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Queen’s research finds that ‘church is something other than a building’ during the Covid-19 pandemic

A new research study sheds light on how churches on the island of Ireland are navigating the Covid-19 pandemic including changes in pastoral care, moving religion online, social services and the wider community, and stress and ministry.

The Lanyon Building

The research was led by Queen's University Belfast and the Irish Council of Churches/ Irish Inter Church Meeting.

One of the key findings from the research was the perceptions of what church is and what it does may be starting to shift in response to the pandemic.

During most of the pandemic church buildings across the island have been closed for worship due to restrictions on public gatherings. When churches have been open, strict social distancing protocols have limited the numbers who can attend in person.

The research was conducted by Dr Gladys Ganiel, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s and published today (Tuesday, 26 January 2021).

“A Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland reflected that this unusual situation has raised awareness that ‘church is something other than a building.’ This report takes its name from this minister’s remarks, as they illustrate one of the main insights from the research,” said Dr Ganiel.

The findings are the result of 32 in-depth interviews with clergy from across the island of Ireland and complement an earlier survey of faith leaders on the island, the results of which were published in a May 2020 report, ‘People Still Need Us’. Some findings from the interviews add more depth to the previous survey report, especially around the churches’ swift and successful move to online services during the early stages of the pandemic. Other findings are new.

Dr Ganiel continued: “New findings include a range of perspectives on how God may be working during the pandemic, with a strong emphasis on God coming alongside us during the pandemic, as well as evidence that some people are asking whether the pandemic is God’s judgement. The interviews also revealed shifting understandings of what it means to ‘be church’, prioritising the role of lay volunteers and moving faith outside the walls of church buildings. Taken together, these findings provide evidence for a shift in emphasis among clergy to the idea that church is something other than a building.

“In addition, there was evidence of what could be a historic shift in national level inter-church relations. Inter-church cooperation at this level has been more frequent and united during the pandemic than at perhaps any other time, with unprecedented levels of collaboration around pandemic-related issues such as closing and re-opening church buildings; as well as issues like Brexit and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. Given the island’s religiously-divided past, such cooperation – if sustained – could provide churches with a solid platform from which to contribute to societal debate in the years ahead.”

The new findings include:

  • The pandemic has accelerated a shift in emphasis towards the idea that church is ‘something other than a building’. This shift seems to be related to the popularity of online services, churches’ responses to the pandemic through practical action in their communities, and increases in lay activism in providing pastoral care and technical expertise.
  • Some clergy reported that their parishioners and congregants believed the pandemic was God’s judgement, but this was a minority view among clergy. Clergy generally encouraged people to think along the lines that God was coming alongside people in love during the pandemic, often through the kind and selfless actions of others.
  • National-level, inter-church cooperation has been more frequent and united during the pandemic than at perhaps any other time in Irish church history.
  • At local level, already-existing inter-church/ecumenical relationships were usually maintained, albeit often at a reduced intensity as churches focused on pressing tasks such as moving services online and then, in the summer, reopening buildings.
  • For some clergy, reopening church buildings was one of the most stressful experiences of the pandemic, as they grappled with balancing health and safety against people’s spiritual needs. The popular drive-in services organised by some rural Protestant churches also presented organisational challenges, but were generally viewed positively as innovative opportunities for worship.

The full report entitled ‘‘Something Other than a Building’: A Report on Churches on the Island of Ireland during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ is available here:




Media enquiries to Zara McBrearty at Queen’s Communications Office on email: or Tel: 07795676858