On January 2, at the height of the second wave of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut, my daughter was baptized into the Catholic Church.
It was a strange ceremony, what with us all wearing masks and seated far apart, spread out across the pews, but in one way I’m grateful she was born and christened in the middle of the pandemic. It meant that my family members all across the country, who would never have been able to travel to New Haven even under normal circumstances, were able to watch and laugh right along with us as she shrieked for nearly the entire 20 minutes.
“Many churches tried certain technologies during COVID that before COVID they would never have agreed to,” said Sarah Drummond, the Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary Yale Divinity School. “The same churches that said they would never have a screen in our worship space have worshipped on a screen for 15 months.”
Despite the benefits of tuning in to ceremonies and services far away, an essential component of religious life for many is the in-person connection and practices.
“The shut-down came just a month and a half before Ramadan and it was the most difficult Ramadan of our lifetime,” said Omer Bajwa, the Muslim Chaplain at Yale University. “Ramadan is such a spiritual time of religious devotion, but also a communal time and it all came to a screeching halt.”
Although mosques across Connecticut were open during Ramadan 2021, mandatory masking, social distancing and temperature checks were all in place.
“We had decreased numbers and still many people were very dissatisfied,” Bajwa said. “I think being present physically is optimal in how you build authentic communities and I know there were people who fell away during this time. The power of our houses of worship is that they bring in people from so many different backgrounds and offer them a place to connect and connect with their faith. This prolonged absence has detrimental effects.”
Although Catholic churches and mosques have allowed in-person participation in some form since summer 2020, for many mainline protestant church goers across the state, churches still remain physically closed or restricted to outdoor or socially distant worship services.
“There has been a lot of conflict and tension among church members and leaders about how to go about reopening,” Drummond said. “Everyone has been trying to figure out what the faithful response is considering who are the vulnerable ones here…there is a vulnerability with COVID and a vulnerability with loneliness.”
One thing that everyone is on the same page with, however, is that worshipping in person makes a world of difference for the community.
“We are going to be sobbing when we come back together,” Drummond said. “I imagine receiving communion and I start to cry.”
The virtual services technology was also unable to keep religious organizations from suffering financially.
“Over the course of the pandemic patterns really changed, a lot of church leaders expressed joy at first that people were worshipping with them that were not geographically close or ill, but it did dwindle throughout the pandemic,” Drummond said. “It was a shiny new exciting thing to be able to attend church virtually, but now it’s not.”
For organizations that largely depend on donations to operate, that lack of in-person connection has threatened their stability.
“It’s the kind of thing that keeps leadership up at night,” Bajwa said. “How do we remain financially stable?”
And after more than 15 months of facility closures and restrictions on typical manners of worship due to policies put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s a question that is becoming more and more challenging for religious organizations to answer.
“I don’t know of any mosques that went under, but I know lots of them struggled and are in the red right now,” Bajwa said.
As of yet, there are just a few reported church, mosque or synagogue closures and mergers including the proposed merger of Episcopal churches in Bristol and Windsor, but more are likely to come, Drummond said.
“Some New England congregations and churches that were fragile might not make it back,” she said. “There is a winnowing of parishes that will take place in the coming months to years.”
The Archdiocese of Hartford is already considering consolidating and merging parishes across the three counties it serves as it did previously in 2017 when it decreased from 216 to 131 parishes. At the same time, the Diocese of Norwich recently filed for bankruptcy.
Although accelerated due to the pandemic, this decline in religious involvement, particularly in the northeast, is nothing new.
“In the 1950s protestant churches were putting huge additions on thinking they would only grow, but we’ve gotten less Christian since that time,” Drummond said. “Those big edifices were probably a bad investment.”
In 2019, a year prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of self-identified Christians nationwide was just 65 percent of the total adult population in the United States compared to 77 percent in 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. The percent of Americans identifying with a non-Christian religion, however, has slightly increased from 5 to 7 percent between 2009 and 2019.
“My friends and colleagues at local churches and synagogues all agree, we need to work hard to reach back out,” Bajwa said. “Maintaining the community is the primary concern.”