Are Worship Services An Essential Service?
Dec 2, 2020 | by Brad Sumner
I am tired of pivoting. I am guessing you are, too. I grow weary of hearing about how these are ‘unprecedented times’. The stress of limping forward into a Christmas season where many of us can think of little to celebrate weighs on me more than I might care to admit.
I need community. I need hope. I need human connection. I need the very real and powerful things that my faith in God and my engagement in a community of faith provide to make it through this season intact. This second wave and the resulting local restrictions seems to be hitting many people harder than the first ones in March. There is now a cumulative layering to our grief and losses. Loss of income, loss of health and even loss of a loved one for some.
The oft-repeated refrain is that we are all in this together. Small business in our city are suffering and may close because of the reduction in income due to the limits on the number of persons in their small storefront spaces at once. School administrators are suffering a barrage of unkind emails from angry parents who want to know who in their child’s class has COVID. Our health care professionals are struggling with near-record levels of burnout. Our seniors and those who love them are living without physical contact. No one I know is immune from making significant shifts in the patterns of our lives in order to weather this global pandemic.
So when our Provincial Health Officer updated her orders of November 10, 2020 to include Gatherings and Events (a category which focuses on banquet halls, vacation rentals, gatherings in private residences, religious gatherings, and perimeter seating buses), as part of my job as a pastor I took a deep breath and then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work with our team moving everything online. Again. Youth contact work for our new youth and young adults pastor: moved to a discord server. Prayer meetings: happening on Zoom. A congregation-wide AGM we had scheduled for that Sunday quickly became a webinar. Staff and leadership team meetings, care for the vulnerable, benevolence work… all have been moved to phone calls or computer screens.
On Power and Privilege…
Is digital ministry optimal? Nope. Is this most recent order “religious persecution?” Probably not when set alongside the experience of many in church history or the plight of the persecuted church around the globe today. We live in a country and in a city that is, for the most part, blessed with both power and privilege. Most of us have the technology and the time that allows us to experience some semblance of community during this season, even if it is only digitally. My heart is pastorally heavy for those on the margins of our churches in our culture who do not have access to in-person support. But Dr. Henry was also clear in that order that essential services such as recovery and support groups can and indeed should continue. We here at Jericho, for example, continue to run our mental health support group with both an in-person and online option because the Provincial Health Office recognizes the unique vulnerability of those who need extra support in this season. We are still able to serve well those in or city who need our help the very most.
On the Exercise of Pre-emptive NOT Punitive Authority…
With this in mind, I want to speak for a moment about the choice that Jericho Ridge has made to keep our doors closed for Sunday morning public worship gatherings in this brief season. The text of the Nov 10 order states that “because [of] the risk of outbreaks resulting from the gathering of people and attendance at events… coordinated action is needed to protect the public from contracting COVID-19”. The CEO of Fraser Health subsequently reinforced this Tuesday that both in our local region as well as globally, faith community gatherings have been documented sources of transmission. The point of sweeping, sector-wide public health orders is to define how the whole community is to come together to make sacrifices commensurate with the times through which we are all living. In other words, the specific order suspending in-person religious gatherings is written to be preventative in nature (pre-emptively containing community-based transmission) not punitive in nature (somehow implying that churches were not doing a job at COVID-compliance or signalling that the work of churches is non-essential or not important). We choose to comply with this order out of respect for the sphere of authority (public health) that has been entrusted to the government (see Romans 13:1-8).
On Buildings and Gatherings…
A study of the New Testament reveals an enigmatic tension: a pattern of corporate gathering for worship as optimal (see for example Hebrews 2:12 which says “I will proclaim Your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.”) but also the reality that “the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands.”(Acts 7:48). Whatever your perspective on the actions of churches in Canada or the US who gather for public worship in this season, those who are part of leading a Christian community likely all agree that an assembled group is the most efficient way to care for the people we pastor. We also agree that encouragement, nurture and soul-care happen best in person. Matthew 18:20 also shows us that the presence of Christ is not restricted to the numerical size of the gathering or the need for it to be in a building. As Dr. Henry rightly said on Monday, "Faith is not a building…It's not about Sunday mornings, but it's about every day, and how we connect with each other and how we support each other. It's not about rights."
So really what we are discussing everywhere I go in Langley this week could be framed as a question: “Is gathering an essential part of what it means to be the Church? And what happens if and when a government moves to restrict that in part or in whole?”
On church history…
It should be noted that the state moving to restrict or restrain has happened rather frequently throughout history and continues to happen today in many places. One lesson, however, from the first two centuries of the African and Mediterranean church experience is that the earliest followers of Jesus saw Christianity as a movement as opposed to an institution. Early Christianity turned out to be an explosively powerful set of convictions about the nature of reality, how humans relate to the Divine, and how we relate to each other and the created world that allows personal and communal faith to flourish. All of this happened while living under significant governmental oppression and also without the wide-spread use of buildings or large-scale public gatherings! Historians also tell us that the early Christians were often the ones most deeply concerned with the health of their neighbours to the point of being willing to lay down their own lives so that others could experience hope and healing. Recalling and recovering this ancient pathway might help us re-frame part of the conversation. Yes, buildings and gatherings are helpful and important tools, but they are not everything. “What is important is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6).
On Charter Rights…
Part of this discussion is so challenging for churches because the capacity to gather, to practice the ritual and rhythms our faith in real time with real people in a real place, is a core part of what it means to embody the Christian faith. If this turns out to be the first step in a further restriction of religious rights and freedoms, particularly the right for lawful assembly, then the government can and should expect pushback from those in the faith community. Some Christians feel that now is the time and place to take that stand and I respect their right to do so just as I respect the right of any person to choose a pathway of civil disobedience in a civil manner and to accept whatever consequences are part of taking that stand.
We are part of a tradition (Mennonite Brethren) that practiced conscious objection and asked for alternative service during times of conscription during the wars of the twentieth century, but who were also willing to pay the cost of that conviction. Many were fined or imprisoned for their interpretation of Scripture on matters of conscience. Here at Jericho, we choose not to malign or marginalize those who interpret Scripture differently than us and who consider the current closure of churches unnecessary or unhelpful.
At the same time, if as people of faith we need to close our buildings for a season of time or not ride a party bus or not rent an AirBnB or not visit grandparents on the Island this Christmas, we choose not to believe that this is because the government has a current or future sinister plan to de-seat religion from its place in the fabric of the communities we live, work and worship in. The church is essential in that the whole church is called to bring the whole gospel to the whole world in ways in which most deeply meet the needs of the global and local human community. Gathering helps us to do this but it is not the only way this can be done.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins with the phrase "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…" In this, it beautifully acknowledges and balances the need for rules for our common societal good with our right to assemble and worship. Right now circumstances dictate we follow the rules for own good. It does not in any way lessen the supremacy of God.
On Doing Good…
I also want to take a moment in this space to reiterate that we here at Jericho Ridge are committed to the ongoing health and flourishing of all members our community. Not just those who attend our church, but those who live proximate to us, those who disagree with the Christian message, as well as the other brothers and sisters who attend other churches and who may take a different tact or hold a diverse opinion on this matter. The way of Jesus is the way of love and peace. The unity of the Church in our region doesn’t derive from uniformity of thought and beliefs. Our unity comes from keeping Jesus at the centre. This frees us to stay together in our differences, rather than adding to the pandemic of polarization. We choose this path and will not vilify or comment on the actions of others who make choices different from those which our leadership has prayerfully discerned as being right for us and for the public good of our neighbours.
We are not currently gathering on Sundays in-person but meaningful ministry is still very much happening. Vulnerable youth are still being checked in on. Seniors are still getting hand-written Christmas cards from people who have never met them but who are part of our community. Those who need help are being offered the financial and material support to pay their bills and put food on the table. People who are without homes are being put up in hotels at the church’s expense. Those in the final stages of their life are being nurtured from a distance by songs of hope sung over them digitally when their lips are too weak to sing along. Pastoral care and support is happening in creative ways. For the whole of this crazy and tiring COVID-19 journey, we have reiterated and continue to maintain that even if the capacity to gather is temporarily restricted, meaningful ministry is still very much a possibility.
I’m getting long winded (I am a pastor, after all) so I’ll close with this. My rationale for landing where I do as an Anabaptist is rooted in an odd place: a manger. Not to be trite, but the Christmas story is, at its heart, a story of profound humility. The laying down and giving up of Divine rights (Philippians 2) in order to display the power of God in an exceptionally unusual way. The story of Jesus is one where rights are given up so that others can flourish. Power is laid down and privilege is renounced in consideration of those who are weak and needy. Simple acts like wearing a mask or practicing physical distancing or washing your hands or not going in to work when you are feeling ill are all acts of compassionate love that are simple and easy ones to take. They may not be convenient, but following Jesus should never be about personal convenience – it is always and has always been about self-sacrifice and neighbour-love.
I hate it that we can’t gather. Yet I feel that choosing to keep our doors closed for a few Sundays out of our 15-year existence as a congregation is an act of Christian charity undertaken for the sole purpose of advancing the common good. I choose to believe that God often does God’s best work from the margins and from mangers. The Spirit of God didn’t seem to be overly enamoured that buildings and gatherings be considered essential that first Christmas, and so perhaps we could un-enamour ourselves with them again for a time in this season.
My prayer for myself, for you and for all who name the name of Jesus in our city is that we would be counted among those who are known by our love and by the fruit of God’s Spirit at work in our lives in this season and in every season.
In humility and love,