reported that a quarter of adults in the UK have “watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began”. One in 20 “started praying during the crisis.” And it gets demographically better: a third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 “had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service”, compared with “one in five adults over the age of 55.”
The coming religious revival will be young!
And the CofE has been working directly to assist this revival in religious engagement:
6,000 people phoned a prayer hotline in its first 48 hours of operation.
Of course, when reading beyond the headline there were, or should have been, caveats:
- The article was illustrated with picture of Dawn French as the Vicar of Dibley, a TV sitcom that never worried too much about an accurate depiction of parish life or sacrificial vocation – and an sitcom that hasn’t been made for 13 years. This is not cutting edge Christian discipleship.
- The article was based on an opinion poll commissioned by Tearfund, the evangelical Christian aid agency. I have no doubt about the integrity of both Tearfund and Savanta ComRes, the polling company that conducted the survey. I am sure it was done with the utmost scientific integrity, but I wonder if a poll commissioned by the National Secular Society would have found the same results?
- The article also mentioned another survey commissioned for Christian Aid, asking people’s opinions about the best “screen priest” to lead the nation through the crisis. In first place was the Rev Geraldine Granger, The Vicar of Dibley. Second was Sister Evangelina, from Call the Midwife. A strong third place showing was Father Ted Crilly, from Father Ted. How seriously are people taking these questions?
- Finally, the CofE’s figures show that less than one person from each of the church’s 12,500 parishes has telephoned Daily Hope, the name given to the hotline. As a friend of mine (a parish priest) said, even the most hopeless parish priest in England is capable of ringing more than one person every two days, surely?
It wasn’t until the Church Times was printed on Friday that I thought any more about the survey. Andrew Brown, in his consistently incisive press column, had actually looked at the structure and findings of the survey (Press: The case for and against a spiritual revival £):
“The findings of the poll reinforce indications of an increase in the numbers of people turning to faith for succour amid uncertainty and despair.”emphasis added
That seemed an entirely straightforward lead; and so it would have been had it not been for the researchers’ conscientiousness. They did not only ask people what they had started doing since the lockdown; they also asked what they had stopped doing.
So, it turns out, the conscientious pollsters of Savanta ComRes discovered that although five per cent of the sample had started praying, six per cent had stopped. Five per cent had started mindfulness or meditation; eight per cent had stopped.
Now, I’m an Arts graduate, without a background in advanced statistical analysis and I am willing to be demonstrated wrong, but if 5% have started praying and 6% have stopped praying, doesn’t that mean that fewer people are praying?
Furthermore, Savanta ComRes pressed on to ask who it is that people trust now, in the days of Coronatide. Question 7 asks: “to what extent, if at all, do you trust each of the following to provide information and guidance in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?” The answer is not good for a coming religious revival:
“Faith Leaders slightly more trusted than Twitter shock!”
If you drill down to identify age, social class, geographical locality, and actual religious observance, as opposed to nominal allegiance, the figures become even more concerning.
Of those who describe themselves as religiously observant (whose prayer life could be described as praying regularly), 18% distrust faith leaders to give information and guidance in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. And for those who actually attend church, the number is 19%.
To know us is to distrust us.
Is there is to be a coming religious revival, then it won’t come by applying technological “solutionism”1 to the anxieties of the British public. The only religious revival that has ever taken ‘hold’ in England has been sort of revival that grew from slow, conscientious ministry exemplified by Augustine and his fellows:
“They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts. …they despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those they taught; in all things they practised what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed.”The judgment of the Venerable Bede and Henry Mayr-Harting
“Many found faith and were baptized through their admiration of the simplicity of it all.”
- about which I want to say more in a future posting [↩]