While Britain endures it’s third round of lockdown, with some calls for an even stricter “clampdown” by some members of the SAGE, among the restrictions is that on meeting up for organised religion, aside from a small window around the Christmas period to allow for worship, it’s been nearly 10 months of closure for places of worship.
Religious leaders from the heads of the Church of England and the Muslim Council of the UK have advised their communities to not hold organised worship and to follow government advice.
How has Islam been affected?
It’s been particularly stressed by Muslim leaders since BAME people, whom make up the majority of Britain’s Muslim population are particularly affected by the COVID-19 virus. This combined with the Muslim calendar being based around large mass worship and shared meals, as well as the Intergenerational nature of many Muslim households mean the risk of virus transmissions is higher than their non religious, white counterparts.
Many Muslim festivals -which involve large groups meeting up as a community- have been off the cards since the beginning of the pandemic, the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast for daylight hours and eat after the sun goes down, was a particularly tough time of year for all, but for that 3.6% of the NHS that had to fast while working, it was particularly tough, like Hospital Worker Hani Benmokaddem, who spoke about his experience during the height of the first wave:
“It was really quite difficult this year, Ramadan is a time to focus on your relationship with Allah, and to come together as families and communities. Usually we’d meet up after sundown to have a meal together, with my family, extended family and neighbours, like how you’d celebrate Christmas, which this year couldn’t happen. I work in a hospital for the NHS too so it was really really tough for me working through the pandemic and not being able to eat and being on your feet all day. I feel like the experience has been good for me and my relationship with god and I’ve had lots to think about, but I know that some people who’ve had their jobs and livelihoods taken have struggled, so I’m grateful for what I have”
The Annual Pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah bring millions of worshippers to Mecca every year, as well as $1.6 billion in revenue to the city, with Hajj being a once in a lifetime experience for most Muslims since the week off of work required can be prohibitive, along with the significant cost of flying family members, accommodation and costs within the city meaning its usually the result of a long period of saving specifically for.
Many Muslim families planning to attend Hajj or Umrah this year have lost out on their savings as companies haven’t been offering refunds, similarly to the flight refunding chaos during the first lockdown.
Mass closures of churches?
The UK could also be facing a looming mass closure of places of worship once society goes back to the “new normal”, since many are struggling due to a lack of funding due to the absence of organised worship and therefore the collection plate.
In addition to this, older people who may be unfamiliar with the technology to allow life to function during the Pandemic, as well as being financially unable to afford expensive devices like tablets and modern mobile phones, these groups face being left behind.
Christine Llewelyn, a churchgoer of 60 years from Penarth described her frustration:
“Some of these new devices and apps are so confusing for me and people my age. My grandchildren have no problem using it because they grew up with it, but for a lot of people in church my age, its been a real pain trying to figure out how to use things like zoom and WhatsApp, especially for people who are older who don’t have relatives nearby or live alone. I know that some people aren’t able to access the church services online because they don’t have £400 you need to buy an iPhone or iPad on a state pension”
Although traditional sects of Christianity are facing closures, it would seem that smaller, independent or non denominational churches could make up the religious landscape of the “new normal”, with 60 of these churches opening in the last 5 years, although they lack the funding that their Church of England and Catholic brethren have, meaning they’re more susceptible to closing than their traditional counterparts.
These new, young churches who’s congregations are made up from the technologically literate under 60 demographic have seen the pandemic as a boon, allowing for worship to be held online through zoom and pre-recorded sermons, allowing for a sense of community and normality in confusing times.
Baptist minister Simon Jennings spoke about how the pandemic has affected worship:
“It’s been an interesting time. We were definitely looking into Some things that seemed important pre-pandemic, that maybe weren’t more important post pandemic. It’s definitely been a time for reflection and a good chance to move forward. We’ve always had the idea there for conducting worship online, we just didn’t have an opportunity to test it out. I think that people being able to connect to things from home has actually increased our interactivity somewhat, we used to run a weekly prayer group at 9am, pre-pandemic it was only a few people, however during we’ve actually seen an increase of people getting involved. I’m assuming that it’s easier for people to get to something that early in the morning, not having to get dressed and able to join in their pajamas. Whereas before with church people have to find something that they feel is appropriate to wear and to find the time for the meeting in the day, I’ve noticed that people have more time and are more than happy to join in their pajamas”
While religion clearly is transforming to utilise technology to help people both interested and faithful access it, whether or not the traditions of old will remain when we reach the “new normal” remains unclear.
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