Making sense of our data

Dr Sean Durbin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

When you’ve spent the better part of 12 months, getting to know and getting involved in the communities that are participating in this research project, the amount of information that a researcher gathers can be overwhelming.

In my case, I have spent the past year with different Church of England congregations. During that time I have attended and observed regular services, and participated in community events, including evening Bible studies, weekday cooking classes, and outdoor gardening activities. I have interviewed members and leaders, and simply observed what they have been doing.

All of this is part of the repertoire of research tools that comprise ethnographic research methods, which are used to inform our understanding how these different congregations function and, in our case, interact with the virtual age. Throughout the course of conducting fieldwork like this, drafting fieldnotes about seemingly ordinary things can often be a challenge. I have often asked myself whether something is or isn’t important to jot down. You have to constantly remind yourself that what might not seem significant could end up being very important, so it’s useful make a record of it.

The end result of all of this work, though, is pages and pages of field notes outlining what I saw or experienced at each event I attended, as well as interview recordings from the over twenty interviews conducted as part of my work on this project.

Now, with all this information compiled in some form, I have the task of making sense of it all. This work involves transcribing interviews and coding them for themes and subthemes, not only so that I can develop a coherent picture of my own research findings, but also so that I can share these findings with my colleagues who have been conducting similar research in their own countries.

All of which is to say, making sense of all this data is a time consuming but vitally important part of the research process.

Image credit – Ian Panelo – Pexels

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.

Alustavia tutkimushavaintoja: tuttavallisuutta, turvaa ja turhautumista

Linda Annunen, Project Researcher, Åbo Akademi University

Tämä blogikirjoitus käsittelee keskeisiä havaintoja kenttätyössämme Suomen evankelis-luterilaisen kirkon tapaustutkimukseen liittyen. Tutkimuksessa haastateltiin ja havainnointiin elämää koronan jälkeen erityisesti kahdessa seurakunnassa turun alueella.

Molemmat seurakunnat siirtyivät suuremmitta ongelmitta ripeästi virtuaaliseen ympäristöön heti pandemian ensimmäisestä aallosta lähtien. Virtuaalisten jumalanpalvelusten rinnalle, otettiin nopeasti mukaan myös sosiaalisen median tarjoamat mahdollisuudet. Virtuaalisia jumalanpalveluksia täydennettiin muun muassa verkossa katseltavissa olevilla keskusteluohjelmilla, virtuaalisilla pyhiinvaelluksilla, tai online-kahvitilaisuuksilla. Myös suurempia siirtymäriittejä, kuten rippileirejä, -kouluja ja hautajaisia toteutettiin verkon välityksellä.

Erityiseen asemaan nousivat haastateltavien kertomuksissa myös sosiaalisen median ns. uudet rituaalit, eli sellaiset rituaalit joita ei ennen pandemiaa harjoitettu yhdessä. Yksi tällainen suuren suosion saanut ”some-rituaali”, joka on jäänyt elämään korona-ajan jälkeen yhdessä seurakunnista, on iltavirsi ja -rukoustuokio Facebookissa. Kyseinen some-rituaali tarjosi seurakunnalle tilaisuuden luoda ja muokata toimintoja, joiden toivottiin myös vaikuttavan seurakuntaelämän identiteettiin ja muotoon, ja kokemukseen.

Facebook-liven kautta streamattavissa iltavirsi-tapahtumissa seurakuntalaiset laulavat yhden ennakkoon valitun virren ja rukoilevat iltarukouksen yhdessä. Tapahtumaa vetää yleensä yksi tai kaksi seurakunnan työntekijöistä, jonka lisäksi yksi vapaa-ehtoinen avustaja käy läpi ja vastaa tapahtuman aikana tuleviin kommentteihin. Iltavirsitapahtumat otettiin seurakunnassa suurella innolla vastaa ja ne ovat vakiinnuttaneet paikkansa joka torstai-iltaisena aktiviteettina.

Mitä tämän kaltaisen toiminnan seuraaminen voi kertoa meille pandemian vaikutuksista rituaaliseen elämään? Keskusteluissani seurakunnan työntekijöiden ja muiden jäsenten kanssa on selvää, että iltavirsien suureksi eduksi koettiin ennen kaikkea niiden mahdollistama kotoisuus ja tuttavallisuus. Seurakunnan työntekijät tekivät (erityisesti pandemia-aikana) iltavirsilähetyksiä usein omasta kodistaan, jolloin mukaan saattoi eksyä myös puolisoja, lapsia, tai lemmikkejä. Koska tilaisuudet olivat live-lähetyksiä, ilmassa oli erään haastateltavan sanoin aina sopivasti ”vaaran tuntua”. Mokaamista tai nuotinvierestä laulamista ei koettu uhkana, vaan ne olivat tärkeä osa tapahtuman luonnetta. Näin pandemia mahdollisti uudenlaisen epämuodollisen some-rituaalin muodostumisen, jossa keskiössä oli tuttavallisuus ja kotoisuus. Facebook-iltavirsien avulla seurakunnan päättävissä tehtävissä olevat, kuten kirkkoherra ja papit, loivat ja saivat uuden ”pehmeämmän auktoriteetin”. Tämän haastateltavat tulkitsivat yhdeksi syyksi iltavirsien suurelle suosiolle.

Toinen tärkeä haastatteluissa esiin noussut merkitys, joka tämän kaltaisilla matalan kynnyksen some-toiminnoilla kuvailtiin olevan, oli niiden helppo saavutettavuus. Koska tilaisuudet olivat käytännössä kenen tahansa ulottuvilla verkossa, ne nähtiin helposti lähestyttävinä ja helppona mahdollisuutena tutustua seurakunnan toimintaan. Tilaisuuden avoimuutta ei koettu huonona tai uhkaavana seurakunnalle. Monet seurakuntalaiset kertoivat tapahtuman suurista seuraajanumeroista ja siitä, kuinka chat-kommentit paljastivat ihmisten seuraavan lähetyksiä monista eri paikkakunnista ja ulkomailta. Näin seurakunnalle muodostui eräänlainen some-seurakunta, joka seurasi toimintaa aktiivisesti netissä, mutta syystä tai toisesta ei paikan päällä. Tilaisuudet tavoittivat myös erilaisia ryhmiä, joiden muuten olisi ollut hankalaa, mahdotonta tai pelottavaa osallistua toimintaan paikalla. Erityisesti vanhukset, joille kotoa poistuminen oli hankalaa löysivät some-toiminnan. Yksi seksuaalivähemmistöön kuuluva haastateltava kertoi some-rituaalien tarjonneen hänelle turvallisen tilan tutustua seurakunnan toimintaan ja saada vastuutehtäviä.

Voidaan siis todeta, että iltavirsi-tapahtumien kaltaiset uudet some-rituaalit koettiin selvästi positiivisena lisänä uskonnolliseen elämään. Erityisesti sen mahdollistamat uudenlaiset auktoriteetti käsitykset ja suhteet, sekä saavutettavuus saivat paljon kiitosta. Iltavirsi-tapahtumia ei kuitenkaan yksinomaan kuvailtu positiivisessa valossa. Osa haastateltavista huomautti, että sosiaalisen median ympäristössä harjoitettavat rituaalit eivät tavoittaneet nuorempia seurakuntalaisia, joiden koettiin toivovan kanssakäymistä kasvotusten. Tämän lisäksi osa seurakuntalaisista ilmaisivat turhautumista siitä, ettei korona-ajan sosiaaliseen mediaan siirtymisen jälkeen palattu yhtä toimivaan kanssakäymiseen kasvotusten, kuin ennen pandemiaa. Näissä kertomuksissa seurakuntatyöntekijöiden koettiin osittain ”piiloutuvan ruudun taakse”, kasvotusten kanssakäymisen kustannuksella. Lähes kaikki haastateltavat kertoivat korona-ajan jälkeen kaipaavansa kanssakäymistä kasvotusten. Kolmeen sanaan tiivistäen, voidaan todeta korona-ajan käynnistämien some-rituaalien tuovat tutkimuksen seurakuntalaisille tuttavallisuutta, turvaa ja turhautumista.

Image credit – Linda Annunen

Et indblik i digital religion blandt unge i Danmark

Anne Lundahl Mauritsen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aarhus University

Dataindsamlingen i den danske del af RECOVIRA-projektet er stadig undervejs, og vi har nu vendt blikket mod to religionsgrupper, der primært har både unge medlemmer og unge ledere. I dette blogpost giver vi en smagsprøve på de første fund fra feltarbejdet i disse to grupper og relaterer det til tidligere præsenterede pointer og temaer i det forrige danske blogpost.

Det fremstår forholdsvist tydeligt, at de yngre grupper bruger digitale værktøjer og sociale medier i højere grad end grupper med ældre medlemmer og ledere. I den ene gruppe ser vi således en helt specifik grafisk vision og en gennemtænkt strategi for brugen af særligt Facebook og Instagram samt en professionel ansat til at varetage blandt andet denne kommunikation. Her anvendes Facebook særligt i to henseender; for det første som et kalenderredskab, hvor ’begivenheds ’-funktionen bruges til at skabe overblik over de mange events, gruppen har; for det andet har gruppen en række mindre, kreative fællesskaber, og disse fællesskaber har typisk en selvstændig Facebook-gruppe, som anvendes til intern kommunikation, og som dermed er fællesskabsunderstøttende. Instagram bruges i stedet til at give løbende, levende updates fra de daglige arrangementer i gruppen, særligt via ’story ’-formatet, og gruppen er desuden bevist om, at den ungegruppe, de rækker ud til generelt, bruger Instagram mere end Facebook, hvorfor de lægger en vedvarende indsats i at være nærværende på Instagram.

Den anden religionsgruppe er mindre organiseret og mere frivilligt drevet, hvorfor helhedsindtrykket er lidt mindre organiseret. I denne religionsgruppe bruges også både Facebook og Instagram, i mange henseender på samme måde som i førstnævnte gruppe; til at dele ud af fællesskabets aktiviteter og koordinere disse samt til at give et løbende indblik i gruppens daglige liv. Grupperne har derfor en række fællestræk i forhold til deres inddragelse af det digitale, men hvad der er særligt interessant er at vi selv i disse grupper, som så aktivt inddrager det digitale, ser, at den digitale indsats ikke kan stå for sig selv, men i stedet anvendes til at få brugerne til at komme til de fysiske aktiviteter. Endnu en gang virker det således tydeligt, at der er elementer ved dét at skabe et autentisk, meningsfuldt, sammenhængende religiøst fællesskab, som skal skabes i det fysiske fremfor det digitale samvær.

Vi kan også forsigtigt konkludere, i tråd med en pointe fremsat i den sidste danske blogpost, at den digitale indsats konkret ofte er betinget af hvilke konkrete ressourcer, der er til rådighed i religionsgrupperne. Er der finansielle og/eller menneskelige ressourcer til at varetage den digitale indsats, bliver denne typisk mere konsekvent, hvorimod grupper med mangel på disse ressourcer ofte får en mere fragmenteret digitalt præsens på sociale medier. Den danske dataindsamling går nu ind i den mere afsluttende proces. Over de næste par måneder er det således vores ambition at runde det fysiske og digitale feltarbejde af samt foretage de sidste interviews, for dernæst at påbegynde en dybere analyse af materialet.

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/

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.

Image credit: AI image generated by the author using Clipdrop by Stability AI

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

A hybrid ethnography of religious life in post-pandemic Britain

Emmanuel Chiwetalu Ossai, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

The Recovira team in the UK is studying how religious communities in the country have been affected by digitisation since early 2020 when the first COVID-19-related restrictions were implemented. One research approach that the team has adopted is a social scientific design known as ethnography, which researchers have used to study people’s culture.

Traditionally, the ethnographer does their research by spending a relatively large amount of time (like months or years) with the people being studied. During this time, the ethnographer conducts in-depth interviews with the people, observes the people’s activities and the happenings in their environments, and takes notes about these observations and the ethnographer’s own experiences on the field. However, this traditional approach to ethnography is no longer sufficient for some contemporary ethnographers.

A kind of ethnography that some social scientists do these days has been referred to as “hybrid ethnography.” This term is often used to refer to the ethnography in which the researcher combines the more traditional ethnography done in physical spaces, with a more digital kind of ethnography done mainly in online environments. For example, a hybrid ethnographer who is studying how a religious community operates in a Britain emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will (a) join the community in person when it meets, for example, on Sundays for worship, and (b) attend the community’s virtual activities on Zoom or other digital spaces.

Since February 2023, one of the two postdoctoral research associates on the UK Recovira Team, Emmanuel Ossai, has been using a hybrid ethnographic approach to investigate the post-pandemic religious experience in Pentecostal Christian, Theravada Buddhist, and Triratna Buddhist communities in the Greater Manchester area. His research methods have included in-depth interviews with leaders and lay persons in the religious communities, and observation at the communities’ in-person and virtual events.

As of June 2023, Emmanuel has conducted research at two Black-majority parishes of an originally Nigerian church, and one Theravada Buddhist vihara (monastery) which is mostly attended by the Sri Lankan expatriates residing in several parts of England. Emmanuel has identified some major findings about COVID-19-driven visible and less visible changes, as well as short-lived and more long-term changes, within the religious communities. Emmanuel continues to collect ethnographic data, while he transcribes the previously conducted interviews. Currently, he is studying a Black-majority church in Salford, Manchester, and a Buddhist Centre that exists primarily on the internet and whose daily meditations are held virtually only.

Image credit: AI image generated by Clipdrop by Stability AI “An image of a computer with religious symbols on the screen.”

Getting into the field

Sean Durbin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

While funding for Recovira officially began in November last year, we had plenty of work to do before getting out into the field. In early January we held our first in-person, all-country meeting in Manchester, where we experienced a rare glint of winter sun. There, members of the academic teams spent three days talking about (as academics like to do!) and refining our research questions, as well as deciding on what shared questions we would all ask the communities we are working with in our respective countries.

Given that we are trying to answer the same bigger questions, one might ask why wouldn’t all the questions we ask community members be the same? There are many reasons for this, but the main one is because this is an ethnographically-led project rather than, say, a survey based one. For those unfamiliar with the term, ethnography is a method grounded in observing life as it happens in order to draw some conclusions about how different communities or social groups function—what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) referred to as “thick description”. And because the world is often an unpredictable place, and communities do things differently, it doesn’t always make sense to ask the same questions in different contexts. So while we may want to answer the same questions in this project, in many cases the specific questions a researcher ends up asking participants will emerge organically as they spend more time in the field.

This last point is what made it so important for me to be able to get out in the field. In my case, “the field” consists of different Church of England communities where I live in London. Research like this takes time. It involves reaching out to (often very busy) people and not only asking them to give up their time to speak with you, but also asking them to trust you to represent what they say fairly and in a way they would recognize.

When we got our ethics approval signed off by the University, I was excited to get started reaching out to different Parishes in the area in the hopes of hearing about their experiences of the pandemic, their engagement with digital technology both before and after, and what they are up to now. The only hitch was that our ethics got signed off just before Lent. So rather than risk burdening busy people at a particularly busy time of year, I decided to wait until after Easter to reach out in earnest to different communities in the area.

Since Easter, I have been fortunate enough to speak with a number of church leaders who have generously given interviews about their and their communities’ experiences of the pandemic, and their uses of technology in this virtual age we now find ourselves. Beyond this I have also had the opportunity to start participating in weekly events where I am able to speak both formally and informally to church members and introduce myself and the project. While it is far too soon to even attempt to draw any kinds of conclusions, I can say that the people and communities that I have spoken with have experienced the pandemic and its effect on their church life in different ways, and I am excited to be able to continue these conversations with them throughout this exciting project.

Image credit – AI image generated using Dall-E2. “A visual depiction of the digital age blending traditional church imagery with digital technology”

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