In light of what has been dubbed "the lockdown to save Christmas", Deputy Viewpoint Editor, Rebecca Holmes, reflects on the impact of the pandemic on religion.
In his efforts to “save Christmas”, Boris Johnson has – somewhat ironically – announced a four-week ban on communal worship in England set to end 2 December. Could Christmas, arguably the most important Christian celebration of the year, and the festivities leading up to it be “cancelled”? And, are other religious communities such as Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims similarly affected by these restrictions? As areas of Scotland move into Tier 3, are religious communities across the UK fighting an ever-losing battle?
While we must accept that religious festivities won’t look the same this year in terms of physical practice, the measures should by no means be seen as a total assault on religion. Religion in the pandemic has moved beyond communal devotional prayers and practice as values of charity, compassion, and care are channeled in other ways across the UK. However, the PM’s ban was still vehemently attacked. The criticism was mounted not only by Christians no longer able to conduct service, but also by the Imams National Advisory Board and Jewish groups who rely on collective worship rather than individual prayer.
While much of the media coverage regarding lockdowns has focused on concerns over the ability to celebrate Christmas, often overlooked is the religious festival of Diwali. This is the five-day festival of lights celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus with the exchange of gifts and the triumph of light over darkness. The festivity, which usually engages 1.2 million people from across the country, was due to happen on 14 November this year. Regrettably, this was called off due to the new lockdown, an understandably significant loss for these religious communities. The same restrictions apply to two other holidays in November which Sikhs have traditionally celebrated. Thus, in dubbing the lockdown as one to “save Christmas”, a narrative has been created in which other religious festivals are often sidelined.
However, as exemplified by the previous lockdown, faith has remained a potent source of community for all religions during the pandemic. Religion has proved itself once again to be much more than a set of festivities, or a church service of worship and physical devotional prayer. In the last month or so, more faith groups have been combined with a multiplicity of activities on Zoom such as yoga or meditation classes. The Church of England alone has held over 17,000 services online. Faith is a broader practice of exercising virtues of charity and compassion unable to be curtailed by the inability to gather physically.
This has been further elucidated by the “Elevate.org” campaign, which prides itself as offering a “collection of resources” online “to support a growing movement to create greater spiritual consciousness”. From its central hub in London, such messages have reached as far as Dundee in the past few months. Despite the move to Tier 3, Truthink, a St Andrews based platform, teamed up with InterFaith Scotland on the 9 November as part of its annual weekly celebrations. This online broadcast reflected on the experience of the pandemic on religious communities. The speakers discussed how religion is so much more than going to a physical place of worship.
In light of such, it is clear that if these practices are sustained, despite the challenges presented by the inability to gather physically, then the PM’s new lockdown and Scotland’s own restrictions will certainly not destroy religious values, but instead reinforce them, offering space for reflection and the ability to act on such values, particularly during this time which represents the height of the religious calendar for many.