âIs it OK to eat during online mass?â: how the faithful handle lockdown
W ell before places of worship were closed during the first lockdown, we hectored my father to remain indoors and stay safe. He rebelled. One frigid Sunday last March, through the silence of a sleeping household, he slunk down the hall and to the kitchen, careful not to rouse his house guests.
We donât know if his plan was dependent on my siblings being hungover but, since this was the case, it worked a charm. A little after 9am, they were stirred from sleep by the tell-tale crunch of gravel as he spun slowly away to his local church. His intention: to defy the orders of his slovenly children and go to mass amid the coughs and handshakes of his fellow parishioners. We had witnessed one of the more unexpected struggles of lockdown life â the strange, rebellious instincts of God-fearing society, and the paradox of coming together in His name at a time when you must remain apart.
It was clear that either he would have to adapt, or Catholicism would. In the end, both happened, as our priest began live streaming services to his parish via an app, and my father got with the programme, in every sense. Dressed in his best church clothes, heâs spent the past 10 months in front of his screen each Sunday morning, albeit allowing himself the potentially sacrilegious indulgence of a cup of tea and a small bun.
My dadâs parish church, Long Tower, in Derry, is currently closed for mass, but open for limited private prayer. There, industrial dispensers of hand sanitiser have replaced the fonts of holy water at each entrance, which have now run dry. This, on the understanding that stagnant pools of tepid liquid, even when blessed by the Almighty, constitute too high a risk of infection.
My fatherâs parish isnât unique. At the time of writing, places of worship throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland are all offering limited services, while in Scotland theyâre closed altogether. All over the world, lockdown rules have changed the way people engage with their faith, showcasing the flexibility of seemingly rigid ancient rites. Not that this is a wholly novel phenomenon for the faith of my upbringing. Even in childhood, I was aware of Catholicismâs capacity for rule-bending. In Ireland, itâs generally accepted that Lent takes a geographically convenient 24-hour break for St Patrickâs Day; and even the most faithful of my co-religionists are given slack to resume the rollerblading, smoking or drinking theyâve given up either side of 17 March.Instead of religion being the realm of the wishy-washy goody-goody, now itâs in the realm of contraband
We heard tales, apocryphal or not, of country cousins who got past the traditional injunction that eating meat was forbidden on Fridays by reclassifying ducks as fish, on the grounds that they swam. Tales of this sort are to be found all over the Catholic world, and everything from beavers, capybara and barnacle geese have been declared exempt for the same reason. My personal favourite is a 2010 declaration by Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, in response to an inquiry regarding the fishiness of one local delicacy. âYes,â he replied, on stately headed paper, âthe alligator is considered in the fish family, and I agree with you â God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana, and it is considered seafood.â
Are such loopholes apparent in other faiths? And could they be explored to help their adherents live that faith at a time when churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are themselves deemed taboo? I aimed to discover the ways in which different religions have adapted, and ways they could do better, while congregating poses a fatal risk. As if to underline the stakes at hand, my favourite alligator-loving archbishop contracted Covid-19 himself shortly after I wrote the above paragraph. I temporarily removed the section, as it seemed in poor taste to invoke him in a lighthearted aside; but to my relief, the archbishop made a full recovery, albeit returning to a diocese that had closed all churches and cancelled all masses. Undaunted, he delivered his blessing just one week later, from a biplane flying over New Orleans.
âI have to laugh,â Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner says when I tell her of my fatherâs clandestine operations. âWhatâs hilarious is that, instead of religion being the realm of the wishy-washy goody-goody, now itâs in the realm of contraband.â As senior rabbi to the UKâs Reform Jewish community, sheâs well versed in the adaptability of tried and trusted religious rites, although Judaism has its specific differences.
âThe dividing line for Jews is whether or not we activate electricity on the sabbath and on festivals,â she tells me. During lockdown an estimated 80% of synagogues closed in the UK, and those that are still open offer limited services. âThereâs also the issue of what we count as a prayer forum â whether we use online or not. What weâve seen is a chasm opening up between those who do and donât, and also a chasm opening up between leniency and stringency.â
In previous times, restrictions on the use of electricity have been elided when necessary, by utilising loopholes that allow adherents to still technically obey the letter of the law. âI lived in Israel for 15 years,â Janner-Klausner says. âDuring wars there, people just left the radio on all day [thereby avoiding the sinful act of physically turning on an electrical implement during the sabbath]. There are ways around things. There is also the Shabbat non-Jew â whereby a person who is non-Jewish is asked to help turn off the light or the fire.â The religious rules do not apply to them, so this is not a sin.
I have my own first-hand experience of this, because I live in Stamford Hill, London, home to the largest Haredi community in Europe, for whom restrictions are much more marked than in reform Judaism. Signs of these workarounds are there in the âeruv wiresâ erected between buildings, designating the two homes as single units, and allowing occupants to move freely between them without being judged to have moved domains, forbidden during Shabbat. I have even been called on to act as a Shabbat non-Jew for neighbours, who invited me in to operate an electric breast pump for the mother of a young baby.
Having been ignorant of the Haredi strictures, I described my surprise that concerns about modesty or personal space allowed such a compromise. Janner-Klausner was quick to dispel the notion.
âTheyâre not compromises,â she tells me, âtheyâre the opposite, theyâre life-enablers. Itâs what enables us to survive. Jewish law is based on the principle that you cannot enact a law that the majority of people canât live with. And I think the laws that are being enacted at the moment, the majority of Jews in Britain cannot abide by, and do not abide by. If there is ever a time to focus on survival, itâs during a global pandemic and the aftermath.â
âItâs also not an orthodox/progressive divide,â she says. âSome of my orthodox rabbinic colleagues have been amazing at finding online solutions and ways of reaching out to their congregants.â There have been challenges; for example, for any Jewish services to take place there must be a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jewish adults, present in the synagogue. âBut there was a ruling that if you were online it doesnât count as a quorum and thatâs been very hard for people.â While it is not permitted to use electrical equipment, there is no consensus on whether or not youâre allowed to Zoom during Passover.
For Muslims, the first lockdown came with the added difficulty that both Ramadan and the celebration of Eid were compromised, at a time when mass gathering is central to their faith.
âIt was strange,â says Sabah Ahmedi, an Ahmadi Muslim and one of Englandâs youngest imams. âIt was the first time in my life â and a lot of peopleâs lifetimes â that you couldnât go to mosque and perform prayer for Eid. But what was good was getting to do it at home. I was praying with my wife and my mother in the same room, and that was nice, because in the mosque there would be segregation [by gender].â
Last year, Saudi Arabia halted all international flights and suspended hajj pilgrimages to Mecca. This visit to the holiest Muslim site on Earth is one of the five pillars of Islam, and a mandatory journey to be undertaken at least once in every adherentâs lifetime. It is, in short, as mass as mass gatherings get, with about two million pilgrims travelling often thousands of miles to worship at close quarters every year, and its cancellation spelled levels of disruption unthinkable in other faiths. In the end, 2020âs hajj was limited exclusively to Saudi nationals, and those pilgrims of other nationalities who resided in-kingdom, all of whom had to obey much more stringent social distancing measures throughout. The Muslim Council of Britain is still advising members to follow the advice of the Saudi Foreign Office regarding hajj, namely that no non-essential travel to the kingdom be allowed for the foreseeable future.
âIf people are not allowed to fulfil one of the five pillars of Islam, it can be distressing,â Ahmedi tells me. âPeople seeking to do hajj could also have lost thousands of pounds, made plans for years. But, as Muslims, we are taught that loyalty is part of faith. It will have caused disruption, but we know that itâs for the benefit for the whole world.âI know of clergy who âgive up boozeâ during the day for Lent, and start drinking exactly when itâs sunset in Jerusalem
For Ahmedi, impediments to observance seem to have been easily reconcilable with his faith, perhaps reflecting a long history of Muslim workarounds. âThere have also always been times in Islam when followers were called to pray at home,â he explains, âbecause of the circumstances of the land in which they were living.â
Counter to the prevailing stereotype of Islam as unyielding, Ahmedi tells me, it is a religion tailormade for adaptation. Even during Eid, those who are sick, pregnant, breastfeeding or travelling are all exempt from fasting, because it could have a detrimental effect on their health. During last yearâs lockdown, Ahmedi hosted an impressively varied array of alternative outlets for his flock, with lectures, classes, tutoring and substantial outreach through social media, which continued even when lockdown was eased.
These are not always solely religious affairs, with maths, science and language lessons being conducted over various platforms. âWe even have personal training,â he tells me. âWe have younger members of the community who run live workout sessions on YouTube. We do quizzes. You name it, weâre keeping everything going as much as we can.â
Will he be keeping these up after lockdown? âAbsolutely. Weâve seen a huge increase in engagement, even from people who werenât that engaged before. As much doom and gloom as last year may have brought, weâve come together in a way Iâve never seen before.â
No discussion of flexibility in contemporary faith would be complete without mentioning the Church of England, which Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie calls âan institution addicted to compromiseâ. A curate in the diocese of Liverpool, heâs also the author of A Field Guide To The English Clergy, the subtitle of which â A Compendium Of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates And Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practising â is one of the finest available.A service is streamed from the Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church UK in Kingâs Cross, London. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Adapting to new normals is, he reiterates, very much an Anglican speciality. âThe church is beset by weird loopholes,â he tells me. âThe Queen believes in bishops in Berwick-upon-Tweed but not in North Berwick, when sheâs crossed the border [the Church of Scotland hasnât had bishops since the 17th century]. Another official strangeness is the existence of âflying bishopsâ â a group who are consecrated specially for people who donât believe in female priests, and so âflyâ round the country.â Sorry, there are male flying bishops that help those struggling with episcopal equality? âYes, although I think they mostly drive Volvos and have to live near motorways.â
âMore prosaically,â Butler-Gallie says, âI know of clergy who âgive up boozeâ during the day for Lent, only to calculate exactly when itâs sunset in Jerusalem and start drinking then.â
With my thoughts turning to Lent, I reasoned my final port of call should be my fatherâs parish priest, Father Aidan Mullan, who still broadcasts to households all over the parish of Long Tower. He laughs at the thought of duck and alligators for Friday dinner â âthe rebel in the Irishman would appreciate thatâ â but confirms that the Lenten interruption for St Patrickâs Day is no mere folk tradition, but a canonised reality in the Irish Church. âMost Catholic countries have a Lenten break day, Laetare Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday of the season. They donât wear the usual purple vestments on those days. But Ireland never uses Laetare Sunday because of St Patrickâs Day â we adapted by moving that day.â
Rules throughout the UK have varied through lockdowns, with Scotland allowing five people to attend weddings, and 20 for funerals. In England, six people can attend a wedding, although the government advises against holding them other than in exceptional circumstances, such as if one of the people getting married is ill and not expected to recover. In Wales, the number is determined by the size and shape of the building. Having previously had a near-total ban, Northern Irelandâs guidance now limits attendance to 25 people per wedding or funeral; many are choosing to delay weddings and baptisms until normality resumes.
Not that Fr Mullanâs congregation havenât found ways around such proscriptions. âI had a man ask me if he could get his child baptised,â he says. âSo I told him that we, in the Catholic church, say that anyone can baptise a child provided they have the mind of the church in their intention. I could get into trouble with church authorities, but you can only baptise once in Catholicism. If a Presbyterian becomes a Catholic, or a Catholic becomes an Anglican, we donât baptise them again, because we all accept each otherâs baptisms. So if you baptise at home, and choose to come to me afterwards, I can baptise âconditionallyâ â which is to say, in case it wasnât done correctly. Iâm happy enough saying that to the man.â Once again, we are revelling in technicalities and loopholes â the law of God bending to our current circumstances.
Before I leave, and careful to preserve the anonymity of one member of his flock, I ask if, hypothetically, he would consider it sacrilegious for someone to indulge in a cup of tea and a small bun during one of his live-streamed services.
âNo, I wouldnât say it was sacrilegious,â he chuckles, to the relief of my fatherâs eternal soul. âSure, one guy has told me he watches me from his bed. And I said, âMore power to you.ââ