Churches across Somerset have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic with a huge increase in both online worship and support for those in need.
Figures released by the Diocese of Bath and Wells today show engagement with its own digital channels has risen sharply since the pandemic began. As the government introduced social distancing, the diocese turned its daily prayers on Twitter into video prayers, introduced each day by different people from churches and congregations around the county.
The video prayers offer a more personal reassurance that some one is praying each day.
In just three months, from April to June this year, the daily video prayers reached 276,000 people on Twitter and were viewed 71, 427 times on Facebook.
The Bishops led weekly services and provided reflections for churches to use in their own online worship each Sunday, with Bishop Peter’s Easter Sunday service alone receiving 2,200 views.
Churches around Somerset have reported stories of increasing numbers of people joining in services, sometimes from all over the world.
Rev Jo Stobart moved to the parish of Ilminster just a few months before lockdown. She has been offering weekly online services on Facebook, and continues to do so now even as the Minster has reopened for worship. She said that from not knowing many people before lockdown “now I walk through town and people I don’t know at all are always saying, ‘Hi Jo’ to me, as though they know me” from watching the online services.
The Minster also has a regular online audience from New Jersey, in the United States, which began after two women had to cancel their visit to the town to find the graves of their ancestors.
Rev Roger Driver from St Michael’s Without, in the centre of Bath, has seen people joining his services online from New Zealand, Korea, Australia, Canada and across Europe and his congregation size has grown by about ten per cent since the Covid pandemic began.
The Church of England released national statistics this week showing that more than 17,000 online services and events are being provided by Church of England churches following the introduction of the lockdown and restrictions on public worship earlier this year.
The Church has also published its annual figures for 2019 showing social action and church attendance until December. The figures show that parishes were already running or supporting 35,000 social action projects before the pandemic, serving communities across the country from lunch clubs for older people to parent and toddler groups and food banks, a rise of 2,000 from last year.
More than 4,000 parent/carer toddler groups are run or supported by Church of England churches, while more than 5,000 churches run or support lunch clubs, coffee mornings or similar hospitality for older people.
The figures show the extent of church support for people living in poverty with nearly 8,000 food banks run or supported by Church of England churches.
The national data also showed that the number of regular worshippers attending church once a month or so decreased to 1.11 million. In Bath and Wells, the number of regular worshippers fell by 400 people from last year, to 23,500, a drop of 1.7 per cent.
Bishop Ruth said: “The world has changed and the Church has had to change too. Our Sunday worship online is now reaching more people, including those who could no longer or did not wish to, attend church locally. Now we are back in our buildings we intend to ensure that we don’t overlook them in the future. Being ‘Church’ is much more than gathering in person for a worship service on a Sunday it’s about offering our worship to God daily as we serve him in our communities.”