Pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone. That’s not a bad thing

Leadership will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar

On March 10th, 2020, we closed the doors of the cathedral here in Waterford, asked that the Friends of the Cathedral stay at home, cancelled choir practice and a planned youth group weekend away, little knowing what lay ahead.

On March 15th, 2020, we broadcast our first Sunday service from the cathedral and have done so since.

The first lockdown was horrendous, as much-loved parishioners died in quick succession, firstly with 100 present at their funerals, then 10 at the funeral of a young mother of four. Ireland "does death well" and the gathering of the community is a hugely important element in the grieving process. However, not only are the bereft denied the community recognition due to their loved one, the community has no means of grieving its cherished members. And yet we have all now adapted to online funerals on rip.ie.

Usually Baptisms happened during the Sunday service but now they occur privately. Confirmations have been cancelled because preparation would not be safe or feasible, as this is done at parish, not school, level.

There have been three weddings. The first, tragically, in Waterford University Hospital when a terminally ill man married his partner of many years just days before his death. The second had 25 present and the third was during this latest lockdown, allowing only six people to be present.

A real casualty of the pandemic has been communal life; simply meeting each other, in church, bell-ringing, in Sunday school, in choir, on vestry, at parish events, dropping in on each other . . . the list goes on.

In future, older parishioners will be wary of coming back to church. Given that you can now turn off the preacher if he/she is waffling online and “church hop” on the internet from bed, the habit of faith community may have been broken for good, not just for the “occasionals” but also the “regulars”.

Even though telephone calls are not an ideal means of communication, they have enabled real conversations with many who otherwise would have been at work or too busy

Over the year, connections with the diocese and larger church have been contrived and artificial, having the usual synods and meetings by Zoom; the superstructure of bishops and administration, at best distant in most parishioners’ lives, is now utterly redundant. Clergy must be local, visible, in contact and engaged . . . or become irrelevant.

To date, thankfully, parishioners’ donations in the Waterford parishes have held up but the income we make in the cathedral from the shop and concerts has simply ended and this pays the huge costs of running, insuring, staffing, heating and maintaining a cathedral. Luckily, we went into the pandemic debt free with the belfry and roof renovated recently but there are huge financial challenges ahead.

Despite all this, there have been some really important changes for the good. Even though telephone calls are not an ideal means of communication, they have enabled real conversations with many who otherwise would have been at work or too busy. I have got to know some members of the community better because of lockdowns.

People were rather reticent about talking about their faith but I have been blown away with their engagement in a venture that started on October 22nd last, Prayer at Breakfast, which lasts six to eight minutes each day. Now we have just passed the 100th day of this and between 130-160 tune in daily. If I went to the cathedral and did morning prayer there every day, I would be lucky to have three people with me.

In the past, non-talk prevailed: women and minorities sat and listened, children and young people were irrelevant, finance and church fabric took precedence

For some, smaller funerals have been strange but more intimate. The tremendous crowds of the past offered valued respect for the dead and the bereft, but were equally challenging for the grieving when at their most vulnerable.

If the pandemic changes the way we do weddings, that will be a good thing. People know they do not have to remortgage their lives now to wed; things have become simpler and more genuine.

Religion has big challenges ahead, over and above financial ones. There are parishes where the bond between priest and people has deepened over the last year and others where it has vaporised.

Relying on the ways things were done in the past will not be adequate. People have recovered their faith and need for God and if that is not the foundation of what we do going forward, then forget it.

Religion for religion’s sake is gone and that is not a bad thing.

We will have to meet as people of faith with a renewed authenticity and open a real conversation about rebuilding church. In the past, non-talk prevailed: women and minorities sat and listened, children and young people were irrelevant, finance and church fabric took precedence over energising community and faith. The challenge and the opportunity will be in developing authentic Christian community again.

Leadership has not come and will not come from a moribund clerical caste; it will come from the people who want community, who reclaim their voice, who know the connection between faith and real life, who have found the spiritual strength in the pandemic to prevail and who now must step up to the bar and start rebuilding. Exciting times ahead.