Last week, the BC provincial government issued a swath of new COVID-related restrictions, including a complete ban on worship services. These restrictions will be in effect for the next two weeks at a minimum and may be (will likely be, in my opinion) extended by Dr. Bonnie Henry if the trajectory of cases continues to increase.
These new restrictions are deeply disappointing for a number of reasons. I had the privilege of discussing these restrictions on the radio on CKNW last week, and I’ll revisit and expand on some of the points that I made there.
Reason #1: Worship Services are Essential Services
I wrote about the essential character of worship services in a public op-ed a few months ago, and so I won’t rehash the entire argument here. Suffice it to say that our provincial leaders, although I genuinely believe that they understand that worship and faith are important components of many peoples’ lives, still do not have a high enough esteem of the importance of worship services to Christians. Sadly, I think that many Christians themselves underestimate the importance of spiritual nourishment – the preaching of the word, the participation in the sacraments, and the communion of saints – that can most fulsomely be found in in-person worship services.
Many in society, in government, and in the church dismiss the impact of these restrictions because Christians can still worship online. With the previous cap of 50 people at a worship service, many Christians have already been worshipping online for the past 8 months. These new restrictions don’t move all in-person worship to online worship. Instead, it removes the opportunity for a small fraction of a congregation to experience a full worship service every week. Instead of a few people worshipping in person, now no one can.
Reason #2: Worship Services are Protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The very first right or freedom listed in the Charter is the freedom of religion. The third is the freedom of assembly. Now, although there is no recognized hierarchy of rights and freedoms, the fact that both of these are fundamental freedoms rather than just “regular” rights or freedoms should mean something. It also should signal that the freedom of religion, as the first-mentioned freedom, should be considered very attentively. After all, freedom of religion was a prime concern for the first immigrants to Canada and the United States.
Because worship services are (or should be) protected under the Charter, they should be afforded special consideration compared to other activities in society. According to the latest restrictions, almost every business is able to continue operations, provided that they have a COVID safety plan and employ appropriate precautions. Even “riskier” activities – such as hockey games – are also allowed to continue.
If hockey games, movie theatres, grocery stores, and virtually every other conceivable for-profit activity is permitted to continue when they do not have constitutional protection, why should religious organizations and services receive less freedom than these other activities?
Reason #3: Worship Services are NOT Spreading COVID
To the best of my knowledge, COVID has not been spreading in local congregations. Now, Dr. Henry should have more complete data in her hands, but I have only seen a single outbreak of COVID in a worship service. That was in Kelowna in late September. Perhaps there have been exposures to COVID at a worship service, but again, I have not heard of many such events.
It seems that the provincial government has no specific evidence that justifies the closure of worship services specifically. If worship services are not exposure or transmission sites for COVID, then why are they being shut down?
The answer, in my opinion, is three-fold: our provincial leaders do not grasp the importance of religious activities, Christians and members of other faith groups have not emphasized this important enough to our civil authorities, and our provincial leaders do not have the political courage or prioritization to allow churches to continue to operate.
Look at schools. There is a very concerted effort by Dr. Henry, Premier Horgan, and the Health Minister (presumably Adrian Dix) to keep schools open, despite the number of exposure and transmission events at school. Ontario and Alberta in the past months have regulated worship services differently than other gatherings. Why? Because they had the political will and motivation to do so. That motivation is lacking here with the current leadership in British Columbia.
Reason #4: These Restrictions Encroach on the Church’s Authority
The final reason I want to touch on here (and there are other valid reasons) is the fact that the complete prohibition on worship services encroaches on the church’s authority. The authority structure that is most directly responsible for worship services is local church governments: councils and consistories. The government certainly has a legitimate role to play in activities tangentially related to the worship service. For example, the government can restrict how fast you can drive to a worship service even if you are late or require that church buildings are up to safety code.
The previous restriction of 50 people at a worship service stretched the authority of the government over worship services to the max, or even past the max in the mind of some Christians. Many churches acquiesced in March and April under the assumption that these restrictions would last for a matter of a few weeks and then they could resume worship as normal. If they had known then that the restrictions would last for 8 months, they might have reacted very differently.
In this case, churches are, or should be, much more wary about how long these restrictions may stay in place. Perhaps they will indeed last for only 2 weeks, as hoped by Dr. Henry. But perhaps they will last for 4 weeks, 8 weeks, 16 weeks.
The Way Forward
So, if the province shouldn’t have completely banned worship services in response to rising COVID cases, what should they have done?
At the very least, the province should have acknowledged all four points above – that worship services are essential, that they are constitutionally protected, that they are not spreading COVID, and that they encroach on the church’s authority – and made it clear that worship services are not akin to any other social gathering. Worship services are fundamentally different than other social gatherings, and even other recreational or business activities. The province should have cited these reasons in defence of allowing churches to continue to worship in groups of up to 50, provided that they continue to take other steps, such as social distancing measures, to minimize the likelihood of COVID transmission.
These are points that any of you can make to our provincial leaders. Although the contact information for our newly elected MLAs is not yet publicly available, you can still send an EasyMail on this topic to the Provincial Health Officer (Bonnie Henry), the Premier (John Horgan), and the Health Minister (presumably Adrian Dix).
You can also call Dr. Henry’s office at (250) 952-1330 to express these concerns directly.
I’ll wrap up by repeating the words that my colleague Mark recently shared: In all these things let us not lose heart but rather lift up our eyes, remembering that “our help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber…The LORD watches over you – the LORD is your shade at your right hand…”The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” ~ Psalm 121
Levi Minderhoud is the BC Manager for the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada