On the closing of churches for onsite services and meetings

When I hear that the Alberta Government is allowing churches to hold onsite worship services with 1/3 capacity, I realize that I live in a different world from many other Alberta Christians. Let me explain. Warning: this will not be short.

On Saturday March 14th, early in the morning, I and all my Anglican Diocese of Edmonton clergy colleagues received an email from our Bishop, Jane Alexander, announcing her decision to suspend on-site worship services in the Diocese of Edmonton until further notice because of rising Covid-19 infections. Note: this was before the Government of Alberta shut down on-site services.

I already had my Sunday prep finished and was looking forward to a quiet day at home, but that went out of the window. I knew nothing about Facebook Live and Zoom, but I quickly posted a text version of the Sunday liturgy on our website, recorded YouTube videos of my sermon and the children’s talk, and taught myself how to post them.

The next week we live streamed a service from the church using Facebook Live, as well as continuing to post resources to the website as we had done the previous week. It took us about eight weeks to figure out that the reason our live stream from the church was so choppy was nothing to do with our equipment and everything to do with the crappy internet service to the church from Telus. In order to have a good livestream you need about 4 or 5 kbps upload speeds – ours were about 0.8!!! This meant that the livestream was difficult to watch, but nonetheless, our people supported it enthusiastically. I encouraged them to chat with each other in the comments, and it was obvious that they were enjoying not only the content but also the contact with each other.

Eventually we moved the livestream to our house where the internet service is better. This meant we could not have other leaders from the church join in the livestream as it was not a good idea to invite lots of people into our home. But our live streamed services and the materials we post on our website continue to be popular. Between the two platforms I think we reach between 80-100 people a Sunday. Our average on site Sunday attendance last year was 75, so that’s not too shabby.

I must emphasize that I wasn’t trained to do any of this. Every single technological solution we tried, I had to teach myself to do it. And it all took far longer to prepare for. Normally, to prepare for a Sunday service is about six hours’ work for me. Doing it online, it’s more like ten.

In late spring and early summer it became possible for us to hold on-site services again. However, people were nervous and most were in no hurry (and I must point out that ours is a very community-oriented church and people really miss meeting each other!). We did a few outdoor services while the weather was warm (first time I’d received Holy Communion in months!!!), and then in October began meeting inside again on Sunday afternoons, while continuing our live streaming on Sunday mornings. Normally our capacity is about 150. However, with two metre social distancing between family groups we could fit at most about 30 people. Not that we ever had that many; most people didn’t feel safe, despite all our Covid protocols. The biggest service we had was about 15 people.

We also have several midweek study groups – one on Thursday morning, one on Friday morning, one on Tuesday evening. Since March these have all moved online, using Zoom. Our attendance has actually been better since we took this decision. I have done most of my parish visiting and pastoral counselling by phone, or by Zoom or Facetime or Facebook Messenger video chats. During the summer I was able to do some outdoor one on one pastoral visits, but now it’s all indoors again and online. St. Margaret’s is currently using a bedroom in my house rent free as my pastoral office!

As Fall progressed, we all watched with increasing unease as the Covid numbers climbed dramatically. Finally, about ten days ago Bishop Jane announced that in order to do what we could to decrease risk of community transmission, she would once again close the churches for onsite worship. Note: for the second time, she was ahead of the Alberta Government, which STILL has not closed the churches.

I am completely on board with what my bishop has done. There is huge risk of community transmission and this is a deadly virus. By now we all know people who have gone down with it, and many of us know people who have died from it. Yes, we know that getting together for worship is a huge comfort for us, giving us a sense of connection with God and each other (and the mental health benefits of churchgoing have been documented). But what if someone dies because of it? How is that loving our neighbour?

So I get very uneasy when I see Christians fighting rigorously for their rights to ignore common sense public health regulations in the name of freedom of worship. My freedom to worship is not restricted! I meet every Sunday with 80-100 people online, and in daily prayers during the week with about 15-20. But even if I was restricted, the restriction is justified because of the danger to people’s health. Our God of love does not demand that people worship him at the cost of transmitting a deadly virus to their grandparents!

But I also get uneasy when I see people yelling about how ‘churches are getting it easy’ under these new government regs. I suspect that we Anglicans aren’t the only ones who haven’t waited around while the Alberta Government sat on its hands and did nothing. I suspect other mainline denominations have done the same thing as us. But I don’t know, because we mainliners don’t tend to be pushy people who make a big noise about what we’re doing. So it may come as a surprise to some of you non-church people to know that we’ve already gone far beyond what the government has required of us.

The royal law Jesus laid down in scripture was to love God and love our neighbour. It’s often been observed that one of the best ways to love God IS to love our neighbour. We Alberta Anglicans are doing that by staying out of our buildings right now, even though we really, really miss each other and ache to be able to have a proper service, with hugs and hymns and coffee hour and all the rest. But this is what we need to do right now. Please, people, don’t wait for the Alberta Government; they’ve already demonstrated that they’ll stall for as long as they can. As I saw on ‘Unvirtuous Abbey’ a couple of days ago (to slightly paraphrase the words of Joshua 24.15), “As for me and my house, we are staying put!”

Rant over.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-seven years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, holistic, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’. Although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are so many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. In Miracles and The Problem of Pain Lewis gives us an intellectual defence of Christian truth (the first book examines the question of whether miracles are possible, while the second deals with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.