Earlier this week, the DUP’s Edwin Poots suggested that churches could reopen as part of a process of exiting the Covid-19 lockdown.
Poots’s comments have provoked debate. Fr Paddy McCafferty of Corpus Christi parish, Ballymurphy, told BBC Radio Ulster that if reopening could be safely achieved ‘we should certainly look at every possible way of achieving that’. Poots’s DUP colleague Paul Givan made a case for opening of churches with large buildings, arguing that social distancing could be achieved in the same ways as in supermarkets or even the UK Parliament chamber.
Pastor Mark McClurg of Newtownards Elim Church, who was hospitalised with the virus, was more cautious – calling for a wider conversation on how churches could reopen safely. Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast said the churches should ‘absolutely not’ be opened yet. In a detailed blog, Stockman considered social distancing measures that could implemented in churches further down the line, before arguing:
… I also want to make a call to fellow believers to listen to the call of God in all of this. “Love your neighbour” is a more intense and costly call at this moment than maybe any other moment in most of our lives. When we clash the writer to the Hebrews telling us “not to stop meeting together” and Jesus call to “love your neighbour” I believe Jesus wins hands down just now.
As many readers are aware, Christian worship and church activities have not simply ceased because of the Covid-19 lockdown. Many congregations, parishes and denominations are livestreaming or pre-recording worship services. The ‘Digital Parish’ Facebook page is documenting how priests, religious, bishops and lay people have been using digital media during the pandemic. It features a daily interview detailing how ‘virtual religion’ has been experienced around Ireland. Last Sunday, 11, 257 people took part in Dublin Diocese’s online pilgrimage to Knock. More than ‘1.5 million people have watched online services in Knock since March 1st.’
(Image: Bishop Fintan Monahan of Killaloe pictured during one of his live streamed Masses during the Easter Triduum. From ‘The Digital Parish’.)
Belfast has its own notable ‘virtual religion’ experiences, including the Facebook page of St John’s Parish on the Falls Road, which features a ‘thought for the day’ with a truly ecumenical range of contributors. In North Belfast, drag artist Tina Leggs Tantrum leads a nightly rosary on Facebook.
At the start of the lockdown, RTÉ began broadcasting mass daily from St Eunan’s and St Columba’s Cathedral in Letterkenny; and BBC One restored its Sunday morning service after a long break. By all accounts, there has been something of surge in people accessing ‘virtual religion’, although the surge is probably driven mostly by people who would normally be attending church in the flesh, rather than attracting people who are suddenly seeking God in a crisis.
Such initiatives may signal, as Stockman says, that ‘many aspects of Church life have been kept very much alive, maybe more vibrant than ever.’ But none of them are a substitute for meeting together.
Something of the vibrancy of meeting together is captured in a new book, Belfast: City of Light’ by Bronagh Lawson, now available on lulu.
Lawson, an artist, has spent the last decade visiting every church in Belfast. The book – part memoir, part account of her experiences in these churches – is the product of those hundreds of Sunday morning journeys.
With church doors now closed, there’s no better time to join Lawson on those journeys and explore the variety of religious expression and experience in the city.
Lawson’s account is made more compelling by her confession that before her project, she ‘was disgusted by what had happened in Northern Ireland in the name of religion’ and believed that ‘organised religion was best avoided’ (p. 2).
But after working 13 years in cross-community, cross-border developments, she was burnt out and exhausted. During an impulsive visit to a church in Dublin with a friend, she experienced a great flow of energy trickling down her head. This experience prompted her to attend a church service near where she lived in East Belfast. Over time, she felt moved to visit more and more churches, a process she described as following an artistic thread of creative enquiry.
Much of the book recounts Lawson’s personal spiritual experiences, including perceiving what she describes as positive energy flows around worshipping believers and feeling some of that energy herself. She also recounts how her experiences fed into her art, including an art installation at the inter-church 4 Corners Festival.
(Image: Lawson, far left, with Rev Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley,and former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister Carál Ní Chuilín at the 4 Corners Festival 2015)
As the debates earlier this week about reopening church services have reminded us, the communal aspects of religion are just as important as individual experience. And although Lawson’s account is largely individualistic, there is some recognition of the significance of communities of faith. She admits that the spirituality she perceives among worshippers has something to do with their collective commitment, over many years, simply to meet together.
Lawson doesn’t offer a blow-by-blow account of every service she attended or person she met; rather short descriptions of her interactions are interspersed with her own reflections. For me, one particularly moving passage was Lawson’s comparison of the energy generated by gospel hall worshippers with that of Buddhist monks. Two additional passages stuck with me and provide a sense of the book. One is a compassionate account of a street preacher (p. 111):
‘Before starting this church-attending odyssey I would have crossed the road to avoid a street preacher, but when I noticed one yesterday handing out leaflets and singing a hymn on the street I didn’t. … A teenager walked past taking the leaflet and said, “Anyone want a leaflet? It’s just a leaflet.” … I could see the man was filled with the spirit and wanted to share that experience …’
The other is her short conversation with a 106-year-old woman at a church in Donegal Road, which raises questions about how women continue to be overlooked in some churches, despite lifetimes of faithfulness (p. 104):
‘… when I commented that I thought I needed new glasses to read their hymn books … [she replied] “I always thought we just needed books in larger type.” Has her opinion ever been sought I thought? How many years has she been thinking that, with no one to listen to her?’
Ultimately, Lawson’s Sunday morning journeys have led her to lament the decline in churchgoing in Belfast in recent years. She confesses that her experiences have ‘washed away any darkness that lurked in my godless life and brought unimagined blessings.’ She says that churches are ‘pockets of light’ that can act as catalysts for personal and societal transformation (p. 146).
These ‘pockets of light’ have moved online for the time being. But Lawson’s book gives us a way to enter their doors again and consider what, if anything, the churches have to offer in terms of healing, love, and those all-important human connections.
Gladys is a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She is also a runner who has represented Ireland and Northern Ireland. She blogs on religion and politics at gladysganiel.com