We are studying the impact of the pandemic on British ritual life, but we are also learning to live and work under Covid-19: making the most of, and making peace with, our circumstances and capabilities. We have a pandemic-friendly means of collecting our data (an online survey), which allows us to explore a UK-wide remit, and which Dr Paula Kolata described for you in our first blog post. However, as anyone who has ever worked with surveys can tell you, the “if you build it, they will come”* approach to public engagement in Web 2.0 doesn’t work. Reaching out and communicating the message of the project directly to you and your wider communities is still so important.
There are benefits, certainly, to working under Covid-19: the burst of online events makes it easier for our small project team to meet people without the constraining factors of time/distance/cost. When our project team first assembled, for instance, we joined the Theology and Worship Group, an informal network of spiritual leaders affiliated with the United Reformed Church. We spoke to the c. 20 attendees from across the UK about the research project and answered questions about the survey and our approach. We asked that those gathered might pass it to their congregations, colleagues, friends and families. We then listened to successive speakers reflect on all aspects of religious life in this ‘new normal’.
Engaging in these discussions gives us more than a survey bump. If informs our research by offering us insights into how adaptation under duress has affected ritual making and gathering. Doubtless, these experiences are specific to time, place and belief. Covid-19 has exacerbated regional and cultural differences in the UK. It’s highlighted the insidious inequalities within society and public health system. Ritual making is never divorced from this social context. However, many faith and belief communities will also recognise the universal in others’ experiences: the furious adjustments made at the end of March; the strain in meeting ongoing challenges; the considerable resilience of communities bearing insurmountable hurdles in whatever ways they can; a sense that these strange times may bring with them increased resolve or purpose.
Within this maelstrom, the fast adoption of tech solutions hasn’t necessarily been the panacea it’s often portrayed as. Many are still grappling with the implications of these new methods for ritual events or gatherings. We are, too. As one of the speakers from the URC noted, the rise in online activity might present as an embarrassment of riches, but joining services or events is “not as easy as it might look”. His question - of you become “part of things you’re not already a part of” in this digital world - concerns us too, as researchers. Online networks can be harder to access, especially when the digital is the only realm open. Some congregations, for instance, have had to protect their communities from harassment by securing their meetings with passwords. You still need an invitation to cross an online threshold.
We are actively seeking that contact and conversation. Our most pressing task of these first months has been building an informed engagement strategy from reports, census data, and more recent studies, which reflects the many landscapes of faith and belief in the UK. Our directory is growing, and we have now made approaches to over 350 associations, organisations, congregations, communities, leaders, and businesses. If you hear from us, if you have any upcoming online gatherings and your members might be interested in this research, get in touch. Please invite us - we would love to come.
* For all lovers of this baseball fan film, this is an exceptionally popular misquotation from Field of Dreams (1989), which has now become stuck in public engagement discourse.