Theorizing the Concept of Community

Anne Lundahl Mauritsen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aarhus University

As the spring approaches, we in the Danish team are preparing for our upcoming writing retreat in Barcelona. Each national team in the RECOVIRA project must contribute with at least two articles and it is our ambition to dig deep into the writing of our two articles during our retreat. For now, we have planned that the first article will present analyses of the findings from the Danish fieldwork while the second article will compare results from the Danish fieldwork with the quantitative survey data formerly collected in Denmark as part of the “COVID-19: Religion and Existential Wellbeing” project [1]. While the articles are still being set up, we do have some specific ideas as to their content, especially the first article.

This first article – which will be in Danish – will dig into the theme of community and how it is conceptualized among the informants in the different religious groups. In our last blogpost, we described how the senses came into play, when the informants described how they had missed meeting physically with their group. Touching and hugging each other, having eye contact, smelling each other, and smiling to each other were described as key factors in constituting the feeling of connection and we will examine this more closely in the first article. However, while the article is based on empirical analyses, we have also been working on shaping a theoretical framework which can inform our analyses.

The concept of community is a category of practice used among folks in their everyday conversations, but it is also a category of analysis used among academics. Community has been defined and discussed by several academics, and we have chosen to focus specifically on the way sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and Axel Honneth examined the concept, since they are some of the most distinguished modern sociologists, but also because they approach community in quite different ways. Bauman, on the one hand, is rather pessimistic in how he views communities. While he acknowledges that community to many is a concept of positive connotations that symbolizes security and social coherency, he also argues that being part of a community is always in opposition to being a fully free individual, since being part of a community according to Bauman requires ‘absolute obedience’ and thus forces the individual to give up upon its freedom and trust in individuals outside said community. Honneth, on the other hand, underscores the liberating potential of communities. He argues that when the individual is part of a well-functioning, caring community, it enables the individual to express itself fully and safely, thus experiencing the community as a extending its freedom rather than limiting it.

Thus, there are quite different approaches to community, and we are inspired by this diversity in our empirical analyses. We look forward to engaging further with these perspectives as we continue with our writing and hope it will contribute with fruitful thinking to the overall RECOVIRA project.


[1] https://ccrs.ku.dk/research/centres-and-projects/covid-19–religion-and-existential-wellbeing/

Researchers of Religion, Digital Media, and Rituals Met in Helsinki

Katriina Hulkkonen, Linda Annunen and Ruth Illman, Åbo Akademi University

An international group of researchers interested in religion, digital media, rituals, and death gathered at the University of Helsinki on 13–15 March 2024. The seminar was jointly organized by the research projects Recovira and Digital Death, DiDe.

The seminar was opened on Wednesday 13 March by a keynote lecture delivered by Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University. His theme was “Death rites online and absent. Death ritual through virtual presence and literal absence: the paradox of live-streaming funerals and the absence of ritual in ‘direct cremation”. Davies’ presentation highlighted a ludic, or playful, attention to death and funerals. Play bends the rules in order to create something new, which becomes apparent especially in two funeral trends: the “no-fuss-funerals”, which are stripped of typical funeral aesthetics and traditions, and funerals carried out as a celebration of life. In this sense, rituals in times of change might bring forth ludicity that in turn allows for changes in funeral rituals.

Prof. Douglas Davies opened the seminar with a keynote lecture on the theme of death rituals in digital age. Prof. Joshua Edelman, PI of the Recovira team, responded with reflections on performativity and play. Image credit – Ruth Illman

The following day was reserved for a roundtable seminar where the researchers of Recovira and DiDe discussed their preliminary results in-depth. In the first roundtable session “Religious communities in digital contexts: Trends and transformations”, Henrik Reintoft Christensen and Alana Vincent talked about the current state of our Recovira project as well as the benefits and challenges of using survey data and social media materials. The presentations sparked discussion on how technology shapes religion and religious communities and how a critical approach could be formed within the Recovira project. In other words, how could our research better consider and critically examine the negative aspects of digitalization and the power structures that relate to it? The participants asked very interesting questions, for example: What is the position of commercial technology companies in the field of religion? What opportunities do religious communities have to respond to or resist increasing digitalization? 

The second roundtable session of the afternoon focused on ritual changes, death, and grief. First, Dorthe Christensen discussed the perspective offered by the autoethnographic method to study digital death practices and grief. Terhi Utriainen then talked about various perspectives for examining death rituals. At the same time, she presented the forthcoming Handbook on Contemporary Death Rituals in Europe. The presentations gave rise to a lively discussion, where for example the definition and use of the concept of ritual was scrutinized. Is there an end to a ritual? Are classics, like the ritual theories of Victor Turner or Catherine Bell, still relevant today? Moreover, what kind of new theoretical tools do we need to study death rituals?

The day continued with an open panel discussion led by Professor Johanna Sumiala, PI of the DiDe team. The speakers were the author, columnist and pastor Hilkka Olkinuora, the funeral home entrepreneur Kyllikki Forsius, the director Hannu Mäkelä from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency, the researcher Maija Butters from the University of Helsinkiand the Vantaa-based Imam Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

Death in Finland Today: the public panel discussion at the Think Corner drew a large audience both on-site and online. From left: Johanna Sumiala, Hilkka Olkinuora, Kyllikki Forsius, Hannu Mäkelä, Maija Butters and Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

During the conversation, the panelists offered different viewpoints on practices and attitudes toward death. They largely agreed that nowadays, the silent and natural death of an individual is hidden while the violence of death has received a lot of attention in the media, especially due to wars. The discussion highlighted the importance of funeral homes, bureaucracy, and the role of relatives in practical matters related to death. The panelists presented their views on the change in funeral customs in Finland. Based on the discussion, funerals have become more individual. The panelists’ views also resonate with our Finnish Recovira data, according to which in the case of the Lutheran Church, people want to arrange smaller funerals than before. However, the discussion also revealed that funerals are often large in the Muslim community. For example, community members not close to the deceased may also come to pray at the funeral. In addition, the panelists pondered, what kind of a place social media is for dealing with grief, how the fear of death is visible today’s Finland, and whether there should be more education related to death. Based on the discussion, death rituals are still important for communities, relatives and loved ones, as well as for the dying person her- or himself in dealing with death and grief. The panel discussion ended with the wish that people would be present for the dying person and talk more about mortality in general.

On Friday, both projects continued with internal project meetings. For the Recovira-team, this included planning a book that will focus on overlappings and differences expressed in the research data from all project countries. In addition to these more concrete plans for the Recovira project, for us members of the Finnish team, this three-day seminar offered interesting and different topics for reflection concerning, among other things, creativity, critical research on digitalisation and religion, the limits of the use of the concept of ritual, and people’s somewhat changed relationship with death.

Diving into the data and sensing the importance of senses

Anne Lundahl Mauritsen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aarhus University

As the RECOVIRA project proceeds, we are still in the process of analyzing the data in both Denmark and in the other participating countries. In our former Danish blogpost, we emphasized to clear trends in the data: First, that all the Danish religious communities we have visited have returned to meeting physically and second, that resources are highly conditional for how the groups adapt digitally. As we plan the articles we will write this spring, out interest in understanding the community aspect has only increased. What is it about community which is so hard to replicate online and which makes people go back to meeting face to face rather than digitally? To near an answer to this question, we will present just a few quotes from informants in the study. Interestingly, both informants in their quotes mention the importance of the senses:

 “I mean, the many, many smells are an important element. I have – on a regular Sunday – counted the many, between 8-12 nationalities at a regular Sunday service (…) The sensual, the sensual means something, I mean in my lecture this Sunday I will touch upon Grundtvig’s thesis of how we’re human first and then Christians, there is something about how being human opens for the sensual which then becomes an opening towards the divine”

“Well, if I should tie this up, then I would say that what is essential to me is the community where we look each other in the eyes and sense each other, it has been the smells, it can be different things, and that can never be replaced by digital, by a digital presence”

Clearly, to both informants the senses which come into play in the presence of other community members are an important part of feeling connected and clearly this is lacking in a digital service. It seems as if smelling each other and gaining eye contact are key factors in feeling part of the group, which could potentially have interesting explanations founded in theories from the fields of psychology and evolutionary biology as well as aesthetic studies. There is much more to unpack in terms of what constitutes community, but we have a strong feeling of this being an important starting point, which we will pursue over the next few months of analysis.

Jewish burials: open air and on-line

Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions, Södertörn University

Restrictions during the pandemic meant a return to more traditional burial practices, as well as radical changes for Jews in Sweden.

The Jewish communities in Sweden were severely affected early on in the pandemic due to the fact that the first wave of covid infections coincided with the holiday Purim, when family members from various generations get together to celebrate. The virus also made it into the Jewish senior residence in Stockholm, resulting in a number of fatalities. This probably accelerated the decision-making process in the Jewish communities in Sweden, in comparison with many other religious communities, and as of March 19th, 2020, the Great Synagogue in Stockholm closed for IRL services and started sending zoom services for Friday kabbalat shabbat as well as a weekday morning service.[1]

Due to the number of early casualties, the Jewish burial societies were forced to speed up the process of burial, so that in many cases the burial took place the same day that the person had died, or at least the following. This is essentially a return to a more traditional Jewish practice, where speedy burials are the ideal, even if this is seen as a rare thing in Swedish society, where Christian burials are often postponed for several weeks until the family members can agree on a suitable date. On the other hand, the speedy burials during the pandemic meant overcoming a previous resistance to use of digital media. In the past, there had been a reluctance to even allowing photos to be taken during the burial. Now there was a clash between two principles that were both perceived as important: on the one hand the practice of the speedy burial, on the other hand, the commandment to attend funerals. It is considered a mitzvah, a meritorious deed, to attend burials, especially for friends and family, but also for others. During the pandemic, however, due to restrictions on travel, often not even the closest relatives could attend IRL. Was it then reasonable to prevent relatives from attending the funeral through livestream? Before long, this had become an accepted part of Jewish burials, enabling friends and family who were sheltered in their homes, or maybe lived in Israel, to attend the funerals. And so it has remained after the pandemic.

Another clash was between Jewish traditional practice and the restrictions for religious gatherings imposed by the Swedish government, a maximum of eight participants during the height of the pandemic. Many Jewish prayers, such as the kaddish, the prayer for the departed, requires a minyan, a group of ten adult (traditionally, male) Jews. This was however solved by transferring the funeral service outside. A new tradition developed where only the closest family was allowed into the funeral chapel to say their goodbye to the deceased. The rest of the mourners waited outside where the traditional ceremony then took place, and where the participants could keep a safe distance, and where the restrictions of merely eight participants did not apply.

[1] Baran, Rachel. 2020. När fysiska religiösa rum stängs och digitala mötesplatser öppnas. En kvalitativ studie av judiskt församlingsliv under coronapandemin våren 2020. Stockholms universitet.

Image credit: By Lars (Lon) Olsson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91627296


Keeping the Masks on: Worship Services during and after COVID-19 in Japan

Dunja Sharbat Dar, PhD candidate, Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese Christians went digital as quickly as possible, following the example of many other religious groups all over the world. But Japanese Christians only went into a full lockdown for a few months, quickly wanting to reunite in person. Continuing streaming online even up until today, Christians started to meet up wearing masks, keeping distance, and following newly established hygiene concepts. When I was in Japan for my fieldwork in 2022 and 2023, I visited a couple of churches for my research on religious atmospheres, which allowed me to also assess their situation during COVID-19.

The number of Christians in Japan is relatively low (only about 1-2% of Japanese people are officially registered as Christians[1]). Most Christian congregations consist of elderly people who were particularly at risk of getting infected with the new virus. So, many churches such as the Sekiguchi Catholic Church in Tokyo tried to protect their congregants by introducing registry and membership passes. Members and visitors of the church had to register for a pass with their contact information in order to enter the church at the Sunday mass.

When I first came to the Sekiguchi Catholic Church, I was asked to write down all relevant data to receive the entrance pass with my name on it. It is not unusual that you are asked to write down your name upon entering a church in Japan, a practice which many churches continue in order to count and archive the numbers of visitors each week. But the fact that I could not enter the church without a visitor’s pass made me understand how seriously the Sekiguchi Catholic Church was taking the protection of their members in 2022. In many places around the world, many restrictions had already been dropped in 2022 due to the success of vaccines. However, all of the Japanese churches I visited in 2022 (6 in total) still required wearing a mask and registering as visitor in some way or another.

Sekiguchi Catholic Church uses a big cathedral, the St. Mary’s Cathedral that also serves as the seat of the archdiocese of Tokyo. The steel construction with bare concrete walls on the inside — an internationally acclaimed architectural design by Japanese architect Tange Kenzo[2] — can fit about 800 participants on Sundays, but during the pandemic, only a small number of people from the congregation (that counts over 2000 registered members as a whole) dared to come to the Sunday masses. The 80 to 150 people that visited the 8am and 10am masses in these times had their temperatures checked upon entering the church, used disinfectant regularly, wore FFP2 masks and took their seats far from each other on the benches in the worship hall.

During my interviews at Sekiguchi Catholic Church, the priest told me that many members hadn’t come to church for a long time because of the pandemic. They fear the risk, and so they rather watch the livestreams posted to YouTube regularly from the safety of their homes. I often wondered if these members would ever be able to feel comfortable and protected enough to attend the masses in person again. Considering that most livestreams of the church mainly focus on presenting the liturgy, the feeling of active community only transpired marginally. At the same time, one sees what’s going on more closely due to the camera setting filming the altar.[3]

Even now in late 2023, the church regularly streams their masses. The acolytes, choir leader and many members still wear masks, the exception being the priest when performing the liturgy. Other churches like the young congregation of the Evangelical Friends Church in Tokyo have long said good-bye to masks, happily celebrating their “back to normal” services with the benefits of freely singing, eating and finally seeing each other’s faces again.[4] But the Sekiguchi Catholic Church seems to be keeping the masks on in order to protect the others. It remains a question if and when the church might go back to celebrating the masses without the protection of masks.

References

[1] Roemer, Michael K. 2009. ‘Religious Affiliation in Contemporary Japan: Untangling the Enigma’. Review of Religious Research 50 (3): 298–320. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25593743; Roemer, Michael K. 2012. ‘Japanese Survey Data on Religious Attitudes, Beliefs, and Practices in the Twenty-First Century’. In Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions, edited by Inken Prohl and John K. Nelson, 23–58. Leiden: BRILL.
[2] Löffler, Beate. 2011. Fremd und Eigen. Christlicher Sakralbau in Japan seit 1853. Berlin: Frank & Timme, p. 191.
[3] See Sekiguchi Catholic Church livestreams on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@user-tc4dk8bm9c/streams.
[4] The Friends Church is another case study that I visited in 2022. They still stream their Sunday services online, but made it a priority to gather and eat together in person as soon as possible in 2021.

Image: St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo, church building of the Sekiguchi Catholic Church. (c) Dunja Sharbat Dar

Not Even the Digital Is Secure

Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions, Södertörn University

Ever since the Hamas attack and kidnappings of October 7th, Jewish congregations and organizations in Sweden have experienced a need for heightened security and vigilance on the part of their members. In addition to the trauma of having many members with family and friends in Israel, Swedish Jews once again have to deal with the difficulty of the general public to differentiate between the state of Israel and Jews elsewhere. As a result, some community leaders discourage members from wearing Jewish symbols such as the Star of David or speaking Hebrew in public places. Even a purely academic setting as the Forum for Jewish studies at Uppsala University announces that they will forthwith have security guards at their open lectures and seminars.

Does this situation make these organizations reactivate digital forms used during the pandemic? Forum for Jewish studies at Uppsala University continue with having their events in hybrid form, both on campus and over zoom as they have since the pandemic, well aware of the fact that even an online format is not completely secure since one of their online lectures was hacked and replaced by painfully loud music and a pornographic film. One of the Swedish rabbis, who spends uncountable hours on the phone these days, supporting devastated and frightened members, sighs and says: “It is not the same. When something like this happens, you need to be together”. Being together seems to be the very thing that is not possible today, since many public events in the Jewish congregations are cancelled for security reasons. But in a situation when some members are afraid of even having an online connection to their congregation, cancelling subscriptions to e-newsletters, not even the digital seems to be secure enough.

Jews in other parts of Europe seem to be experiencing the same, prompting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to promise increased security around synagogues, after a thwarted arson attack against a Berlin synagogue and a series of events when Stars of David were painted on apartment buildings with Jewish residents. (A lot of pain’: Europe’s Jews fear rising antisemitism after Hamas attack | Antisemitism | The Guardian). In the article cited above, one young man tells the reporter that he consciously delays his posts on social media, not wanting to advertise his current location.

Studying religion means working Sundays

Gero Menzel, Research Associate, Goethe University Frankfurt

Going into the first field, the Diocese of Limburg, I came prepared to also work Sundays. After deciding to postpone the second case, Islam, because field access turned out to be more complicated than expected, I moved on with our third case study on Hinduism, not expecting Sunday to become the focal point of my research activity again. But that’s how it was My contact person from our cooperation partner invited me to join her to visit the temple on Sunday.

The first thing I want to reflect on, is that researching religion, at least in many contexts, conflicts with the academic work schedule and with how we organize our ‘work-life-balance’. Sundays in Germany are usually regarded as days of non-work, days of leisure. At the same time, they are workdays for religious workers and it is a day of non-work or a day of informal work for visitors of religious services; the second being the role we tend to get assigned and/or accept as researchers.

The second thing I want to dwell on, is that when and on which days we conduct our research is also important. Our impression of the research field might be influenced drastically by when we visit. To generate a contrasting case for my research in the first case study, the Diocese of Limburg, I visited a week day service. It was a Tuesday service and it fit well into my work schedule. I could go there before heading to the office. The experience was completely different from Sundays; I was the youngest by far. Of course, while my schedule allowed me to go to Church on a Weekday morning, everybody else except retirees was not able to attend. So ethnographic research includes adapting our schedule to our research field or deciding why we deviate from our field’s usual schedule, be it for pragmatic or methodological reasons.

By getting to know the rhythm, the schedule of our field, we also learn something about it (Elliott et al., 2016). Which days are important in living religion and for whom? We have to ask, whose schedule or which sub-schedule are we adapting to? How far can we adapt with our personal life, our employment conditions?

Sunday being the day for communal, for religious gathering is linked to how Christianity shaped the work schedules in Germany and other Christian majority countries and still does, together with labor unions and other forces of civil society. By looking at when religious communities gather, we can learn about how they relate to the majority and other religious communities. In how far Sunday becomes the day for religious activities and gathering, might also show how religious communities might relate to European secularity sedimented in temporal orders. It might also show us how established religious communities are, by how far they are able to follow their own temporal orders.

Studying religion means navigating and reflecting the temporal practices.

References

Elliott, S., McKelvy, J. N., & Bowen, S. (2016). Marking time in ethnography: Uncovering temporal dispositions. Ethnography, 18(4), 556–576. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138116655360

Image credit: Image provided by the author

What drives decision making about whether to maintain virtual services?

Dr Sean Durbin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

On the evening of March 23, 2020, as the reality of the deadly nature of the COVID-19 pandemic set in in the UK, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced[1] the UK would enter a national lockdown. The following day, The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England sent a letter[2] to all clergy informing them that church buildings were to be closed for both public worship and private prayer. The Church of England’s decision meant that individual parishes around the country had to quickly adapt and come up with ways to livestream their services to their respective congregations.

Over the past six months I have spoken with a number of Church of England leaders of congregations in London about their experience of transitioning online and their decision to either maintain and end their online services after restrictions were lifted. In line with the findings of some of our previous research[3], most found the transition online unsatisfactory. But what is also interesting is the different ways some have framed their decisions to either keep or curtail online services in theological language.

For example, one pastor I spoke with told me how their transition online was a “pretty steep learning curve” but the younger demographics of the congregation in both age and occupation meant that they were quite tech-savvy, which made the transition easier. An unforeseen consequence of livestreaming their services on Zoom was that they ended up reaching more people virtually than they had ever had in person; According to the pastor on an ordinary pre-pandemic Sunday they might have 80 people, whereas he told me that some of their early livestreamed services had over 100 people tuning in from geographically distance places, who would not or could not be there in person even if they had been allowed to.

When restrictions eased and they were able to go back in person, like many congregations, they began with a hybrid model. This helped to maintain these large numbers by mixing in person attendance with virtual offerings on Zoom. However after brief period of this hybrid model, the church made a conscious decision to end their online offerings in a bid to encourage people to come back in person. This was justified theologically on the grounds that online church was less authentic. Their senior pastor explained it to me like this:

“It was an interesting time reflecting on what church actually is. And we felt in the end, that church is very much about meeting in person. And I’m not sure you can really do Church online, effectively, in a biblical way. So it … crystallized for us that church is not just about getting some input from the front by way of a Bible talk. It’s, it’s God’s people gathering together. That’s the New Testament, the Greek word for church, Ecclesia; it literally means a gathering. And I think the gathering element of churches is fundamental to what church is about.”

At another congregation that I have been working with, the Vicar also felt that the lockdown and pandemic was a time to reflect on what church was about. As a church they are especially focused on working with and in their community, and this made conducting worship services on Zoom particularly difficult because they lacked that kind of community connection. Despite this, the conclusions arrived at were somewhat different.

Using the parable of the lost sheep from Matthew 18:10-14[4], the vicar described how the pandemic and lockdown became a time to reflect on issues of equity for those who are most marginalized in society. As he described it, the pandemic was a reminder of the reality that people with disabilities, people who work shift work, people with caring responsibilities or anything else in their lives that that makes coming in person on a Sunday impossible, don’t have the same ease of access as many others. Rather than deny anyone the opportunity to participate, this congregation made the conscious decision to maintain their online offerings in order to engender wider participation. From his point of view, “if we’re not listening to them [the most marginalized], we’re not doing it right.”

As a result, this church continues to offer its services on Zoom, as well as morning prayer every Wednesday on a Facebook live. In their view it doesn’t affect in-person attendance, and doesn’t require much extra effort to set up. In my observations, these virtual offerings don’t appear to be taken up by large numbers of people. But, in line with the theme equity, the church maintains them so that they are available if needed.

While different churches might use different theological reasoning to explain their choices to keep or get rid of some or all of their virtual offerings, there are very practical reasons at play here as well. One South London Parish I have just started working with still stream their Sunday Mass on Zoom but have cancelled streaming all the other services, such as morning prayer and evening Mass. When I asked if this was to encourage people to come back, or for any particular theological reasons, the answer was much more simple than I expected: They had to cancel streaming them because they simply couldn’t guarantee that there would always be someone capable of setting up the livestream at those mid-week services.


References

  1. youtube.com/watch?v=jK8vjgVlc8A
  2. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/20200324-letter-from-archbishops-and-bishops_0.pdf
  3. https://bric19.mmu.ac.uk/
  4. biblia.com/bible/esv/matthew/18/10-14

Image credit – Image by Patrick from Pixabay – https://pixabay.com/photos/church-religion-streaming-6712444/

National and local discourses of digitalization in an Evangelical Lutheran parish in Finland during the pandemic

turku-cathedral-bell-tower-by-heikki-raisanen
A summary of my Master’s thesis conducted as part of ReCoViRa in Finland
Ossian Klingstedt, Åbo Akademi University

The aim of my thesis was to analyze the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) discourses on digital media during the COVID-19 pandemic. By applying the theoretical perspectives of mediatization, vicarious religion, and religious-social shaping of technology, I identified the specific discursive formations that were fundamental to the ELCF’s way of understanding and talking about digital media. In this light, I analyzed the ELCF’s adoption of digital tools during the spring of 2020 with a focus on its communication on both a national and a local level. The data analyzed consisted of a set of publications and information notices published by the ELCF both before and during the spring of 2020 (national level) as well as a group-interview conducted in 2023 with employees of the Swedish-speaking parish in Turku, Åbo svenska församling (local level).

My thesis shows how, at the national level, the ELCF’s communication regarding digital media was governed by specific discursive formations that depicted the church as a public utility and essential part of Finnish society – a “folk church” – while internally reproducing a notion of the church as being in a certain kind of existential crisis, due to e.g. membership loss and general disinterest in its activities and provisions. The ELCF drew on these discursive formations when justifying its use of digital media, arguing that, in a media-saturated society, it is necessary to extend activities and services to digital environments. In this, the ELCF’s official discourse includes clear elements of technological determinism, as the church sees adaptation to societal processes of digitalization as inevitable.

The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated this discourse of forced adaptation once it became clear for the ELCF that certain technical solutions would be a necessity for it to be able to have an active role in society during the crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, the central task of the ELCF became to maintain its services, but in a way that prioritized safety and health. Thus, technological solutions, such as streamed church services and pastoral care through video calls, came into the picture, and were put into use with the aim of maintaining the ELCF’s self-identified mission as a “folk church”: even in exceptional circumstances, the argument went, the church must be available for those who need it. At the local level, it was felt that digital media provide good opportunities for expanding the church’s communicative reach and for participation even in restricting conditions, as attendance numbers in online church services surprisingly exceeded those of in-person services before the pandemic. The administration of the “virtual church”, however, also greatly increased the workload for specific employees instead of functioning as a well-integrated supplement to established offline practices. Furthermore, some ritual acts, such as the Eucharist in particular, were perceived as impossible to fully realize through current digital mediums. Local parish employees therefore made a clear qualitative distinction between the “online” and the “offline” church, although further integration of digital elements into everyday parish activities and services is to be expected in the near future.

Image credit – Heikki Raisanen: Turku Cathedral Bell Tower

Studying religion and community in “post-pandemic” Britain

Emmanuel Chiwetalu Ossai, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University
1. Introduction  

Among other things, the UK ReCoVirA team aims to study whether and how the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated rise in the use of digital technology have affected the way the leaders and lay members of religious groups in Britain understand the boundaries of their faith communities, and the kinds of people who make up the communities. Furthermore, we are interested in the relationship between digitisation and communal life within religious groups in Britain, and how the religious groups have generated and sustained a sense of community among their members before, during, and after the pandemic.

We have selected three major religious communities in Britain for our study, namely, one established majority tradition – the Church of England, an established minority tradition – the Buddhist community, and a new or unestablished tradition – the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Founded in Lagos, Nigeria in 1952, and started in Britain around 1988, the RCCG has been referred to as “the fastest-growing church in Britain” (Akomiah-Conteh 2021, 31).

I and my fellow postdoctoral research associate, Sean Durbin, are using a hybrid ethnographic approach that involves in-depth interviews which are conducted in person and virtually, participant observation in physical and virtual spaces, and the examination of the websites and social media accounts of the religious groups we are studying. In addition, we are exploring secondary sources of data, such as leaflets obtained from the religious groups.

In this research update, I shall consider some of my fieldwork experiences that are influencing my thoughts about religion and community in a Britain that is emerging from COVID-19. I shall discuss the hospitality that I have been shown by Buddhists and Christians who received me in their religious spaces, and my participation in two major events held at a Buddhist centre in Manchester and a church in Preston, namely, the Buddhist Day of Vesak, and Mother’s Day.

Before this discussion, I would like to comment on the meaning of community and what aspects of religious community in Britain are currently being studied by the UK ReCoVirA team.  

2. What is community?  

The term community may be used in a locational sense, to refer to a geographical area or locality within which people live. In addition, it has been used in a relational context, for groups or networks of people who share a common origin, language, racial or ethnic identity, purpose, and so on – without any determinative interest in these people’s current physical environment or location (Clark 1973; Obst, Smith and Zinkiewicz 2002).

For instance, Community ABC might refer to a physically accessible area where blood-related or non-blood-related people reside, but it may also be a name given to the people who live in this area, or another set of individuals who may reside in distinct areas but belong to, or identify as being part of, a group or “nonterritorially based networks of relationships” (Heller et al. 1984, 138).

Related to these territorial and sociological notions of community is a more psychological understanding that concerns the way community is experienced or felt by an individual. The term “sense of community” is often used in community studies to refer to part of the ways community is experienced. Community psychologist Seymour Sarason first proposed the concept of “psychological sense of community” in 1974 as “the key to the understanding of one’s society’s most pressing problems” and “the dark side of individualism manifested in alienation, selfishness and despair” (Sarason 1974, 157, in Cicognani 2014, 5834).

Some terms used in community studies to refer to dimensions of a sense of community, or as synonyms of the concept, include “sense of solidarity” (Clark 1973, 403), “we-feeling” (MacIver and Page 1961, 293, in Clark 1973, 403), feelings of “interdependence”, relatedness, and “mutual responsibility” (Cicognani 2014, 5834, cf. Sonn and Fisher 1996), sense of belonging, et cetera. One important sentiment connected to a sense of community or solidarity is “a sense of significance”, which is like what MacIver and Page (1961, 293) have referred to as “role-feeling” (see Clark 1973, 404). This is the understanding that one has a role to play, a function to perform, and a level of importance or relevance in a community (Clark 1973, 404; MacIver and Page 1961, 293).

The ReCoVirA project is interested in these territorial, sociological, and psychological aspects of community. The following fieldwork experiences are related to these three dimensions of religious community, and the discussion presented in sections four and five below consider how these aspects of religious community in Britain have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of digital technology that it motivated.       

3. Fieldwork experience
A. Hospitality    

The Buddhist and the Christian communities that have participated in my research have shown me immense hospitality. For example, this has been my experience at the Ketumati Buddhist Vihara, Manchester, the RCCG Haven of Rest, Preston, and the RCCG My Father’s House, Salford. The Ketumati Buddhist Vihara is a Theravada Buddhist monastery founded around 1999 to serve the Sri Lankan expatriates in the northwest of England and other parts of Britain. On the first day I visited the Vihara on Friday 3 February, the monk who received me invited me into the kitchen to make a cup of tea for myself. At that point, I was an outsider and had not met the monk before, but that did not prevent the Temple from opening its doors to me the way it did. Since February, I have visited the Vihara several times to conduct interviews, participate in meditation sessions, and attend other events. I have been shown kindness, not only by the monk I met on the first day I visited, but the other monks who reside at the Vihara, and lay devotees with whom I have meditated.

Similarly, when I visited the Kadampa Meditation Centres in Manchester and in Preston to interview residential teachers, the teachers offered me tea and were hospitable. At the Centre in Manchester, I and the female teacher sipped from our teacups as we conversed about her and the Centre’s religious experience. Like the monks at the Vihara and the teacher at the Kadampa Centre in Manchester, the residential teacher at the Kadampa Centre in Preston showed me a welcoming attitude on our first meeting that made me feel like I was not an outsider. This attitude says something about how these religious communities relate with Buddhists and non-Buddhists in their local areas and beyond. In section four of this update, I shall share my thoughts about this welcoming attitude and how it has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related rise in the use of digital technology in Britain and beyond.  

B. The Buddhist Day of Vesak

The Day of Vesak, or the Day of the Full Moon, is “the day most sacred to Buddhists, who commemorate on that day the birth of the Buddha, his attainment of enlightenment and his passing away” (UN 2000, Paragraph 2). On Sunday 7 May, I joined followers of the Buddha to mark the Day of Vesak at the Ketumati Buddhist Vihara, Manchester. The event was attended in person by more than sixty adults and twenty young people, and those who attended virtually via Zoom were fewer in number.

The Buddha’s followers offered a variety of special gifts at the altar of the Buddha and his disciples, such as biscuits, cakes, oranges, and beautiful flowers. I and the devotees, who mostly wore white clothing, shared a special meal after the morning meditation session. The foods, including Sri Lankan favourites such as rice and curry, were specially prepared by members of the community and brought to the temple for the event. Most or all the attendees were originally Sri Lankan. As a result, the devotees communicated in English and Sinhalese before, during and after the formal worship sessions.

C. Mother’s Day with Christians

On 19 March, I participated in a special Sunday worship at the RCCG Haven of Rest, Preston, which marked the year’s Mother’s Day in the UK. After the formal worship session, during which women led most activities, the women, men, and children stayed back to enjoy various kinds of foods and drinks provided to celebrate the mothers. This session of the programme lasted nearly as long as the main worship, as we sat around about seven tables, eating as a family and discussing a variety of issues, including the performance of women at the church that day, personal matters, the political and socio-economic situations in Nigeria and Britain, and several other topics.

To celebrate mothers and women, most of the activities that took place during the worship were led by women, including singing, the delivery of the sermon, praying, and bible study. Recognising that the women were excellent in the way they performed these roles and organised the entire day, I and the men on my table briefly considered how we could ensure that our Father’s Day becomes as good as the Mother’s Day. A woman with us reminded us that “it’s better we understand that we will be needing the women’s help to make that happen,” and we laughed as we admitted within us that, truly, the men needed their women to achieve that.

Members brought up personal matters as we sat together. One person shared the good news that he was getting married and that he had made plans to visit Nigeria to see his fiancée. We were happy for him, and wanted to hear more about how they met, when and where the wedding would take place, and how we could support them. Political and socio-economic issues in Nigeria were discussed, given that the 2023 presidential elections in the country had been conducted some weeks before, on 25 February. Also, one of us arrived in Preston recently to study, and this our “party” was an opportunity to hear about how he was settling in, ask about his current adaptational needs, and offer useful advice.      

4. Religious gathering, the physical space, and community

Among other things, these events that I attended in Manchester and Preston, and the hospitality I have been shown in churches and Buddhist centres, have made me think about some aspects of community that have been affected by the restrictive measures implemented in Britain since early 2020 to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, I have considered the “spatial and environmental aspects” of communal life within religious groups (Williams 1963, xix, in Clark 1973, 397) and the role of the physical place in the formation and sustenance of the Christian and Buddhist communities I have been studying. In addition, I have reflected on the notion of “community as social activity” (Clark 1973, 399ff), including how communal life is affected by the social relations taking place within and outside the physical space of the community – such as a Buddhist meditation centre or a church building. Furthermore, I have been considering how a sense of community is cultivated by the religious groups I am studying in the face of digitisation.

Normally, before COVID-19 emerged, the religious leaders at the Buddhist centres and the churches I have attended for this study welcomed fellow followers of the Buddha and non-Buddhists, and Christians and non-Christians into their religious spaces. The leaders supported them to attain spiritual growth and psychological wellbeing, which were provided by the religious centres through their peaceful environments, the words and prayers of the teachers, the relations among the members of the community, and the general sense of belonging that the religious groups foster. When the performance of this function was hindered by the COVID-19 shutdowns, religious groups adopted digital technology to continue to work virtually. Although the digital platforms were useful mediums of communication, the religious leaders I have spoken to are pleased that they are now allowed to continue receiving insiders they know and outsiders they have not bet before (like I was on the first day I visited the Vihara and the Kadampa centres) into their peaceful physical spaces. But one may ask, has the pandemic had a “long-term” effect on the way the religious communities in my study perform this important function? I observed that it has had a positive impact.

Now that the shutdowns are no longer in effect in Britain, the doors of the religious communities are open to the public, but something has changed about the way the communities’ resources are provided to, and accessed by, the public. In addition to welcoming insiders and outsiders to their physical religious spaces, such as the Ketumati Buddhist Vihara in Manchester and the RCCG Haven of Rest in Preston, some religious leaders now use digital technology in a way they did not apply them before the pandemic to support people who may benefit from the religious resources they offer. Some of the religious communities in my study have created social media accounts, developed their websites, and provided more digital resources for the public. Due to the pandemic, the churches in my study created or expanded their media teams, which have continued to use digital technology to strengthen the churches’ presence, accessibility, and impact online. Before the pandemic, a religious leader who I have interviewed was not offering as much online spiritual counselling sessions as he currently does. I have spoken to a lay Christian who started using Zoom to meet with her pastor for counselling during the pandemic and has continued to do so after the pandemic, without feeling a need to attend the pastor’s office in the church the way she used to do before the COVID-19 shutdowns were implemented in Britain in early 2020.

In short, most of the religious communities I am studying continue to keep their doors open to everyone, but there has been an increase in the use of digital technology in some communities. This has enabled them to show hospitality to those who are not able to visit their physical religious spaces in person and make their spiritual resources accessible to a large and diverse population that extends beyond their local areas. However, participating in public religious events within physical spaces has shown me the importance of in-person activities for religious community even in our age which is pervaded by digital technology.

Eating and conversing with Buddhists in Manchester on the Day of Vesak and with Christians in Preston on Mother’s Day has reminded me of something I read some years ago in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. First published in 1958, the novel depicts how the traditional Igbo society in Eastern Nigeria encountered the White missionaries and the British colonial government in the late 19th century. Okonkwo, the protagonist, was a warrior and strong respecter of the Igbo traditions, religion, and culture. Until he took his own life, Okonkwo resisted the growing presence and influence of the Christian religion and the political and socio-economic systems of the colonial government, such as the Western justice system, in his village, Umuofia. During a meeting of kinsmen at which Okonkwoprovided satisfying foods and drinks for his extended family who were present, an elderly man and family member said:

A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so (Achebe 1996, 118).

The Buddhists and the Christians with whom I shared meals to celebrate the Vesak and Mother’s Day gathered to mark these special days partly because coming together for the events in their physical religious spaces was good for the community, for what was referred to as the “bond of kinship” in Things Fall Apart (Achebe 1996, 118). Members took their time to make the foods, purchase the drinks, and bring them to the gatherings. Among other important things that happened at these events, attendees shared the meals, prayed and rejoiced together, conversed and learnt as a community, and went home with a renewed sense of shared purpose.

5. Questions about digital religion and community

It seems one reason the virtual practice of religion is not satisfactory for many religious believers is its inability to allow the kind of activities that effectively promote a sense of community among the members of a religious group, such as the activities marking the Day of Vesak at the Ketumati Buddhist Vihara, Manchester, and the Mother’s Day at the RCCG Haven of Rest, Preston.

But one may ask, is it true that virtual religious spaces poorly enable the experience of community? If that is the case, why have some Buddhists continued to attend weekly meditation at the Ketumati Buddhist Vihara virtually via Zoom since the temple was re-opened for public in-person activities after the COVID-19 shutdowns? Could it be that they truly do not experience community in the positive ways that the physical attendees do, but they chose the virtual participation due to other factors, such as practical considerations? I and many devotees physically attended the Day of Vesak at the Vihara, but some people joined us virtually through Zoom. Do these virtual attendees form a different community, or do they experience community in a manner that is affected by their absence from the physical space in which I and tens of other attendees were?  

Although I do not have satisfactory answers to these and related questions at this stage of the study, I am thinking about them as I examine the data that I have and collect additional data. For this research, I have participated in Buddhist meditation sessions and public Christian worship virtually using Zoom, and interviewed Buddhists and Christians who continue to worship virtually since the COVID-19 restrictive measures were lifted. These interviews and my observations at the online gatherings will enable me to address the questions I have asked above and several other related ones. Nonetheless, as I work to achieve this, I would like to make the following observation.

Digital religious spaces foster a sense of community, even though religious experience within a virtual space is different from the experience emerging from a physical gathering of worshippers within a physical religious place. For this study, I have virtually participated in online-only meditation sessions offered by the Buddhist Centre Online, which was launched around 2013 by the Triratna Buddhist Community. Although the daily meditation sessions mainly started in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the Centre continues to offer them now that no COVID-19 shutdowns exist in most of the West, and they are well attended by people from Britain, Europe, the Americas, Asia, and other regions. According to the Centre’s website (https://thebuddhistcentre.com/page/about-us, Paragraph 2), it helps to “build a different kind of web platform to promote participation in Buddhist community throughout the wide and diverse Triratna world.” Through my participation in the Centre’s online meditation sessions and my review of the diverse resources available on its website, I have observed that the Centre has been performing this task of promoting participation in the international Triratna community.    

6. Next steps

From this August to October, I shall collect more data and continue to transcribe the interviews manually. The data analysis will not be completed until next year. However, as the research progresses, I shall gain more understanding about the issues I have discussed in this update and will share more research updates on our website.

Currently, I am preparing to present some of my findings at the 2023 conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR). The conference will take place in early September in Vilnius, Lithuania (see https://www.easr2023.org/). It will be attended by my fellow ReCoVirA team members who are exploring the pandemic’s religious effects here in Britain and other European settings, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, and Sweden. I shall discuss some of my discoveries with them and hear what their own studies have revealed. After the conference, I shall share an update on our website to inform our readers of what I observed at the gathering.

In the meantime, if you want to participate in our study or share your feedback, please kindly contact the team via recovira@mmu.ac.uk or email me directly using e.ossai@mmu.ac.uk.

I sincerely thank everyone who has kindly participated in our study, and I hope you find this update useful.

Thank you for reading.   

References

Achebe, Chinua. 1996. Things Fall Apart (Expanded Edition with Notes). Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Akomiah-Conteh, Sheila. 2021. ‘Rivers in the Desert: The Story of African Christianity in Britain’, Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission 37:3, 24-31.

Cicognani, Elvira. 2014. Sense of Community. In Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research, pp 5834–5838, edited by A.C Michalos. Dordrecht: Springer.

Clark. David. B. 1973. The concept of community: A re-examination. The Sociological Review 21(3): 397-416.

Heller, K., R. H. Price, S. Reinharz, S. Riger, A. Wandersman, and T. A. D’ Aunno. 1984. Psychology and Community Change: Challenges of the Future. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Maclver, R. M. and C. H. Page. 1961.  London: Society, Macmillan.

Obst, Patricia, Sandy G. Smith, and Lucy Zinkiewicz. 2002. An exploration of sense of community, Part 3: Dimensions of psychological sense of community in geographical communities. Journal of Community Psychology 30(1): 119-133.

Sarason, Seymour B. 1974. The Psychological Sense of Community: Prospects for a Community Psychology. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sonn, Christopher C. and Adrian T. Fisher. 1996. Psychological sense of community in a politically constructed group. Journal of Community Psychology 24(4): 417-430.

UN. 2000. A/RES/54/115. United Nations General Assembly, 8 February 2000.  https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N00/278/81/PDF/N0027881.pdf?OpenElement

Williams, W. M. 1963. A West Country Village. Ashworth: Routledge, and London: Kegan Paul.

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