When do we go back to church?

Dr. Bonnie Henry was very positive about the role of faith leaders during her May 13 presentation. Province of British Columbia photo

“Honest question – when would you attend a church service again?” Village Church senior pastor Mark Clark’s informal Twitter poll, May 12 – 13, offered two choices:

Would you with 25% of room full, skip rows and wearing a mask for instance as some are proposing and writing about, or should it wait, even a year if necessary? No right answer just interested in your opinion.

The 323 who responded were fairly evenly split, with the majority (59.4%) favouring ‘Let’s wait, online works’ and a sizeable minority (40.6%) ready to head right back to church (‘25% full w/ mask yes!’).

That poll, though unscientific, probably reflects accurately general uncertainty about when and how we should be returning to church.

Other churches are sending out questionnaires to their members, asking how and when they feel it would be appropriate to return to church. And all churches, no doubt, are reviewing the situation daily.

Provincial guidance

Health Minister Adrian Dix, with Dr. Bonnie Henray, May 13. Province of British Columbia photo

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry did offer some guidance Wednesday afternoon, May 13.

Saying she’s had a lot of questions from faith leaders about religious services, she began by thanking them for their support:

I have been so incredibly appreciative, as we all have, of how many of our faith leaders have stepped up and helped us out through this very challenging time for all of us.

They’ve found many creative ways to do that and I’m very heartened by the stories I have heard about how people have reached out in a virtual way, by telephone and other ways to support members of their community.

She then talked about reopening church buildings for services:

Starting next week, religious services can be held, with safe physical distancing, so that is a maximum of 50 people still – and that is provided that many people can fit into your facility. That may be way too many for many places of worship.

We have seen outbreaks starting from religious gatherings, so be mindful of the room you’re in, how long the service may be and who are your congregants who are there, particularly if they are elders, people who are more likely to have severe illness with this virus.

So hold your gathering in the largest room possible, keep the group small, if you can. The maximum is 50, but that means you have to maintain that physical distance. . . .

You may need to have shorter or multiple services, and keep those virtual connections going, especially for the older people of your congregation.

Go here to watch the YouTube video of Dr. Henry’s presentation, beginning at 19:34.

More detail?

Premier John Horgan with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister of Health Adrian Dix March 11.

Some leaders have been asking for more detail from the government recently, and wondered whether there was going to be a third conference call with government leaders.

Premier John Horgan, flanked by Dr. Henry and Minister of Health Adrian Dix consulted with faith leaders in a conference call March 11.

They urged the 100-plus leaders not to allow gatherings of more than 1,000 people (yes, 1,000; how quickly things changed after that). Dr. Henry urged them to “get creative” in how they offered support, without physical contact.

Church leaders – and, I believe, other faith leaders – fell into line quickly. Most have strongly supported the government’s leadership and virtually all churches have been closed for about two months, with most holding services online.

Now pastors and churches are looking into the fine points of regathering. For example, Vida Jaugelis, interim pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in North Vancouver, tweeted May 9:

@adriandix Church leaders would welcome another teleconference with Dr. Bonnie Henry – Churches are starting to think about holding <50 in person group gatherings – but this seems more than guidance I am hearing on 2day’s update -> expanding our bubble to only a few people

@adriandix – also when you/Dr. Henry speak to faith leaders &/or address situation of faith gatherings in an update – please address the recent research on risk posed by singing/chanting – and whether possible to meet outdoors and sing

Dr. Henry’s May 13 talk provided some insight into how to move ahead, but some leaders might still be hoping for a conference call, or some other way of getting responses to specific questions.

The provincial government has created a plan for Restarting BC., but BC Health Ministry spokesperson Chris Shewchuk responded to me by email May 13, saying, “I do not believe there is another [faith leaders] call scheduled at the moment.” I checked with several local church/ministry leaders, but none had heard of plans for another call.

And Mark Clark’s question still stands – the fact that churches can meet does not mean that all will want to right away.

Current situation

Archbishop Michael Mller

Archbishop Michael Miller, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, was part of the March 11 conference call, and a follow-up meeting with faith groups April 7, according to Archdiocesan media spokesperson Melissa Godbout.

She emailed me May 13, before Dr. Henry’s comments:

We do not know of any future such faith group meetings at this time.

We also have not heard anything directly from the cities, nor have we received any specific guidance from anyone that is separate from the guidance given by the Province and Health Officer to all other types of groups and/or businesses.

Premier Horgan did address the question of faith groups last Wednesday [May 6], saying “You could have 49 people gather safely for religious purposes,” when talking about the second phase which is expected to take place mid-May.

The Archbishop is currently working on procedures and a plan for the limited re-opening of our parishes that is based on the guidance offered by the Province. As of yet, the plan has not been finalized.

Thus it seems that Dr. Henry’s May 13 comments are more in the nature of an encouragement to move ahead, cautiously, than an actual change in policy.

A recent article in The B.C. Catholic stated: Archbishop Miller readying plans to gradually open Vancouver churches:

As the B.C. government prepares for a gradual reopening of businesses and return of various events after the COVID-19 outbreak, the Archbishop of Vancouver is doing the same.

On May 8, the archbishop’s office released a statement saying it is preparing guidelines that will direct how Masses with fewer than 50 people can take place.

For now the exact guidelines are unknown. Archbishop J. Michael Miller only said the return to publicly celebrating Mass “will be gradual” and “informed by our provincial health authorities, who have guided the province prudently through the early phase of the pandemic.”

Anglican plans

Archbishop Melissa Skelton

Most denominations and churches are coming up with their own plans, taking a cautious approach and keeping a close eye on provincial government guidelines.

For example, Anglican Archbishop Melissa Skelton made a statement April 20:

After consulting with many in the Diocese and with the Provincial Health Officer’s updates in mind, I am extending the time for the suspension of in-person worship in our churches into June. For now, I am setting Sunday, June 14 as the date by which we might move back into our church buildings for in-person worship.

Keeping this date will, of course, very much depend on what the Provincial Health Officer provides in both the written directives and in the daily updates all of us are watching.

She reiterated her projection at a staff meeting May 6.

Church Guidelines and Considerations

Ken Shigematsu

Ken Shigematsu, senior pastor of Tenth Church, guided me to his denomination’s quite extensive efforts. The Alliance Church (Canadian Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance) has created a “resource on guidelines and considerations for churches in response to the announcement of BC’s Restart Plan.”

Here is the beginning of the eight-page BC’s Re:Start Plan: Church Guidelines and Considerations:

BC has made significant progress in the fight against COVID-19 and on May 6, 2020, Premier John Horgan outlined BC’s Restart Plan for slowly and carefully easing restrictions. This document is intended to provide guidelines and considerations for churches as they navigate these changes in their unique contexts.

Disclaimer: This is our best understanding of the information provided by the BC Government and its implications for our churches. These are not directives that the District will be policing or enforcing, but rather guidelines we believe are wise and questions that your Board and pastoral leadership should consider and work through. There may be legitimate areas of interpretation where the implementation in your church context could look different than in other settings, however, please be aware of your responsibility and the ensuing consequences should you choose to deviate from provincial guidelines and the guidance provided below.

The new normal1

To continue to protect seniors, those at risk, and our health care system, we must continue to modify our behaviour and keep protective measures in place until a vaccine is developed. These changes in restrictions are not a return to normal, but instead a move to a new normal. Yet, there is increased freedom, and this is encouraging!

For churches, this new normal allows for the following, provided physical distancing is maintained and hygiene practices are in place:

• Gatherings of up to 50 people to take place
• In personal settings, gatherings of 2-6 people
• In-person counselling
• A return to office-based work settings
• Opening of parks and outdoor spaces

Please note that the allowances above apply beginning May 19, 2020.

1 Information on changes is retrieved from: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergencypreparedness-response-recovery/covid-19-provincial-support/bc-restart-plan

Go here for the full article, which covers a wide range of issues and questions. I notice the the BC Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches links to this resource.

What now?

There are innumerable comments about what the church could, should and must learn from COVID-19.

One good guide would be the Missional Commons Webinar today May 14) at 1 pm. Guests Alan Roxburgh (The Missional Network) and Karen Wilk (Forge Canada) will lead a discussion about What Do We Want to Bring With Us?:

Now, there are new questions around how we prepare to regather and what it might look like to return to normal. This “return” in an opportunity to reflect on our ecclesiology and consider some of the issues we need to face. As there is talk about some loosening of restrictions, another question we need to be asking is “what do we want to bring with us?” from this Covid-19 experience.

This is the third in the Missional Commons series and should be well worth participating in.

And here is a helpful Christianity Today article by Daniel Chin, a physician trained in pulmonary and critical care medicine and epidemiology with 25 years of global public health experience: In 2003, he led much of WHO’s support to China to contain the SARS epidemic: When Your Church Reopens, Here’s How to Meet Safely. Though written in the context of the United States, it is also valuable here.

Another interesting CT article, which may help with one of Vida Jaugelis’s questions: No Joyful Noise as German Churches Open Without Singing.

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5 comments for “When do we go back to church?

  1. We as a church, The King’s Way Church in Vancouver, never stopped. We use physical distancing and the hall we rent is large enough to support that. While we are small in numbers, I never saw an order that said small churches or groups can’t meet but one has to respect social distancing.

    If liquor stores and abortion clinics and other services can continue and Canadian Tire can fill their stores and their aisles, where are the churches? What was stopping the larger churches in breaking into groups of 20 – 50, having multiple church services for those who wanted them and social distancing?

    We declared church essential services right from the start as the Word proclaims, “Do not forsake the assembling of the saints . . .” There is more involved here than just protecting people from the coronavirus and we need to be wise about these matters and discerning of the times we live in.

    • Hi Jan

      Doing well, thanks – and you I hope?

      It looks like you’ve gotten on. Was there something you wanted to comment on related to this story?

  2. Flyn….this is a very interesting article…..I was excited to see your name! This is Margaret’s cousin Miriam…from Arizona! Blessings!

    • Thanks Miriam, good to hear from you. I post four stories every week on Church for Vancouver.

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