By Colin Postma
This past Sunday, April 26th a small congregation met in the lazy little town of Aylmer, Ontario for worship. That sentence wouldn’t normally invite much commentary – in fact you might think it was the beginning of a novel. It might surprise you to know, however, that this was big news.
COVID-19 has changed the landscape of worship in our country for the last 7 or so weeks – and rightly so. Glancing over the headlines of major newspapers, you might think this congregation packed the building, shook hands, hugged, sang in their crowded pews, flinging coronavirus wildly about.
The reality was much different. Everyone stayed in their cars, with their windows up. The pastor stood on a podium under an overhang of the church building. He and two elders were the only ones outside, and even they kept more than the 2 meters apart. There was no communication between families. The church doors remained shut. The congregants listened live via radio signal. From all reports, the church first reached out to the authorities to explain their plans for this parking lot worship service. This is not a case of defiant civil disobedience.
Despite these reasonable steps, the authorities have made it quite clear that this sort of thing must not continue. Police officers arrived and video-recorded everything. They have not ruled out laying charges. They had even considered blockading the parking lot and ticketing everyone but decided against it.
I don’t know much about the church, its history, or its theology. But this congregation should be free to meet to worship in this manner. They went far out of their way to ensure that they were following social distancing regulations. They enlisted the help of lawyers to ensure they were following the government of Ontario’s rules. They desired to gather together as a congregation for corporate worship – or something resembling it – in a law-abiding manner.
Some civil leaders are saying that we will not return to normal for ‘years.’ A time is approaching when all Canadian congregations will look for better alternatives to internet streaming. Why wouldn’t an approach like that of the Church of God in Aylmer be a reasonable one? Being able to sing in unison together – even with windows closed – to read God’s word together, and listen together to God’s word preached would be a wonderful change from what we’ve been required to do in the last few weeks. Who of those in government who would say “church is not essential: can know what the true value of worship is if they have not experienced true worship?
The Psalms speak much of desiring to go to God’s house. I can say I’ve never understood those words quite as well as I have in this time when God’s house has been barred from me. Psalm 122 says it this way, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” Our gathering together is a foretaste of that glory that will await, Psalm 23, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” What a shadow has been cast over this worship by the lockdown of COVID-19.
Rather than surveilling drive-in church services or threatening to penalize people for something that is not clearly illegal, the state should endeavour to ensure that the worship of God can safely continue. As it says in the Belgic Confession Article 36 – “We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers…For that purpose He has placed the sword in the hand of the government to punish wrongdoers and to protect those who do what is good (Romans 13:4). Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word.” (emphasis mine).
Restrictions on gathering to worship God must be “reasonable” and “demonstrably justified”, as Canada’s constitution says. If people are parking in the lot at Costco and leaving their cars, if people are accepting Amazon packages through the door, if people are permitted to go for takeout – and these all considered a reasonable risk – then surely it is a not an unreasonable accommodation to allow churches to meet in the fashion of this Aylmer congregation, where they are not even leaving their vehicles?
New Brunswick has recently given permission to just the type of service that took place in Aylmer this past Sunday. Saskatchewan has also shown they will permit these religious gatherings.
So, Legault, Ford and mayors – how about it?
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