In normal times, Matt Williams would await repentant sinners inside his churches in Quincy, Massachusetts. These days he has devised a virus-proof alternative: drive-through confession.
He and his fellow Roman Catholic priests sit in separate cars in church parking lots, their vehicles marked with balloons. “We open the car window six to eight inches. Then we seal the window with a plastic bag,” he says. The penitents draw up alongside in their own cars.
This might not sound like a spiritual experience, but it has proved to be one. “People bare their soul. I’d say people are just as free and comfortable as they used to be in church,” says Williams. “Let’s face it — being in a church can be a really scary thing if you haven’t been for a long time.”
For the world’s faiths, the coronavirus pandemic has been a head-on collision. Thousands of years of rituals — confession, communal prayers, feasts — were built on the assumption that worshippers could be together and touch each other. Suddenly, religious buildings are closed, while sharing bread is unthinkable.
To make matters worse, the lockdowns have coincided with Passover, Easter and Ramadan — disrupting, with little warning, the most important celebrations of the year for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Despite this, the pandemic has spurred a minor religious renaissance. Drive-through confessions are taking place across the US. “Sometimes I feel like Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s such a long line,” says Jay Finelli, a Catholic priest in Rhode Island.
One Michigan priest became a minor internet sensation after using a water pistol filled with holy water to deliver his Easter blessing. Meanwhile, churches that have switched to broadcasting services online report that congregations have multiplied.
Alpha, an evangelical introduction to Christianity run by Holy Trinity Brompton, the Church of England’s largest church by congregation, has more than twice as many participants online as it did in person. Its seven-week marriage course normally has 80 to 100 couples attending; 5,500 couples have signed up online since lockdown began.
“I didn’t like the idea of online courses. It went against the idea of local church,” says Nicky Gumbel, who has run Alpha since 1990. “I could not have been more wrong . . . It works better online than in person.”
The coronavirus crisis may be unprecedented but, as with previous moments of turbulence, it has triggered a search for the divine. A quarter of Americans say the pandemic has made their religious faith stronger, while just 2 per cent say it has weakened it, according to the Pew Research Center. (The effect is higher among women than men, and five times higher among Christians than Jews.)
Notably, it’s not just the lapsed or the curious who are using their changed schedules to engage with God. “I’m praying more now than I ever have in my 16 years as a priest. It has led to a deeper transformation,” says Williams.
“It’s going to sound odd, but Covid-19 has been one of the greatest spiritual blessings of my life . . . We can’t just go back to how things were. We’d be foolish to do that.”
In much of the developed world, religious institutions have been battered by scandal and falling attendance. Even in the US, long the exception to secularisation, the proportion of people saying they are a member of a church, mosque or synagogue has fallen from 70 per cent to 50 per cent over the past 20 years. For some, coronavirus offers a renewal — a chance to focus on what is truly important.
Most religions promise three things: healing in this world or the next; community; and an explanation for how things are. This has often brought religion into conflict with medical responses to disease. The Catholic Church saw the 1918 flu pandemic, like the Black Death centuries earlier, as a punishment from God. Devotion was the primary recourse.
With coronavirus, some groups have still put religious explanations and practices ahead of medical ones. South Korea’s outbreak was centred on members of the Shincheonji sect.
Officials say some followers of the quasi-Christian cult initially did not co-operate with testing efforts, and its leaders are now being investigated for manslaughter; the Shincheonji says it is being made a scapegoat. Some evangelical churches in Brazil and Africa have remained open — claiming they are as vital in saving people as hospitals.
In New York, thousands of Hasidic Jews turned up to the funeral of a rabbi who had died of coronavirus in late April, a gathering that the mayor Bill de Blasio later branded “absolutely unacceptable”. If a vaccine were developed, some ultra-Orthodox Jews and Christian Scientists would probably refuse to take it.
Even so, the days when religion sought to replace medical science are largely over in the west. Sarah Mullally, the Anglican bishop of London, was previously the UK’s chief nurse. Nurses, doctors and scientists are all “part of the relief and deliverance” that God offers in response to prayer, she says, citing the example of Florence Nightingale, the healthcare pioneer and Christian.
In Britain, churches, mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples have all been mindful that the elderly, who often make up a large proportion of their worshippers, are among the most at risk from coronavirus.
The real question was not whether to obey government guidance, but how to continue operations under it. Every faith is innovating. Jewish seders (the meal held at the start of Passover) and Muslim iftars (the meal that marks the end of the daily Ramadan fast) have been held online. Hindu temples have turned to the internet to broadcast arti, a form of prayer ceremony, with households encouraged to light their offering candles.
“As faith leaders, the challenge is that we’re so used to prescriptive ways of doing things. To suddenly find that we have to be creative is a great shock,” says David Mitchell, a rabbi at the Reform West London Synagogue.
“So much of Judaism is about being in community, being physically together . . . It’s not that I haven’t had iPhones held up at funerals before, for grandchildren that are overseas. But never have I officiated at a funeral before where I’m the only person present, because a lot of the mourners have had to self-isolate.”
Mitchell has presided over funerals of a couple who died within days of each other, both of Covid-19. “The pastoral need is very great,” he says. He has said deathbed prayers via FaceTime to people with the disease, with a nurse holding the iPhone.
More happily, his seder, which normally takes place in central London with about 200 people, was held on Zoom with 650. There have been online prayers, classes and even an online bar mitzvah.
“I wonder what this would have been like if this were the early ’80s and we didn’t have all the technology we have now,” he says. “I don’t know how I’d have ministered to a community in that way, if everything had to be snail mail.
“I am incredibly thankful that, if this terrible thing had to happen, it happened in an era when we could be so deeply connected. I think it’s going to change the entire way we think about religious space. When we go back to being time-poor again, people are going to look at ways that save the commute and some of the hassle.”
Orthodox Jews, who do not use electricity on the Sabbath or on holy days, are in a different position. One group of Israeli Orthodox rabbis said the elderly could hold seders on Zoom or other video-conference platforms, as long as they turned on the software before Passover began. But critics disagreed, arguing that users would still have to adjust the software later.
In the UK, the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis sided against Zoom seders. He suggested instead that families could speak to their relatives online before sundown. Mirvis has also had to stop saying Kaddish, memorial prayers, for his own father, who died earlier this year, because in Judaism such prayers require at least 10 participants and in the Orthodox tradition prayers cannot be joined online. He is using an alternative prayer and has suggested others adopt it for their loved ones, noting: “Nothing is quite the same as Kaddish.”
Those who do worship online have often found unexpected benefits. A rule of thumb is that Anglican churches never see more than half their congregation on any given Sunday. “We’re seeing multiples of our normal congregation are viewing the online services — a factor of 10,” says Ian Black, vicar of Peterborough.
Joining a Zoom service is much less of a commitment than attending in person. “My friends from the gym would never have come to the church, but they’re watching online,” says Gumbel, of Holy Trinity Brompton.
Online services have changed the make-up of congregations. Relatives who live in different cities can now attend the same Sunday service; people can reconnect with churches they left years ago. A congregation no longer has to be defined by geography.
More unexpectedly, online worship changes the nature of the experience. “It is a more immediate, intimate medium than standing at the front of a church, because you’re close up,” says Black.
“In a church on a normal day, quite a lot of social distancing goes on. It doesn’t matter how big your church is: someone will sit in the back row . . . On a screen, people are looking for eye contact, they’re not looking for you reading a script.”
Gumbel is not sure why Alpha course sessions, where strangers discuss big questions about life and faith, work better online. But he is convinced they do. “This is the thing that astonishes me: people are more open online than in person. Maybe they feel more relaxed because they are at home.
“One small thing: on a Zoom call, you can see people’s names. So, right from the start, people are using each other’s names . . . I will never stop doing Alpha online. I will never stop doing church online either.”
Numerous academic studies have suggested religion and spirituality may help people deal with trauma, such as war and chronic illness. One 2004 study found that acute feelings of grief subsided in widows who said their religious belief had increased after they were bereaved than in those who did not; the intensity of the belief mattered more than church attendance.
The content of services has not had to adapt as much. Religions have established ways of contextualising human suffering for centuries. The Buddha was moved to search for enlightenment after the sight of a sick man convinced him of the transience of existence.
Isolation features heavily in the Bible: St Paul wrote some of his letters from prison to people he’d never met. “Where is God in this pandemic?” asks Black. “It’s not actually that tough a question. We’re mortal — this is how it is and it hurts.” In other words, coronavirus is nothing new.
“It would be a very strange person who hasn’t had a tussle with God over what’s going on,” says Mullally, bishop of London. “We thought we were in control. We had everything organised. Suddenly, we’re no longer in control . . . But a lot of the Christian faith, like the Jewish faith, is built on questioning God. You only have to look at the Psalms or [the Book of] Job, and the truth is there are more questions than there are answers.”
Mitchell sees the pandemic as another example of “the wonder and terror of creation”. He says: “The fact that the natural world has always been both good and bad is actually an intrinsic part of Judaism.” The Dalai Lama has fitted it into the notion of transience. “As a Buddhist, I believe in the principle of impermanence. Eventually, this virus will pass,” he wrote.
Not all religious experiences are easily digitised. The grandeur of sacred buildings — which some worshippers found helped to instil humility and a sense of awe, as well as mortality — is lost. So are the cues for spirituality — the stone floors, the incense, a peculiar semi-darkness.
The Church of England has made clear that the Eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine that commemorates Jesus’s death, cannot be celebrated remotely. Reinterpreting doctrine would require at the very least a synod, which is impossible during lockdown.
For Muslims, physical closeness enriches worship; formal congregational prayers cannot be joined online. The lockdown has come during the month of Ramadan and prevented extended families, friends and strangers from sharing iftar at the end of each day.
“Last year, we would eat outside three or four times a week, then go to a mosque,” says Mehmed Gokcel, a 23-year-old Turkish student in London, who has found himself craving baklava. “It’s not pleasant having iftar by yourself.”
Even so, he has found consolation. “I feel like it’s more peaceful.” Every day, he reads a chapter of the Koran with an online group of 10 friends. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that without Covid.” Some Muslims say they prefer fasting at home with their families to fasting in the workplace.
Muslims see accompanying a dying person as a key moment of their faith. The deceased’s body is then washed and covered in a shroud. Reports that governments, including the UK, could mandate cremations of coronavirus victims sent shockwaves through believers.
Even when this worse-case scenario didn’t materialise, there were practical problems: the cleansing was often done by the elderly or by relatives, who were now having to isolate.
For Shockat Patel, a Muslim optometrist in Leicester, the solution was to train young volunteers. With others, he secured protective equipment and sent out instructions to families on how to arrange the collection of bodies. Covid-19 Leicestershire Muslim Funeral Support assisted with 65 funerals, half of them confirmed coronavirus cases.
“At the beginning, the masks, the bodysuits and the gloves looked very unusual,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s less spiritual. You know you are doing a good — so it almost increases the spirituality.”
At funerals in the UK, only a few mourners are permitted, and even they must stand two metres apart. “It doesn’t feel right. Neither should it,” says Patel. “The hardest thing was to tell family members [of coronavirus victims], because you were physically close, you can’t go to the funeral. It’s heartbreaking.”
He had little interest in funeral rituals before the pandemic; he doesn’t plan on staying involved. Yet the experience of recruiting 80 volunteers has left a lasting impact. “I see a massive pool of talent within my community,” he says. “If it’s needed, we all come together, we all work together.”
Yet some of the disruption to Muslim life may just be beginning. The Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, for which 1.9 million travelled to Saudi Arabia last year, is due to take place in July and early August. It could be cancelled not just this year, but next as well.
There is a contrast between this religious mini-renaissance and the secular tone of western leaders. Donald Trump, although he has courted religious voters, is the least devout US president in living memory. Boris Johnson, who was baptised a Catholic and confirmed as an Anglican, is more classically minded. French president Emmanuel Macron is agnostic. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a Protestant, rarely refers to God in public.
This places the weight of spiritual reassurances on religious leaders, including Pope Francis. On the last Friday in March, Francis prayed almost alone in a rain-sodden St Peter’s Square in front of a wooden crucifix that, Catholic tradition says, helped to staunch the Roman plague of 1522. “We are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented,” he said.
For the Pope, the pandemic fits his view of a faith that should do more for the poor. He had already spoken of the Church as a “field hospital”. He has now warned that there could be an “even worse virus” than Covid-19: “A selfish indifference that forgets those who are left behind.”
“I think he’s been prophetic,” says Christopher Lamb, author of the biography The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. “A lot of what he was talking about before the pandemic is more relevant than ever.”
Quite how the Catholic Church — and other religious institutions — will build on this moment remains to be seen. One reaction may be for the churches to offer more social services, as the global economic downturn leaves more people in need of help. Already many parishes are trying to fill the gap left as governments and other services close their doors.
Eighteen months ago, in her first sermon at St John the Evangelist in north London, Alice Whalley told her congregation that she didn’t want the Anglican church to run a soup kitchen; she didn’t want it to be needed. But in the pandemic, she has found herself going the other way.
St John the Evangelist now operates not only a soup kitchen but a food bank several times a week. On Sunday, a dozen people are in the queue by the time it opens. Social distancing is hard; Whalley, like priests throughout the centuries, sees her own safety as secondary.
For her, this kind of work is what the church should be doing in times of crisis. In an article for Church Times, Whalley criticised the focus on online worship; it showed, she argued, “how middle-class” the Anglican church has become. “A historian might look back and ask, ‘What did the Church of England do in the biggest crisis of our generation?’” she says.
She predicts social need for the church growing in the years to come. “I’d rather we weren’t doing any of [the soup kitchen and food bank],” she smiles. “We had a lovely gardening project planned for this summer — I’d much rather be doing that.”
For the Christian faith, one possible outcome of coronavirus might be less focus on maintaining the buildings themselves. It’s not just the shift to Zoom; it’s the acute financial problems that the pandemic has created. Income from worshippers’ donations, wedding fees and renting out space is in free fall.
Some churches (and other religious institutions) have launched successful online fundraising efforts, but revenues are down 80 per cent at St John the Evangelist. “It didn’t hit me until 10 days ago. I just thought, ‘How am I going to pay the bills?’” says Whalley.
Recently, the diocese of London has been aiming to open churches, not close them. Now some are drawing analogies with the first few centuries of Christianity, when services took place in homes rather than dedicated buildings. “There is a recapturing of the idea of the home as a place of worship,” says Pete Hughes, leader of King’s Cross Church.
“A lot of churches won’t survive in the way that they used to operate. That doesn’t mean the end of church . . . The church has always found a way to adapt.” Asked if the Church of England will have fewer buildings, Mullally, the bishop of London, says: “There isn’t a general answer to that.”
Tomáš Halík, a Czech theologian, has said that empty churches should be a “cautionary vision” that forces the Catholic church to address its declining popularity in some parts of the world. “Did we really think that we could solve the lack of priests in much of Europe and elsewhere by importing others from Poland, Asia and Africa?” he has written.
Other headaches could emerge. Weariness with lockdown could spark conflict with the government. In the US and the UK, Catholic priests have agitated for the opening of churches. Social distancing measures may prove tricky to implement.
The East London Mosque, one of western Europe’s biggest, says it has up to 10,000 worshippers on a typical Friday night. “If we were to start picking and choosing, we’d get a lot of upset people,” says one worker.
Italy’s Catholic churches reopened this week. New rules say the priest should wear a mask and gloves, keep at least one metre from each congregant and drop a communion wafer into their hands rather than placing it in their mouth.
There is no guarantee that those newly interested in religion will remain so, when life is busy once again. But, for now, many religious leaders are inspired by the idea of a newly curious population, who may look beyond the hurried realities of modern life and consider bigger questions.
If nothing else, the faithful hold to the hope of returning to their buildings and worshipping as they have always done. “It’ll be a very emotional first service back,” says Alice Whalley. “I can imagine the tears now.”
For every funeral David Mitchell performs, he promises the family there will be “a second part”, once they are allowed to stand together on consecrated ground again. He looks forward, too, to the delayed celebrations that will take place. “I know when I officiate at my first wedding, when that couple dances, everyone around me is going to dance with true joy. They’re going to appreciate something — that it’s not just another wedding.”
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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