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

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 post-covid religion in Finland

A rectory / pappila in Finland
Linda Annunen, Project Researcher, Åbo Akademi University

Looking back, different countries responded differently to the outbreak of the Covid19-pandemic in the spring of 2020. While Sweden took the most liberal stance of all countries in Europe, other countries like Spain introduced more extensive restrictions and lockdowns. Finland fell somewhere in between. Although Finland never had national lockdowns as such, movements and contacts were restricted to some extent. The date28th of March 2020 marks an important date in Finnish Covid-history, as the capital city Uusimaa-region was put in an enforced isolation that lasted 265 days. During this time, movement to and from the region was heavily restricted. Such restrictions on free movement in Finland are extremely uncommon, and the date can thus be viewed as a symbolic starting point for an era of Covid-19 in Finland.

The isolation also affected religious communities, many of which have their headquarters in the capital region. Religious communities were, however, exempt from some of the restrictions on contacts and gatherings. Memories of social distancing frequently come up in our ethnographic fieldwork, as people reflect on the ways in which their religious lives have continued since the pandemic. We have so far mainly engaged with people in relation to one of our three case studies: the Evangelical Lutheran church of Finland (ELCF), which represents the largest and most established of the three communities that we focus on. Many of our interlocutors from the ELCF have expressed gratitude over the fact that social distancing no longer regulates how they practice religion. However, the ethnographic data also suggests that something more positive might have come out of the restrictions, namely new ways of conducting for example religious work life, the introduction and establishment of new rituals on social media, and in some cases new ways of thinking about religious life that are primarily formed and affected by digitalization. We have talked to people in many different roles, including people who work in ELCF administration, priests who work especially with social media, church youth workers, a cantor, and a group of senior church members called the “social media grannies”. Being able to study one community from many different angles has also provided us with a nuanced picture of the specific ways in which the pandemic affected particular groups across particular parishes.

We look to finalize our fieldwork within the ELCF in August and to continue with our case study 2: Jehovah’s Witnesses. This will no doubt provide us with just as many additional intriguing insights into the ritual lives of religious communities in post-pandemic Finland. The last of our ethnographic case studies focuses on a Buddhist community and will provides us with insights into how non-established minority groups were affected by Covid19. Together, our three cases will provide us with a good basis for comparison on both a national and pan-national level.

Image credit – Linda Annunen: A rectory / Pappila in Finland

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