The Covid cash crisis for religion: social action may be cut and Victorian churches shut

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By Andrew Brown

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way that religion is financed in England, and this will change the religious — and physical — landscape of the country. The lockdowns and social distancing measures have made traditional methods of fundraising impossible. There are no longer physical congregations to drop money into physical collecting boxes.

As a result, churches, mosques and gurdwaras are all facing a financial crisis. Fundraising will have to move online, just as worship has done, and this will be difficult for the more traditional faiths, an online briefing held by the Religion Media Centre has been told.

The Central London Mosque Regent’s Park, the largest and most prominent in England, where diplomats from many of the richest countries in the world came to worship, already raises funds online. So far this year it has received £5,000 from the public for essential funding.

Dr Usama Hasan, a senior researcher at the Tony Blair Institute, said: “Every mosque I know depends hugely on the weekly Friday collection. In fact, there’s always been dispute over how you structure the Friday prayers to maximise your collection because traditionally you have a short sermon when nobody is allowed to talk or say a word.

“Nothing can distract the congregation, so you can’t have a collection during the sermon.”

Many mosques, he said, got around this by holding the collection during a less structured talk that preceded the sermon. His own took a collection as the worshippers left. But both methods are dependent on the physical presence of worshippers, and this has been drastically cut by the pandemic. “Most of us are running two prayer services on Fridays because of the social distancing, and some might even run three or four,” Dr Hasan said.

The rituals of Muslim prayer cannot easily be moved online, he said, because they rely on collective physical gestures: the congregation rises to its feet, stands in rows, and so on.

This shortage of money has also shrunk the funds available for social action. Other Muslim and Sikh leaders have told the RMC that charitable giving is being squeezed at both ends, since more of their congregations need help, and fewer worshippers have the money to give away.

The same problems are apparent in other congregationally funded faiths. Catholic priests live off the offerings of their flock — they are paid no salary and are not eligible for government support as self-employed. Collections are traditionally highest at Christmas and Easter, but Easter this year was not celebrated in churches, and Christmas numbers were greatly diminished. Wedding fees have also disappeared.

David Palmer, a former treasurer of the Catholic diocese of Birmingham, said: “Covid has hit the collections. People aren’t attending in person: they’re watching services on live stream, but fixed costs continue and we have the added costs of cleaning PPE and livestreaming.

“We are giving people the opportunity to exercise the charism of giving by donating online, but I do believe will survive with God’s help with that. He fed 5,000 with a couple of loaves and fishes.

The Church of England, unlike the other faiths of this country, has very considerable reserves to draw on.

David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, is in a central position when it comes to the church’s planning. He chairs a committee that is trying to plan for the next 10 years of a shrinking church; he is also the de facto chairman of the Church Commissioners, which control the enormous historic endowments of the Church of England.

As bishop, he runs an organisation with a budget deficit of a £1m a year. As acting chairman of the commissioners, he has more than £8bn at his disposal – and the commissioners have handed out more than £300m to hard-pressed churches and cathedrals this year.

But Bishop Walker says the pandemic must accelerate the closure of Victorian churches. He is working towards rules that will streamline the process. “I think a lot of stuff was put up in the Victorian era to be to be bigger and flashier than the one down the road. They were built to serve populations that just don’t exist today.

“Just to close a single church you have to go through two levels of appeal: the rights of objection are so extensive that it often means that the same decision has to be made several times before it actually has been formally made and I think it will be eminently possible to streamline some of that so that serious objections can be heard but it is actually possible for decisions to be taken in a more timely fashion.”

View our zoom briefing here:

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