Counting the human cost of the pandemic

The study will examine the human cost of the pandemic and especially the emotional toll of church closures across the country(Photo: Unsplash/DNK Photo)

Early responses to a new study looking at the impact of church closures during the pandemic have shed light on the emotional toll on Christians and non-Christians alike.

There have been 2,000 responses already to the project, being led by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York, but director Dr Dee Dyas is asking more people to share their stories. 

The study, titled 'Where do we go from here? Churches, communities and buildings during Covid and beyond', is seeking to uncover the human cost of the coronavirus pandemic on people and communities, particularly as a result of church closures. 

The pandemic forced churches across the country to close their doors not only for collective worship but for a host of other services run from their buildings, like support groups for the elderly or alcoholics, baby and toddler clubs, keep fit classes, debt counselling services, and meals for the homeless.

The survey will also consider the impact of restrictions on funerals, which have left many people unable to say a proper goodbye to their loved ones.

Dr Dyas said early evidence from the study was already showing that the pandemic is "hurting people" and "hurting communities". 

Social isolation, mental health issues and loneliness "have gone off the scale", she said, as she warned of the "huge cost" of restrictions on the economy and society, and an impending "tsunami of unresolved grief". 

"Church buildings and the activities they host offer a lifeline to many and provide an invisible infrastructure of care, support and socialisation for communities across the whole country," she said. 

"They support people of all faiths and none in their mental and physical health and wellbeing, and in times of crisis they offer safe places of comfort and hope to everyone.

"And much of this disappeared overnight and despite all the efforts churches have made to support their communities, the loss has been enormous." 

One respondent to the survey who used to attend a baby and toddler group at her local church described finding it "really tough" to be isolated at home with nowhere to go during the day. 

"I miss learning from other mums and getting support," she said. 

Another mum wrote: "Children's groups are the only time I get out the house for my kids to play with others and enjoy themselves and make friends."

One vicar responding to the survey told of his heartache at not being able to offer the same level of personal end-of-life care.

"The hardest part for me has been the pain and sense of guilt of not being allowed to be alongside the dying and the bereaved," he said. 

The project is gathering responses online as well as in churches and cathedrals until 7 October. 

The results will be presented to the Government and the Church of England Recovery Group to inform their responses to the pandemic and help identify priority areas for engagement. 

Dr Dyas added: "This is not an academic study, this is about the human cost of this pandemic. Too high a price has already been paid by many, and we hope the results of this survey will make a difference in prioritising care for all people as we go forward into an unknown future." 

The study is being funded by the Association of English Cathedrals, Historic England, the Laing Family Trusts and York University and supported by the National Churches Trust, Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, and the Church of England Church Buildings Division.