Towards the end of his landmark work A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that, while churches in the west have emptied at an accelerating rate in the 21st century, most of us still seemed to value their presence in our cities, towns and villages. Traditional places of worship are still cherished, Prof Taylor suggested, because they act “partly as a holder of ancestral memory, partly as a resource against some future need (eg a rite of passage, especially a funeral); or as a source of comfort and orientation in the face of some collective disaster”.
That the coronavirus pandemic counts as a “collective disaster” is beyond dispute. But, at least in a physical sense, our churches, mosques and synagogues have found themselves unable to provide a space of refuge. As with almost all other forms of human bonding, faith has been driven into the cybersphere by the need to socially distance. With the pews empty, this will be an Easter weekend like no other, both for regular churchgoers and for those who, in uniquely challenging times, might have been tempted to pay a visit.
The timing of the lockdown has been cruel for the three main Abrahamic religions. Easter is preceded by the Jewish Passover and followed by Ramadan. Collective commemoration, reflection and celebration lie at the very core of these great religious festivals. But for Jews this week, the traditional gathering of extended families for the Seder meal (marking the ancient Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt) could only take place via Zoom and Skype. As one American rabbi drily observed: “Judaism is (temporarily) not in the synagogue. Judaism is now in the cloud – which, let the record note, is a biblical euphemism for God.”
The rites of passage to which Prof Taylor referred have been diminished to the point of being unrecognisable, stripped of the joys and consolations that come from communal witness. Guest lists for church weddings and baptisms have been torn up. Funerals have become heartbreakingly lonely affairs, with mourners limited, at best, to immediate family members. The ritual washing of the body before Islamic and Jewish burials has been jeopardised and complicated by fear of infection and limited access to personal protective equipment.
As churches celebrate the Paschal mysteries behind closed doors, there has been some concern that, in countries such as Britain, coronavirus might finish off the job that decades of western secularisation began. Religious observance is a habit as well as an affirmation of faith; habits, once interrupted, are sometimes hard to resume. Given the work done by people of faith in helping the homeless, running food banks and channeling vital aid overseas, it is to be hoped that such fears are groundless.
There is already evidence to suggest that they are. A study has found that as the pandemic spread last month, Google searches for the word “prayer” boomed across 75 countries, dwarfing anything previously seen in data going back to 2004. In Britain, online streaming of services from churches has generated virtual congregations far bigger than the numbers of those previously attending in person. A similar pattern is being observed in Jewish synagogues. Isolation seems to be breeding the opposite of spiritual apathy.
Britain’s churches, mosques and synagogues must continue to play their part in helping the country through this ordeal, as they will do this weekend. The idea of sacrifice lies at the heart of the Christian meaning of Easter. On a gloriously sunny bank holiday weekend, staying at home will be a necessary sacrifice for all of us to make. There will be more to come.