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.

What comes after the niqab?

collarI don’t very often wear a clerical collar, for all kinds of reasons, but I’m thankful to be free to wear it. There are countries in the world where Christian clergy are banned from wearing any sort of clerical dress.

Apparently Daniel Dennett thinks clergy like me make it our business to control what our ‘adherants’ know. I assume that he sees my clerical collar as a symbol of oppression. One day Daniel Dennett and people who agree with him may be in a majority, and I may be part of a tiny minority. If the day ever comes when the vast majority of people in Canada are offended by a clerical collar and what it symbolizes to them, will someone try to ban clergy from wearing it?

I’m asking this, because I have seen links to posts on Facebook in which people are seriously saying, not only that women should not be allowed to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, but that the niqab should be banned altogether. Those who claim that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women by men, and that no woman ever wears one by her own choice, now want to force women not to wear them. How is that not oppression?

This is the dangerous powder keg that our federal politicians have set a lighted match to in this election campaign. They may not have intended it to go any further than citizenship ceremonies, but extremists are already taking it a lot further.

In this country we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In this country I am free to practice my religion. I am even free to say that my allegiance to God is more important to me than my allegiance to Canada. I’ve been told that our prime minister claims to be an evangelical Christian; if so, I hope he would say the same thing.

Martin Niemöller, famous German pastor from World War Two who had the courage to stand up to Hitler, once said,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Indeed. And if I don’t speak up when they come for those Muslim women who want the freedom to wear the niqab, who will speak up for me when my turn comes? That’s why I want to be included as one of the #peoplelikeNenshi.

A prime example of the hypocrisy of party politics

I work for a registered charity which is authorized to issue receipts for donations so that people can receive a tax deduction for their generosity. The more they give, the more they get back. When the federal and Alberta amounts are combined, the refund on donations over $200 is close to 50%, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, our charity (which is a church) is, of course, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan politics. If we were to do that, we would lose our charitable registration and would no longer be able to issue receipts to our members for tax deductions.

Does it bother me that I can’t engage in party politics in my official capacity as pastor of my church? No, not really. On the other hand, if I was working for a charity that was trying to alleviate child poverty in Canada, I might feel a little more constrained by the system. After all, child poverty can’t be solved by donations alone. To use an old illustration, if you start noticing that the river is full of drowning babies, it’s not enough to have an efficient rescue operation; sooner or later, someone needs to go upstream to find out who’s throwing them in. And the answer to that question may well have political implications. But charities aren’t allowed to go near that, or they lose their status and their ability to issue income tax receipts.

And now, behold the hypocrisy of the Canadian political system. Today I gave a donation to a Canadian political party (most of you will be able to figure out which one!). On their website, they promptly informed me that according to Canadian law, when income tax time rolls around, I will receive a tax refund equal to 75% of my donation!

That’s right, folks. Registered charities can’t get involved in party politics or they lose their ability to issue income tax receipts, but if you donate to a Canadian political party (which engages almost exclusively in party politics), you’ll get 75% of it back at income tax time. That’s over half as much again as you’d get for donating to a charity that helps to feed the poor, as long as they don’t get political about it.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

Time to work harder at fixing a broken planet

I’ve just discovered the excellent blog of the Pembina Institute. On the day after the Alberta election, executive director Ed Wittingham wrote an excellent piece on the opportunity for the new Notley government to make a real change in our province’s environmental policies. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the most pressing issues is Alberta’s approach to regulating (and ultimately, reducing) greenhouse gas pollution. The oilsands industry is Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions. By 2020, Environment Canada projects Alberta will be responsible for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas pollution nationally, with much of this growth coming from oilsands expansion. This upward trend is expected to continue until significant changes are made to the amount of emissions the province will allow, and the price charged to emitters who exceed the limit.

This spring, the NDP criticized the previous government for not doing enough on climate change, with Notley stating that Alberta was “way off track” in relation to its 2020 emissions-reduction commitment, and calling the delay in renewing the provincial climate strategy “profoundly irresponsible”.

The challenge of fixing Alberta’s flawed climate policies now falls to Notley’s government to resolve, and quickly — all eyes are on Alberta now that Ontario and B.C. have announced major next steps toward reducing emissions. After years of being named and shamed at the UN climate negotiations, Canada’s credibility at this year’s talks in Paris hinges directly on how it plans to address the runaway growth in greenhouse gas pollution coming from the oilsands sector.

I agree. I think it’s unconscionable how much of the rhetoric since the election has focused around how the new Alberta government is (in the eyes of the right) going to be an economic disaster for our province. First of all, they haven’t even started yet, and since their tax proposals (to give just one example) would still leave corporations better off than they were in 2004 under Ralph Klein, that seems rather far-fetched to me. But secondly, there is no mention at all of the environmental disaster that the PCs were leaving for our grandchildren to clean up (if anyone ever got around to cleaning it up) (see this page on the Pembina Institute website for more details).

The economy is important, of course, but government needs to be about more than the economy. Good stewardship of our natural environment is hugely important if there’s going to be anything left to pass on to future generations. The Klein government used to bang on about not leaving a huge government debt for our descendants to deal with. But what about the morality of leaving them a broken planet?