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.

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