By Tim Maby, 31 March 2020
The national lockdown to protect against the spread of Covid-19 is having a major effect on a stream of religious festivals due to take place this spring. Ceremonies have been cancelled in all places of worship and no religious processions will be allowed on our streets.
Religious groups, however, are coming up with imaginative solutions beyond simply moving online. The Church of England, for example, is planning a national hymn-singing in gardens and at front doors at 10am on Easter Day.
Details were revealed at an online briefing organised by the Religion Media Centre today, when faith leaders and academics spoke to more than 40 journalists. They explained that some of the most colourful events of the British year are being lost.
Many C of E churches have had to abandon their Good Friday processions around the country next month, the ecumenical Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic Easter procession through Westminster will not take place this year and the Sikh parade for Vaisakhi through Southall in west London is cancelled.
The closure of almost all places of worship across the nation means that major religious ceremonies will not be performed in cathedral, mosque, synagogue or gurdwara. The annual celebrations of smaller groups such as the Baha’is and the Pagans are also squeezed out by the ban on any gatherings of more than two people.
Faith groups say that it is not the display that is their greatest loss, but the effect on community cohesion. Imam Sayed Razawi says that the fasting of Ramadan, starting on 23 April, is a main annual time of community interaction, when Muslims meet to bolster community cohesion. The obligations of worship can mostly be continued at home, but community spirit is built by social interaction.
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, of the largest orthodox Jewish synagogue in Britain, Golders Green, explains that the primary concern of the Passover celebrations next month is the gathering of the family, including all generations, due to begin on 8 April. It is the most widely observed ritual in Jewish life and involves the transmission of Jewish identity through the age groups by story and song, which will not be allowed this year.
Of course the simple closing of all places of worship has a continuing effect on religious life, not only these annual celebrations. Dr Jasjit Singh says the closure of Sikh gurdwaras has hit the elderly, who would normally visit daily.
Imam Razawi is concerned that a prolonged lockdown may leave people, especially the elderly and those living alone, with potential depression and other psychological issues. This is why virtual faith communities will play an important role.
The Rev Tony Miles reports that there are only four Methodist churches in Britain where people are allowed to gather, but in strictly reduced numbers.
Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley admits that church closures are a big bone of contention. The policy is made to protect “my neighbour’s welfare” and the aim is to protect health by not encouraging gathering in any numbers. She acknowledges that people suffer grief from that decision. As a result many faiths are turning to the internet to link their communities.
Bishop Hartley says that the C of E set up a digital team three years ago and now many clergy are streaming online services from their homes, instead of churches.
Imam Razawi has discovered that 103 mosques in Britain now use online “virtual participation” for weekly services and last Saturday even kept the link open for everyone to share a “virtual cup of tea” online.
However Orthodox Jews are forbidden to use electronic devices on the Sabbath Saturday, although Rabbi Belovski reports that a breakaway group of rabbis have allowed the rule to be dispensed with for a period of time, of which he disapproves. Ben Rich of the Jewish Reform movement, which makes up a third of the British Jewish community, says it is streaming services.
The Methodist Church has decided it cannot stream Holy Week communion services, involving the sharing of bread and wine, Mr Miles says, because it is felt that a “virtual space is not real enough for people to be in communion with one another”. So his church is experimenting with new “smart stage” technology that allows all worship leaders to be seen and up to 300 people can take part.
Nevertheless all the faith groups participating in the seminar supported the Church of England’s plan to have a national outdoor hymn singing on Easter morning.
Get your books open for first ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’ and then ‘Thine Be The Glory’, 10am sharp.
Speakers at the RMC Zoom briefing were:
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski (Golders Green synagogue)
Dr Jasjit Singh (Leeds University)
Imam Sayed Razawi (chief imam and director-general of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society)
Rev Tony Miles (Methodist Central Hall, Westminster)
Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley
Graham Harvey (Professor of religious studies, Open University)
pic: Frank Pickavant