Learning from the sower: coronavirus, church and you

In mid-June, Professor Leslie Francis wrote a lively, thought-provoking article for BRF about a wide-ranging survey into churchgoers’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis. Thousands of people took part and now Professor Francis shares some of his findings, and the deeper questions they raise.

Observe, evaluate, respond

Jesus invites us to observe and to observe with care.

Jesus invites us to record and to evaluate our observations.

Jesus invites us to become scientists, to become empirical theologians.

Observing by day, Jesus invites us to watch the good sower sowing good seed. Observing by night, Jesus invites us to watch the evil sower sowing weeds. The advice is not to distinguish between them, but to give both room to grow. The advice to observe is not limited to the agricultural economy; it is also brought into the economy of the household, into the kitchen with the yeast and throughout the home searching for the lost coin.

Then Jesus takes us away from the fields and away from the home into the wedding feast, where there is so much for the social scientist and for the empirical theologian to observe, record and evaluate.

A field day for the empirical theologian

Living through Covid-19 has been a field day for the empirical theologian, with so much to observe, record and evaluate, and all so relevant to the fundamental theological question regarding what God may be about in God’s world and where the church may be invited to collaborate in God’s activity.

The Great Lockdown was quick and sharp, if perhaps a little too late. The Great Lockdown has impacted households and individual and corporate lives. Such sudden change is personally and socially traumatic and echoes with lamentation. Things may never be the same again.

‘Such sudden change is traumatic and echoes with lamentation.’

The Great Lockdown has impacted household, national and international economies. Such change is economically traumatic and echoes with lamentation. Things may never be the same again.

The Great Lockdown has impacted local and international churches and denominations. Such change is theologically traumatic and echoes with lamentation. Things may never be the same again.

Just how churches observe, evaluate and respond to such trauma is shaped by their deepest theological convictions, by how they see God, by how they understand God’s activity in God’s world and by what they imagine God is asking the church to be and to do.

The two streams

In the western world, churches tend to address such fundamental questions differently according to the stream in which they have been shaped. The key difference is between the Catholic stream and the Reformed stream. This is the difference that emerged during the political and ecclesial upheaval of the Reformation. This difference reflects different approaches to individualism, different approaches to community and society, and fundamental differences in interpreting the way in which God relates to God’s world.

In the Catholic stream, the emphasis tends to be rooted in the doctrine of creation and in the call into community. In the Reformed stream, the emphasis tends to be rooted in the doctrine of fall and in the call to personal salvation. A really interesting feature of the western international ecclesial landscape after the Reformation is the way in which the Church of England managed to hold together key features of both the Catholic stream and the Reformed stream.

During the 19th century, these two streams within the Church of England gained renewed visibility, and sharpened competition. The Catholic stream gave rise to the Tractarian Movement and to Anglo-Catholicism. The Reformed stream gave rise to the Evangelical Movement. My book Fragmented Faith: Exposing fault-lines in the Church of England (2005) confirmed just how distinctive these two strands remain within the Church of England, shaping doctrinal views, pastoral practice and moral values.

A rich and diverse church with different theological scripts

When the Great Lockdown was suddenly imposed, Andrew Village and I, as empirical theologians, responded quickly to the invitation to observe and to observe with care. What we have learned from the replies of more than 6,000 people to the ‘Coronavirus, church and you’ survey is that the Church of England is still a rich and diverse church, in which the Catholic stream and the Reformed stream are reading the challenges and the opportunities of the Great Lockdown against different theological scripts.

Listening first to the full-time parish clergy, we find that the Anglican Catholic clergy ascribe a much greater significance to the symbolic presence of the local church within the community:

  • 47% thought the Church of England went too far in closing churches (compared with 21% of Anglican Evangelicals)
  • 61% argued that clergy should always be allowed into their churches (compared with 31%)
  • 80% maintained that church buildings are central to our witness in the community (compared with 39%).

Anglican Evangelical clergy ascribed greater benefit from the transition to virtual expressions of church:

  • 61% thought the forced closure of churches had focused us on proper priorities (compared with 24% of Anglican Catholics)
  • 78% considered it had been good to see clergy broadcast services from their homes (compared with 43%)
  • 62% discovered that online worship is a great liturgical tool (compared with 46%).

These differences are not a matter of personal preference, but of fundamental theological priorities. It is these theological priorities that now require full and proper debate, as the trauma of lamentation turns into post-exilic reconstruction.

As the Church of England contemplates post-exilic reconstruction, the Reformed stream will reassess the ongoing usefulness of those locked-up churches, and throw away the key. Property can be sold and investment made in an online future. The Catholic stream will search for the keys to unlock the doors, and fling wide the gates to offer shelter to all who may come seeking.

‘These differences are not a matter of personal preference, but of fundamental theological priorities.’

For some time those open but empty churches will stand as silent witnesses to the unshakable commitment that the incarnate God holds firm for the communities in which the divine tent has been pitched. Then one day the child will ask afresh, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then indeed new shoots of faith will appear within the landscape.


Lord God,
through these months of lockdown,
you have shown us many things:
the fragility of our lives,
our dependence on others
and how special Christian community is.
Help us in the time to come
to work out these lessons
with humility and grace,
as we find new and traditional ways to worship together
and make known both the beauty and the strength
of our belonging to you, and to each other.

Professor Leslie Francis

Revd Canon Professor Leslie J Francis is professor of religions and psychology at the University of Warwick. He researches and publishes in the fields of biblical hermeneutics and empirical theology. He serves as canon theologian at Liverpool Cathedral and as honorary director of the St Mary’s Centre, a Christian research centre rooted in Wales.
Photo © Emyr Parri

The survey

Further findings from the ‘Coronavirus, church and you’ survey can be found on the website at York St John University.