Emmanuel Chiwetalu Ossai, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University
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
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 email@example.com or email me directly using firstname.lastname@example.org.
I sincerely thank everyone who has kindly participated in our study, and I hope you find this update useful.
Thank you for reading.
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.
Image credit: AI image generated by the author using Clipdrop by Stability AI