Cardus Executive VP Ray Pennings breaks down for Convivium’s Peter Stockland new data on the eagerness of Canadians across faith traditions to gather again in their churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has meant bitter medicine for Canada’s religious faithful but its aftermath could be the good news churches and other houses of worship have been waiting for.
Poll results released today by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Cardus show about 80 per cent of those who attend regular worship service across faith tradition report missing being able to worship together. Forty per cent of them – 50 per cent in British Columbia – feel lockdown restrictions on churches, temples, mosques and synagogues were unfair relative to other sectors of society.
For Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings, the numbers turn upside down the conventional narrative that Canadians only worship together from a sense of obligation or nostalgia.
“The bottom line message of this poll is that people are missing worship more than they thought they would. It highlights the importance of community, of communal in-person worship as part of what holds religious communities together. It’s a core part of our identity,” Pennings told Convivium.
The numbers also show the frustration goes a lot deeper than just finding the door locked at the familiar place of worship. It extends to the way in which the lockdowns interfered with the ability of religious institutions to provide the range of social and civil services that are a natural part of faith life.
“There’s great frustration about that,” Pennings said. “Over 50 per cent say that part of their involvement has had to be cut back because of restrictions. Giving is down. Volunteering is down. Seventy per cent are maintaining connections with their (faith) community by attending online, by continuing some form of corporate worship, but they’re not finding it satisfying or meaningful because they’re not able to volunteer or help because of restrictions.”
He noted that from a Christian perspective, that sense of being locked out of contributing as well as gathering goes to the heart of the faith.
“It speaks to the core piece. The Christian religion emphasizes that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour. Love of God is expressed through love of neighbour. Being totally isolated from everyone as the lockdown forced us to be goes against the very nature of what we understand as the meaning and purpose of religion,” Pennings said.
The Angus Reid results argue that extends across faith traditions, with only about one per cent of respondents reporting that the place of worship they normally attend has remained open throughout the pandemic. More than 70 per cent say the church, synagogue, mosque or temple goers say their usual worship space has been completely or predominantly closed for the past 12 months.
That did not sit well as the faithful watched liquor stores, big box retailers and ski hill and other services deemed “essential” remain accessible during the year of pandemic-driven closures. Pennings said the closures of churches and other institutions seem particularly short-sighted from a purely economic perspective when it’s considered that the religious sector contributed $67.5 billion annual in goods and services across Canada.
That benefits the 80 per cent of Canadians who no longer participate in regular religious services, and underscores the daily life contribution of the 20 per cent who are regular worshippers, he added.
But Pennings said the polls numbers offer a major positive opening for faith-committed Canadians to remind their fellow citizens how important communal gathering is both at a spiritual and a civic level. It also opens the door for religious leaders to engage a revitalized “theology of community” that will revitalize their congregations and perhaps stimulate reconsideration of the importance of worship in society.
It’s a message particularly appropriate for the millennial generation, which other Cardus poll data shows embraces volunteer engagement but lacks understanding of what faith means, he said.
The experience of missing (attending worship together) has highlighted its importance and might invite religious leaders to rearticulate in clear ways for a new generation a theology of worship and a theology of community, of presence in the community. We often think of spiritual life as the life of the mind and the life of the soul.
“It's very abstract: just me and God. I can't see it. I can't touch it. What this is speaking to is (faith) is actually is a group of people physically gathered together joining their voices together. And there is something about that experience, about being together and praying together. There is something about serving other people and being attentive to the needs of our neighbours: seeing them as an image-bearer of God. That's a very tangible expression of faith, and faith becomes real.”