Bible sales soared by 55 per cent in April at one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores Eden; Holy Trinity Brompton saw turnout for its online Alpha course double during lockdown and the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has hailed the pandemic as a ‘historic spiritual moment’. But what if your approach to Christianity is a little more low-key than ordering bibles online or signing up for an Alpha course?
Since March my already lax approach to Catholicism has come to a juddering halt. A blast of Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on Easter morning is the closest I’ve got to a church since the pandemic descended. In the peak of lockdown, the prospect of a sermon streamed online had the same allure as Friday night Zoom drinks. And since churches reopened their doors in England for public Sunday services on 5 July, online booking systems have stripped the experience of any luxurious spontaneity. During my 20s in London, sliding into the back pew of a Sunday evening service on a whim offered an hour of decompression at the tail end of the weekend.
More recently, with tiny children at home, escaping to Mass last minute — alone — has been the ultimate extravagance. The dulcet tones of the Creed, learnt by heart in childhood, and the soundtrack of the Kyrie have been soothingly familiar. It’s kept me in touch with a faith that I don’t want to lose, without having to dwell too heavily on my belief (or not) in transubstantiation, saints or the role of Mary. A sporadic dose of mindfulness if you like. But Covid has changed that. Sanitising, stewarding at communion, masks and a ban on congregational singing have stripped services of their charm, and distilled them into something much more heavy-going for the kind of churchgoer who has previously been lured by the experience as a whole, rather than the scripture alone.
There has been another glitch. Pre-Covid, whenever my church attendance was going through a phase of pathetic infrequency, a summer calendar packed with weddings acted as a life raft for my faith. Squeezing into a packed village church and belting a rendition of “I Vow to Thee, My Country” was sufficient to reignite enthusiasm for the whole idea. There was something stirring about being instructed to bellow “we will” on being asked as the family and friends to “continue to support and uphold [the couple] in their marriage”. The same declaration loses its infectious energy in a Covid micro-wedding with government guidelines insisting that spoken responses “should not be in a raised voice”. Ditto the prospect of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba playing off Spotify as the bride arrives, with the government’s suggestion to use recorded music where possible.
There was also the smattering of christenings to rely on — now largely on hold — where standing over a font and a squirming Godchild, promising to pray for them and “and walk with them in the way of Christ” steered me back on track. And failing that, a crowded funeral was a sure-fire way to kick me into gear, leaving me clutching for some sort of faith.
As carol service season looms (the bedrock of every lax Christian’s religious calendar) the prospect of a silent congregation is eerily sad — and not very tempting. Nine lessons alone are unlikely to attract the usual heaving crowds of Christmas-only-Christians.
But for all my scepticism, my local parish priest insists that services under the restrictions “are not a bare and barren experience”. “Yes, there’s no singing but otherwise there is a great reverence, peace and serenity,” he says. “And the booking is not that complicated for people who really want to come to church. After all it’s not so different to booking a restaurant.”
He makes a good point — and one that’s particularly apt for ‘generation flake’. It’s about making a commitment. And once you have, there’s one very silver lining of church during Covid. Lingering after the service is off, so there’s no risk of being roped into a weekly coffee rota in the church hall — every ‘casual’ Christian’s greatest fear.