United Kingdom

Archbishop of York hails a 'digital coming of age' but wants new worshippers in pews

Millions of Britons have been turning to the internet and phone apps to take part in religious worship during lockdown, new figures reveal.

Research by the Church of England shows that clips and content from its online services have notched up more than 40 million views since Covid restrictions on public gatherings were introduced.

More than 20,000 regular services and other virtual events are now listed on the ‘A Church Near You’ page on its website, compared with none a year ago.

Meanwhile, 54 national ceremonies have been viewed on 3.4 million occasions and the Church’s Daily Prayer app was accessed 4.4 million times – a rise of 55 per cent on the previous year.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell (pictured), said: ‘I think there has been a digital coming of age. ‘Of course, we long to meet in person, but online services can be very beautiful'

The number of hits on its Lectionary app, which features details of the Church calendar and readings, increased by 21 per cent to 1.7 million.

Religious leaders say the pandemic has provided the Church with a ‘digital coming of age’, and online services are expected to remain a regular feature even as worshippers return to the pews.

Charlie Allen, the Canon Chancellor at Durham Cathedral, said: ‘The pandemic, especially during lockdown, has made people think about what they are missing in their lives – and where is God in their lives – in trying to find explanations. People were also looking for a community to belong to during lockdown.’

Churches across the UK hurriedly introduced online worship via Facebook, YouTube and Zoom as a response to the first lockdown last spring, when all places of worship were forced to shut by the Government.

The figures, from a report by the Church of England, show that more than 4,200 vicars and church leaders have taken part in online training courses in the past year so they can use digital technology to broadcast services.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said: ‘I think there has been a digital coming of age.

Religious leaders say the pandemic has provided the Church with a ‘digital coming of age’, and online services are expected to remain a regular feature even as worshippers return to the pews. Pictured: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby delivering the Church of England's first virtual Sunday service on March 18, 2020

‘Of course, we long to meet in person, but online services can be very beautiful. People of different ages, from different parts of the country or even the world, families sitting together, people watching while having a cup of coffee, are all coming together to worship online in ways that we just couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

‘I hope these new online worshippers will join us in person one day. But even if they don’t, we must carry on nurturing these online communities and seeing it as a way of reaching out to new people and building new communities of faith.’ Church attendance in the UK has steadily declined since the 1850s.

By 2019, the total average weekly figure for the Church of England was about 850,000.

But providing services online has opened up churches to a global congregation, with many worshippers drawn by the nation’s historic venues. The spectacular 928-year-old Durham Cathedral now has 2,000 regular online worshippers for its Sunday service, compared with 200 attending in person before the pandemic. 

More than 20,000 regular services and other virtual events are now listed on the ‘A Church Near You’ page on its website, compared with none a year ago

Canon Allen said a third were local, with the rest split between those elsewhere in the UK and across the globe. ‘We are now getting people wishing to come on pilgrimage to the cathedral from Mongolia,’ she said.

‘We have also seen an increase in the number of students attending online services as it suits their nomadic lives, because they can tune in from anywhere.’

As well as services, the Church of England’s Daily Prayer app, which offers morning and evening prayers, has been accessed eight million times – up 50 per cent on the previous year.

Churches are now open for worship again, but the number of congregants is limited to ensure social distancing. Choristers must stand apart to sing, and worshippers cannot join in with the hymns.

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