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Peter Stockland: Community suffers with church closures

By 
  • April 10, 2021

The Holy Week chaos that hit Ontario churches when the Ford government slammed on its COVID “emergency brake” hours before Good Friday is part of the chain reaction of frustration faithful Canadians are experiencing.

Polling data released April 1 by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with the think tank Cardus, for whom I oversee the website Convivium.ca, show that 80 per cent of those surveyed miss being able to worship together and 40 per cent — 50 per cent in British Columbia — feel houses of worship have been unfairly singled out for COVID closures. Only a single per cent said they’ve been able to gather for spiritual purposes unhindered by the lockdowns.

The depth of vexation came through powerfully when I interviewed Rev. Rob Schouten, a pastor in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, who is part of a group of 10 Canadian Reformed Churches in the province seeking a judicial order to lift COVID restrictions.

That puts the Protestant group onside with, though independently of, Vancouver’s Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller, who filed a similar petition March 1. The archdiocesan legal appeal is still awaiting a decision from the B.C. Supreme Court. A third petition from a separate group has already been punted by the court.

When I spoke with Rev. Schouten just before Palm Sunday, it was a work of Christian charity for him to keep the derision out of his voice as he referenced B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s public epiphany about how important in-person worship is for churchgoers.

But there was no holding back his anger at churches being given “permission” (since withdrawn) to hold services — provided they were conducted outside.

“Right now, it’s about six degrees, it’s raining heavily,” Schouten said. “There’s wind kicking up. And we’re going to worship outside. You can imagine grandpa and grandma and little Johnny and Susie, and heavily pregnant Mrs. Smith. They’re all standing out there in the cold spring breeze and April showers. Meanwhile, we can’t use our beautiful 12,000-square-foot building.”

Doubly galling, he said, is that the church can be used for everything from daycare to support groups to yoga classes. It could even be rented out to a movie shoot. 

“We could use it all week for a movie shoot, but we have to stay outside in the rain. We can’t use the church for the purpose for which it was built by the people,” he said.

For my Cardus colleague Ray Pennings, commenting after release of the Angus Reid poll results cited above, the frustration is perfectly understandable. But Pennings also sees it as an opportunity for churches and, indeed, all faith traditions to remind Canadians about the very real contribution places of worship make to the country’s common life. He thinks it’s an opening for religious leaders to articulate a vocabulary, and a theology, of community.

Such an opportunity builds on the Angus Reid data that showed Canadians of faith aren’t just frustrated about being kept from gathering for worship. Seventy per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing a loss of meaning by being prevented from participating in volunteer and civic activities that originate within, and emanate from, their place of worship. 

“We often think of spiritual life as the life of the mind and the life of the soul. It’s very abstract: just me and God. I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But faith is actually a group of people physically gathered together and joining their voices together,” Penning says. 

From an explicitly Christian perspective, Pennings says, the nearly $70 billion religious institutions contribute annually in goods and services to the Canadian economy represents a carrying out of the core message of Christ’s Gospel.

“The Christian religion emphasizes that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour. ... Being totally isolated from everyone, as the lockdown forces us to be, goes against the very nature of what we understand as the meaning and purpose of religion,” he says.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow at Cardus.)

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