Churches after the storm
Will the people return to the pews when the pandemic is over?
Stephen Bullivant, a leading RC theologian and sociologist believes that, when the dust has settled on the pandemic, dioceses in England and Wales that had been planning for a future with fewer priests and fewer laypeople are likely to find the shrinking in Mass attendance to have been accelerated.
Does this have application to other Churches too? What will church attendance figures look like when all this is over?
For RC dioceses in England and Wales, there is an average drop in churchgoing of 2.3 per cent from year to year over the five-year period to 2017. The figure for dioceses in the US is very similar. Some factors will impact attendance negatively, over and above business-as-usual. First,says Bullivant, people are dying and we have no solid idea yet what the final death toll will be. Churchgoers are significantly older than the wider population and inevitably, this means that church communities will be harder, perhaps even several times harder, hit than the average.
Then, he says, we are creatures of habit. Old habits may die hard, but once dead, they may well revive hard too. What he suggests is difficult though it may be to imagine, not everyone who sits in church on a Sunday does so actively engaged. Some people keep attending out of habit and only after a period of not going for some other reason, is it that they realise they don’t especially miss it, or at least not enough to do much about it.
Such people have, he thinks one might say, little “intrinsic motivation” for attending. They go because they always have, or because they feel vaguely that they ought, or because they never quite had the heart to tell Mum they don’t really want to anymore (little suspecting Mum secretly feels the same way).
Is he right to suggest that a period of weeks or months when people can’t go to church might easily be the nudge required to stop altogether. This he says will be especially true if, as seems likely, we will have a long period where people can go to church again, but when being part of a large gathering is still widely viewed, and possibly officially cautioned against, as an “unnecessary risk”.
All Churches could well be hit to some extent by the drop off - those areas already hard-bitten by generational decline may be hit very hard indeed. It will accentuate the problems for many denominations of having too many church buildings. The writer thinks that when the dust finally settles on the Covid-19 crisis, the projected decline we all knew about may well find the trends have been fast-forwarded by at least several years.
Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion and Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University. He is the author of Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (Oxford Univversity Press, £25; Tablet price, £22.50).