UK 

Thousands of churches adapted "at a moment’s notice" to providing worship at home when lockdown started in March, 2020, according to a new report by the Church of England. The statistics in the report tell the story of the move's success.

The Church At Home 2020 report reveals that, after the Church of England accelerated its existing digital communication training program for both congregations and clergy, some 7,000 people were trained in digital communications, live streaming and running online communities, seven times the figure for the previous year.

More than 9,000 churches (78 per cent) provided 'Church at Home' online, via email, post and telephone during the first lockdown when collective worship was suspended due to coronavirus restrictions. More than 8,000 churches offered livestreamed or pre-recorded services, while more than 5,000 (44 per cent) offered services downloadable from a website or emailed. More than 4,000 (33 per cent) provided printed and posted services while over 2,000 (21 per cent) provided telephone or dial in services.

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A service being streamed from Portsmouth Cathedral. PICTURE: Portsmouth Cathedral

The report's findings were mirrored by similar research undertaken by a specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical, highlighting almost nine in 10 churches used alternative ways to keep in touch with congregations during lockdown.

“We had never thought of broadcasting online before the pandemic. We have been thrilled by the results.”

- Rev Canon Andrew Evans.

Ecclesiastical’s findings revealed that 87 per cent of respondents said they used new channels that they hadn’t previously utilised, with 78 per cent using Zoom to hold video calls with congregations. Other churches used alternatives such as Skype (12 per cent) and other video chat (eight per cent) such as WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams to maintain a sense of community. Eighteen per cent of churches used Facebook live to stream sermons directly to parishioners.

It was not just the regular congregations who were seeking spiritual help. People from all walks of life were linking into Church at Home or CAH. YouTube-hosted 'Faith in Our Village' videos issued by the Wiltshire parish of Broughton Gifford, Great Chalfield and Holt, for example, attracted thousands of viewers, with online services attracting around 400 viewers compared to a maximum in person size of around 120 before the pandemic.

“We had never thought of broadcasting online before the pandemic," said Rev Canon Andrew Evans, who looks after the three churches in Wiltshire. "We have been thrilled by the results.”  

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Watching a Church of England service online. PICTURE: Courtesy of the Church of England. Find out more about the CofE’s national online worship at cofe.io/ChurchOnline.

Even after the initial lockdown ended, not everyone was able to attend collective worship. There were restrictions on the number of people who could be inside a building, and many people were also shielding from COVID-19 and so unable to even consider attending conventional services. By the time England's second lockdown began last October, 90 per cent of churches that had originally offered CAH services still provided them each week in what the report said was an indication that CAH services had become part of the regular pattern of worship offered by churches to their congregations.  

In a statement released with the report, Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, said that the work of the churches over the pandemic "meant that many have been able to discover the Christian faith and hear the good news of Jesus Christ for the first time.”

The Ecclesiastical Insurance research indicated that almost a third of churches experienced an increase in attendance due to the move to digital channels.

Rev Chris Rushton, of Holy Trinity Church, Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent, began live streaming on Facebook, initially reaching around 400 views rising to over 900 views for Sunday services with attendees from all over the world.  

"Like all churches we went into lockdown and our doors closed to the public – but the church isn’t just about the building," he told Sky News. "It’s the people, the community. So we brought the church to them! We’ve had people watching from other parts of the UK, Portugal, Spain and even Australia – so it’s like we’ve got a whole new congregation to cater to. This is definitely the future of our church.”



Music was seen as equally essential. Hymns were downloaded more than a million times as part of a resource provided by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London working with the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). This facility was launched through the Church of England's 'A Church Near You' resource hub website based on the hymns used during services.

Hugh Morris, director of RSCM, told Sight the organisation already had links with St Martin-in-the-Fields through which member churches receive selections of hymns for worship that they can use as a guide.

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Hugh Morris, director of the Royal School of Church Music. PICTURE: Supplied.

"When lockdown happened, we had a very short time to organise and put together suitable hymns. We were doing 100 a day, and any church could join in for a hymn.” 

Morris said the popularity of the scheme exceeded expectations.

“Online hymns has been enormously successful with over 1.4 million users. It ticked all the boxes needed in lockdown. The resource is still available, a lot of churches are using it online. This desire to include quality resources in worship is music to our ears. As a charity we aim to engage people in music, and this is a really good example of collaboration at a time when music was so needed.”

In Scotland, Rev Lis Stenhouse of Cleish Church - which is linked with Fossoway, St Serfs and Devonside, sent a weekly email to members of the churches uinder the banner of 'Hymns through Lockdown'. It was also shared on the Scottish Churches Disability Group website for anyone to use if they wished, with the aim that people could "listen and join in whenever they want their own worship, whenever feeling down or in need of a pick me up.” 

The hymns included a mix of traditional and more contemporary, ranging from Abide with Me and Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory to As The Deer Pants For The Water and How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.

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A Church of England being streamed online during lockdown. PICTURE: Courtesy of the Church of England. Find out more about the CofE’s national online worship at cofe.io/ChurchOnline.

Even now, more than 18 months since that first lockdown began, many churches such as that in Broughton Gifford are continuing with some form of CAH.  

“The online morning worship zoom service is on a Sunday weekly and those that join the service are mainly from the local area," said Rev Canon Evans. "We are a rural benefice. One of our congregation member joins us from abroad where they are working currently. With the installation of wi-fi into St Katherine’s church at Holt recently we are investigating the possibility of live streaming services”.  

“Towards the end of last year at St Katherine’s Church, 'Outdoor Church' was started monthly and this has been popular with all ages. It has for the most part this year been a weekly service.”

He added that the parish is continuing with its popular YouTube video series.

“The videos on the 'Faith in our Village' YouTube channel and the online services have held the church during lockdowns and whilst easing out of restrictions. In the future more short videos for sharing on social media will be produced.” 

Online and digital worship is set to form a long term part of spiritual life. Thousands of people continue to link into the online prayer for the day, and online services.

“Online services and videos have become part of a toolkit for how churches can offer worship," Archbishop Cottrell said in the statement. "It is inspiring to see the life of our parishes sustained and revitalised in this way.“