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Virtual worship could go on after lockdown due to success of online services

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Rev John Alderdice

Rev John Alderdice

Father Michael Canny

Father Michael Canny

Rev Kathryn Viner

Rev Kathryn Viner

� Press Eye - Belfast - Norther

Rev John Alderdice

Clergy may continue offering religious worship online after the coronavirus lockdown ends due to a surge in the numbers of people tuning in.

Prior to the pandemic 44% of faith communities in Ireland did not provide online worship but that has now fallen to 13%, new research has found.

The situation has also seen denominations reaching out, with 74% from the largest - Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist - providing social services to the wider community, according to a study by Queen's University Belfast.

Dr Gladys Ganiel, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, questioned people of faith about coping with the pandemic for her People Still Need Us report.

A total of 70% of clergy said they would retain aspects of online ministries after lockdown, 46% said their ministry had been more stressful than usual, and 82% who are cocooning for age or underlying health conditions have continued their ministry.

The survey was distributed to more than 2,000 faith leaders across the island, with 439 responses received between May 6 and 22.

Dr Ganiel said many faith leaders who responded have observed "surprising" numbers of people tuning in for online services, including some who they believe would not have entered a church building. Of the respondents, 35% were Catholic, 18% Church of Ireland, 14% Presbyterian, 9% Methodist, 23% other Christian and 1% other religion.

Rev Kathryn Viner, minister of Malone Presbyterian Church in south Belfast, took part in the survey and has seen a 50% increase in people tuning in for Sunday services and podcasts.

"Initially I didn't know what to expect but I have been really encouraged by the response," she said.

"Our numbers have been larger than what they were, which indicates that people are coming to us from outside the regular attending congregation.

"I believe there is room to continue with the online offering for people who can't attend normally on a Sunday morning for whatever reason.

"I have been on a steep digital learning curve and gained all this new knowledge and skill, which I'm not going to throw away as soon as we can open the doors again," she added.

Rev John Alderdice, director of ministry for the Methodist Church, said: "As a denomination we have seen a spike in creativity on the part of many of our ministers and lay leaders who all of a sudden have had to try to move online.

"That has been really positive in the midst of a difficult situation and the question now is how will things look on the other side of all this?

"In terms of the 'new normal', I think many churches will continue to offer online worship," he added.

However, Fr Michael Canny from St Columb's Church in the Waterside area of Londonderry said while online Masses have been a comfort to people, he believes the novelty may be over.

"I think it was a good idea and a solution in a time of crisis but as time passes I believe people are very keen to return to a community sense of worship as opposed to the solitary," he said.

"Being able to reopen the doors last week for people to pray was a relief and represented a big step in their minds."

Belfast Telegraph