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Sustaining Communities: Lessons from the COVID-19 Chronicles

Published June 08, 2020 by Dr Ed Kessler MBE

Jews, Christians, Muslims, COVID-19 Pandemic, Faith, Community

Over the last couple of months, I have undertaken more than 50 interviews for the two series of the COVID-19 Chronicles. The first series explored reflections from religious leaders around the UK with contributions from Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as Sikh, Hindu and Humanists. The second series consists of interviews around the world, from Melbourne to Moscow and from Los Angeles to Lagos.

There are a number of common themes, which may resonate with you, the reader of this blog, as the COVID-19 pandemic changes the way we live and interact with one another.

Some changes are obvious, such as the use of technology. Whilst we may never have had heard of (or used) Zoom before the lockdown, we have all to adapt to new forms of communication. Watching someone on a screen is harder than being present in a room, which for many, has meant that we listen better. We have also developed a new vocabulary and you, like me, may have said at the day's end, 'I am zoomed out'.

We tend to be more polite to one another and wait for a speaker to finish what she was saying before offering our own thoughts. 'Thank you' is more common and said with more meaning, for example, to the person delivering your Amazon package. Why? Because we actually do mean it.

Contributors to the COVID-19 Chronicles not only mentioned politeness but also – strange as it may seem – greater interaction. Research suggests this is a compensation for our social isolation: we want to connect and since there are few options, when the opportunity occurs, we do stop and say, 'hello' or ask, 'how are you?'. Many of the speakers talked about encounters with neighbours to whom they had not previously spoken or small acts of kindness such as collecting prescriptions or shopping for others.

Faith and community leaders talk about a deeper connection between people in local areas. The weekly NHS clap has helped bring people behind the street onto the street. Social isolation is forming new communities - not simply online communities which are growing rapidly – but a togetherness which, ironically, didn't seem strong when we were actually together. Whether this will last is a topic for another blog.

"What about faith?" contributors were asked. "Has religious practice changed?" Here are some of the answers, which mostly crossed religious divides:


Asking Big Questions: Vincent Nichols, Cardinal of Westminster discussed why more people are asking 'big questions', suggesting that a shared vulnerability and fear of mortality were key factors. Rev Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, agreed and emphasised that asking big questions in response to COVID-19 was resulting in changing values, such as widespread growing appreciation of people whose roles had often been ignored – drivers, care workers, shelf-stackers and so on.

Challenges to Faith and Changes to Practice: Pentecostalist bishop, Joe Aldred, reflected on the death of friends, (particularly among ethnic minority communities), which generated anxiety and questions about whether religious institutions sufficiently support people in their grief. Mourning alone, he suggested, was an existential challenge to faith. For his part, Rabbi Reuven Leigh from Cambridge, explained how the strictly observant Jewish community expanded the number of participants attending funerals: mourners were encouraged to stand on their doorsteps and watch a hearse pass or to follow the service online.

Wider participation: former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talked about his surprise when a participant in a local Church of England service mentioned at the after-service coffee gathering (virtual, of course) that he was attending from Japan; Liberal rabbi, Charley Baginskey, talked about the need for 'nimble religion' and for religious institutions to keep attracting the unaffiliated who are attending services in larger numbers.

Many of these reflections were repeated in overseas interviews but some were specific to their context:

Beyond the UK:

Closure of Places of Worship: Palestinian Muslim leader, Rami Dajani from Jerusalem, talked about unexpectedly widespread communal acceptance when mosques were closed. He had expected resistance but explained that the forced closure of Israeli synagogues by the authorities helped Palestinian Muslims accept mosque closures. However, in Pakistan, leading educator Amineh Hoti, said many mosques remained open, especially in the countryside, and expressed concern about the consequent growth of the contagion.

Resilience: In Iraq, Rev Bill Schwartz (Archdeacon of the Gulf) explained how Iraqis viewed COVID-19 as just one more challenge to overcome. Their resilience was astonishing. This was a theme picked up by Gleb Yastrebov from Moscow.

Equalisation of participation: In New York, Sr Mary Boys mentioned that since her Christian and Jewish seminarians could no longer host one another at their places of worship, there is now an equalisation of participation, which she suggested, was a learning opportunity. This echoed the remarks of Julie Siddiqui, Muslim communal leader in the UK, who pointed to gender equalisation because men, who normally dominated mosques, stayed at home with their family

Religious Buildings: American rabbi, Sarah Bassin, suggested the role of religious buildings would change dramatically when they re-opened. This was not only because of the need to accommodate social distancing but also because religious observance had been brought into the home and worship in the future would be a blended home-synagogue experience.

Time will tell!

Dr Ed Kessler MBE is the Founder Director of the Woolf Institute and hosts the two series: COVID-19 Chronicles & COVID-19 Chronicles: Beyond the UK. Find out more here.

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