From the church’s statistician, some observations—and an invitation
As I write, it is one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. We have seen changes in this year that we could not have imagined. Many have suffered and died from the pandemic, and there is still a long way to go through it. But we have also seen good things happen. As always, God is bringing blessings out of a bad situation.
In this article I want to tell you about the ways our response to the pandemic gives me huge hope for our future, and I want to ask for you to help by sharing your views on COVID-19 and the church in a survey. But let me start by telling you my experiences over the last year.
Our experience of the pandemic in Trail, B.C.
My ministry has been busier than ever over the last year with change after change, and I spent most of 2020 playing catchup. Within a week of the outbreak we started an online service. Many of my congregation love what we are doing. It has enabled them to connect to God even through the challenges of COVID-19. We have found ways to be together.
Of course, we miss worship together, and especially we miss Eucharist, but we are finding the positives. We have members who could not come to worship before the pandemic because of health or other issues. Now they can. And they can have the service when and where they want—my sermons have never been more popular! Some members of our congregation join our bishop each night for compline, which has been a great encouragement for them.
There have been challenges. We have had to adapt the service to the new online context. I have had to improve my technical skills to create professional videos. We were concerned about money, but thanks to government grants and people’s generosity, our parish finances are strong. Like many of my colleagues, I am stressed by all of this change, but I know that I am doing the job God calls me to.
We have found new ways to engage our community: In the summer we held outdoor neighbourhood gatherings using National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald’s model of gospel-based discipleship; in the fall we held “Wild Church” and online Zoom parties for our youth; we have Zoom Bible studies and the inevitable Zoom meetings and AGMs.
A time of transformation
Those have been our experiences, and I know from my research that they are typical for many across the church. My research has uncovered three common ways COVID-19 has changed us:
1. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of creativity and change in the church. Within a few weeks of the start of the pandemic, many churches were online. They were on Zoom or YouTube or Facebook or some other platform. The form of service changed to fit the new online context—in some cases a little, in others a lot. Ministers were incorporating images, video and music into their services. The music became much more varied. Video came from people’s homes and from outdoor locations. People used their imaginations to engage their congregations in new ways. Never again can it be said that Anglicans cannot change and adapt—because we have shown we can!
2. The move online has broken barriers of time and distance. All of the churches that I have talked to have grown their congregations, and many of the new attenders come from outside the parish. One local congregation which cannot create its own service is using a service from a church four hours away in a different time zone. Many people are watching the service at a completely different time than normal. I have one congregant who watches from her workplace—and she’s a ski-lift operator!
3. We have transformed our liturgy. We have had to manage without Eucharist for months at a time or even for the whole year. Clergy have felt free to change the service to make it work in the new context. Sometimes they have adapted one of the services in the Book of Alternative Services; sometimes they have used another prayer book. The main service in some places is not even recorded on a Sunday, but midweek. In many places groups are joining for daily online worship, morning, midday, evening or night. There has been a need for new patterns of worship.
There are, of course, significant concerns, even apart from the death and suffering I’ve already mentioned. The pandemic has brought a new “technoclericalism” which puts technically adept clergy at an advantage and has created new problems for many excellent but technically challenged clergy. It has blocked many of the in-person skills which pastors have relied on, and may be having an impact on our finances which is currently masked by government grants.
Hybrid church as the new normal?
As I write, it seems that significant numbers of churches are expecting not to go back to the pre-COVID-19 way of being. Anglican churches across the country are investing in technology and training to enable services to be broadcast. We seem to be moving towards a “hybrid church” model where there will be both online and in-person services in many churches.
This hybrid model is offering much hope in the rural areas I serve. Those who felt disconnected from communities and services are suddenly feeling re-connected. Church structures are finding new ways to reach out. The acceptance of a shift to online services and meetings is solving problems we have struggled with for decades. I feel more confident about the future of the church locally and nationally than I have in many years.
Drawing a clearer picture
All I have said so far is based on the experience of my parish, my diocese and research done in other churches, particularly the Church of England. But we really need better information about what is happening here in Canada, and how that changes across the country.
That better information is coming. The parish returns for 2020 that go to the dioceses will contain valuable data, which I hope we can harvest and analyze quickly. A few dioceses have asked parishes important questions about how COVID-19 has affected ministry in 2020. I will be looking at financial data from parishes to gain further insight into changes in giving.
But most of all, we need insights from Canadian Anglicans around the country, from coast to coast to coast. We need your insights, your perspectives, your experiences of COVID-19 and the church. The Anglican Church of Canada has been invited to be a part of an international study based in the UK, run by reputable academics, some of whom are Anglican priests. We need as many Canadian Anglicans as possible to take 25 minutes of their time to help us understand what is happening. You can complete the survey online, at: www.yorksj.ac.uk/coronavirus-churchand-you
You’ll also be able to view the results of their 2020 survey at the same website.
May God give you hope and joy as you rise to the challenges of this unique time.
Canon Neil Elliot is the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistics and research officer. He is also incumbent in the parish of St. Andrew and St. George, Trail, B.C. and dean of the diocese of Kootenay’s East Kootenay region.