Easter is approaching, but Christians won’t be able to assemble in any traditional place of worship. In the Catholic tradition, all masses have been suspended by order of the archdiocese. Funerals are one of the few services that the governments are allowing, but they must have no more than 10 people.
Do the measures of social distancing being imposed by governments all over the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic mean the end of conventional religious practice? If mortality were to increase to the situation we see in Italy and Spain, it will not be possible to remember the dead by any but the most cursory means.
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a spiritual crisis of the first order
Religions of any kind, monotheist or Eastern, shaped by centuries of tradition, are notoriously slow to adapt to new forms of technology or new ways of thinking about the world. There can be no doubt, however, that the present virus challenges the way we may adapt to religious observance, which has, at least traditionally, always functioned as a form of solace in times of distress and grief.
The current prohibition on attending religious services for an unforeseen period will have consequences not just in the short term, occasioned by the ban on any collective worship, but also in the longer term, after the resumption of normal life. We are in unchartered waters as we learn how to respond emotionally and psychologically to these disturbances to our routines.
Lessons from past pandemics
It may help to look at two examples of pandemics in previous centuries to see how they generate radical changes in religious behaviour.
One is a little-studied viral, Ebola-like plague that ravaged the Roman Empire for some 14 years between 249 and 262 CE. It’s known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the Church Father who described it so vividly in a treatise, On the Mortality (translated). This prolonged plague may have encouraged Christians, still a persecuted minority, to flee to the desert or remote places, where they established monasteries as places that provided solitude for the individual seeker, and medical help for local communities.
One consequence of the plague is that it may have weakened confidence in the traditional pagan gods. Christians like Cyprian used the plague to promote the idea that the life beyond death was that in which people now lived. The success of Christian communities in providing social resources within an empire deeply scarred by sharp social and economic division between free Roman citizens and servile subject peoples only helped the Church survive as a cohesive organisation. Its structures so impressed Constantine when he came to power in 313 CE that he invoked the help of the Christian God, transforming Christianity into a mainstream religion.
More than a thousand years later, in the mid-14th century, plague (initially called the black death) transformed religious observance, but in a very different way. Across Asia and Europe, perhaps a third of the world’s population died. Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron provides a classic literary response to the plague, very different to that of Cyprian. It offers a collection of stories told to each other by a group of young men and women over 10 days, all eager to escape the horrors of the plague. Clerics committed to their flock died in great number. At the same time, ecclesiastical wealth became increasingly obnoxious to those who considered clerical corruption rife. Religious observance turned to a more mystical, inward direction, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
In the early 21st century, we’re in a very different situation. Conventional churches are slow to develop new ways of communicating, other than to encourage the faithful to watch online a traditional service, without a congregation. Yet we may begin to see the proliferation of digital forms of worship. These could take the form of reflections on Scripture, in which parishioners engage by Zoom.
Strange, potentially dangerous cults may emerge, based around false information and desire to escape the world.
Digital space already promotes meditation as a goal, rediscovering solitude as a way of transcending the pressures of anxiety and fear of ill-health. New forms of connectivity are possible that might promote spiritual and mental wellbeing as much as physical health. There’s likely to be a great multiplicity of forms of worship. It’s not clear at all how this may affect the large, and heavily institutionalised, Catholic Church, in which Pope Francis is struggling to provoke a new vision of what he calls “synodality” or collective endeavour.
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a spiritual crisis of the first order. It will be fascinating to see how and where church communities may emerge that seek to commemorate Easter. Strange, potentially dangerous cults may emerge, based around false information and desire to escape the world. The pandemic may also accelerate a process of de-institutionalisation from formal religious belonging. Religious leaders of every faith will have as much difficulty as politicians in formulating a coherent, collective response.