When we set up this project back in the summer, we were very conscious that, if we wanted to examine the full diversity of British religious life, we would have to find a way to work beyond the limits of our own areas of expertise. I’m very proud of the team and partners we’ve assembled, but no team could cover the breath of faiths and practices we have in this country, all of which have been affected by the pandemic in profound but distinct ways. And thinking that researchers could understand ritual adaptations to COVID better than leaders and communities who are doing the work on the ground is, frankly, arrogant.
And more importantly, it’s not what BRIC-19 aims to do. The main remit of this project is not to study ritual adaptation in the face of COVID for its own sake, though of course we have both the ability and the responsibility as researchers to take a step back, to look at the whole picture, and to place particular cases in social, historical and theoretical context. But our primary job is to use that study to inform and support the work of religious professionals and leaders who are trying to serve their communities’ needs in these extraordinary times. We’re looking to understand what’s going on, but we want to see how that understanding is useful to those doing the work on the ground.
This is why we’re assembling a group of (mostly) professionals who lead and guide the ritual lives of communities of different kinds around the UK. We call this the action research group. We’re looking for passionate, thoughtful, and creative people who want to find the best ways to serve their communities’ ritual needs, even now. We want to offer our support to help them take the data, patterns, and insights that are being uncovered by the BRIC-19 project and put them into practice in a way that is appropriate for their own situation. Each one will apply our findings differently, and this is our goal; we’re looking to recruit a diverse group of members for the group so we can better see the breadth of ritual adaptations that can take place.
Action research is a well-established method across the arts and humanities for research that is addressing a practical problem. My own background is in theatre and performance studies, and in that field, it’s relatively common to try to deploy the creative methods we use in developing new work as a tool to help develop new methods to address practical problems. (In our field, the work of the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal and his friend and colleague, pedagogue Paulo Friere.) In general, the process of action research is based on iterations of ideas for action, testing of them out, and refinement. So the members of the action research group will develop an idea of how to put the project’s findings into action, try it out, and report back to us and the group as to how it went. Then they’ll refine their techniques from that, and try the process again. (What counts as success is, of course, up to each professional to define for themselves.) Hearing about their colleagues’ experiences should be helpful for the other members of the group, but it will also be useful for our research. When the patterns that we see from our reading, surveys and case studies hit the practical reality of putting them to use, they may get questioned, refined and re-worked.
Quite a few scholars of ritual have observed some patterns in the ways in which rituals are conducted and the spiritual needs they serve that seem to cross traditions. Will we see those patterns in the way the different members of the group respond to the pandemic? It’s too soon to say. But we do hope that the members of the action research group, as fellow professionals working on different but kindred tasks, will be able to support each other. Much interfaith dialogue happens at the practical level of how things can be done, including pastoral care and ritual observance. We’re hope that the action research group is a fruitful and productive site for this kind of exchange.
And while hearing about their colleagues’ experiences should be helpful for the other members of the group, it will be also useful for our research, giving us a chance to test our findings against the reality of lived religious experience. That means action research group is a key part of the work BRIC-19 is doing. They’re the way we can bring in the practical, lived wisdom of religious professionals across the country, and develop our findings into something refined, robust and useful. And they’re our way of making sure that our academic work stays valuably close to the lived reality of British religious life and doesn’t float away into some ivory tower bubble.* The group is also our way of tapping into the immense wisdom and creativity that already exists amongst British ritual makers, and sharing that as broadly as possible. Frankly, we’d be foolish not to.
In the end, the public will get a chance to hear the stories of our action group in our final report and public event in the summer of 2021. You’ll hear about what they tried, what worked, what didn’t, and what they learned from this experience. Our hope is that hearing about their experiences will give other religious leaders inspiration, ideas and suggestions as to how they can serve their own communities both during the pandemic and as it fades away. We’re hoping that you’ll also see stories from the action research group here on the blog, and we’re looking into other ways that they can be more involved in ensuring the impact and legacy of this project after the summer of 2021.
So, if you know someone who might be a good candidate for being part of the action research group, please get in touch. If you’d like to learn more from them, watch this space. We’ll have stories to tell very soon.
*Honestly, ivory-tower-style research is not really our style. All of us on the project do the research we do because we want to know more about the lived reality of people’s lives. We’re more interested in learning about what’s out there and what will come next than what ought to be in some theoretical world. That orientation – ethnography over theology, if you’d like to put it that way – is one of the things that brings us together as a team.