By Bruce J. Clemenger

As restrictions lift, many churches are resuming in-person worship services. Each province differs in guidelines on how many can attend, either placing a cap on the total number, establishing a percentage of the seating capacity that can meet or requiring physical distancing between families or households. We celebrate the ability to meet together in person to worship.

This spring’s restrictions on indoor group gatherings have prompted concerns about whether there has been a curtailing of religious freedom in Canada. Of course, the validity of any restrictions on religious activities requires examination. The spring context is also important given the possibility of a second wave in the fall. Let’s consider the life of the church and how to evaluate whether religious freedom is being limited.

The Sunday worship service is usually the anchor in the weekly life of the church and the reason why so much of our church buildings are devoted to enabling the weekly service. Many of us keenly miss the encouragement and communion of meeting together to worship in person. The regular gathering of believers is something the author of Hebrews encourages us not to neglect (Hebrews 10:25) and has been a core element of the life of the church since its beginnings.

Some have been frustrated that churches were not deemed “essential” as governments restricted the operations of many businesses and organizations in order to minimize the spread of the COVID-19. At root, these restrictions have focused on minimizing risk and containing the virus while ensuring people have access to the necessities of life.

(Some expressed concern that liquor stores were deemed “essential.” A Globe & Mail editorial from June 15, 2020 said that that the reason alcohol was declared essential was because 3.2% of the adult population is addicted to alcohol, and having them go through withdrawal would have overwhelmed the hospital system.)

While corporate worship is at the core of the Christian life, there is an important distinction between putting limits on peaceful assembly and denying freedom of worship. Businesses deemed “essential” were still subject to restrictions; and these restrictions have not been effective in some environments – there have been several COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants for example. According to the best information we have, the most dangerous places for the spread of the virus are closed environments where people are present for an extended period of time.

So, what does religious freedom entail?

Religious freedom is one of the fundamental freedoms listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: a unique feature of religious freedom it that it is an amalgam of all the other freedoms. Religious freedom entails freedom of:

  • conscience,
  • thought,
  • belief,
  • opinion,
  • expression,
  • peaceful assembly, and
  • association.

When one of these freedoms is curtailed, usually religious freedom is also impacted.

In the case of the restrictions required by public health officers, it is primarily freedom of assembly that is affected. The key to assessing whether religious freedom is being curtailed is to evaluate the current restrictions to see whether all similar types of assembly are treated equally – whether the restrictions have only been imposed on churches, or on similar gatherings of groups of people in a closed environment, as well.

Our response is that this limitation is not only impacting religious communities.

If all types of gatherings are being treated the same, the next question to ask is whether the restriction on the freedom of peaceful assembly is justifiable. In this situation, the response would be that public health officials have imposed the restrictions they evaluate as necessary for reasons of public health and safety.

If governments were to publicly affirm that churches provide “essential” services (pastoral care, serving people in crisis, spiritual formation, etc.) this may correct a public impression about churches and their contribution to society, and may also assuage the concern and frustration of being thought of as “non-essential.”

Indeed, some politicians have acknowledged the important role churches and other places of worship play in the lives of so many. However, being regarded as essential or non-essential in this instance is based on an assessment of risk, not an assessment of value.

Because the most visible ministry of a typical church is a Sunday morning service, it was easier to deem churches non-essential so that churches did not presume they had permission to hold services as usual. Even if churches were deemed “essential,” it does not necessarily mean that they could or should immediately proceed with large gatherings as they once did.

Religious freedom is not only about the limits that might be placed on the exercise of our freedom, but about how we can use our freedom and our gifts well. It is a matter of stewardship.

A matter of stewardship

As the restrictions are being lifted, I know pastors will proceed cautiously. Even when they are permitted to hold larger gathering, they will balance this freedom with their concern to protect the safety of their congregants and their communities. They will want to ensure they have the proper protocols in place, from having masks and hand sanitizer available to ensuring the flow of people within the sanctuary facilitates physical distancing.

The challenge to resuming church as usual is that the Sunday morning service typically involves a large gathering of people meeting in a closed environment for an extended period of time. The science tells us that these are ideal conditions for spreading a virus.

A worship service is not like going to the grocery store where people are moving and (hopefully) keeping their distance. In a grocery store, there is a lot of space, people are generally spread out, and time spent in the building is much shorter.

On the other hand, a church sanctuary is more like a lecture hall, a movie theatre, or a concert hall. People gather, stay and breathe the same air for longer periods of time. Even if people practice proper physical distancing, they are still breathing the same air in which the virus can circulate. (And churches may differ significantly in the types of ventilation systems they use).

Further, it is more likely that in a church service those gathered will be speaking – reciting a prayer or singing – while in a lecture hall for example, you are expected to be quiet, apart from the odd question. Singing, in particular, heightens the risk as people breathe more deeply and project their voices more so than when speaking.

The Sunday service is not all that churches do, however, and many church activities and programs have continued in creative ways as churches and their staff and volunteers follow the public health guidelines. As restrictions ease, churches will be able to resume more programs with lesser risks of disease transmission. Such programs may include small group meetings (for example: support groups, religious instruction, teaching ESL) and for some churches the provision of meals, clothing distribution and child care.

Consider parallel situations

To recap, as we consider the science and public health advice, we can look at parallel situations of assembly – churches and movie theatres or sports arenas or legislatures or concerts – and treat them the same; as instances of people being stationary in a closed environment. When small groups can physically gather – restaurants with customers proportional to their seating capacity (sitting in a closed environment for an extended period but physically distanced) or day care or schools – then churches should be able to do likewise with parallel restrictions and safety measures in place.

We may not be able to meet in large numbers in a closed environment any time soon. Public health officials say that large indoor gatherings will not be safe until enough of the population has developed immunity to the virus – either through vaccination or having contracted and built immunity to the virus – and it therefore becomes less of a threat. Some estimate this might take 18 to 24 months. There may be a cap on the number who can attend indoor gatherings for some time yet.

The Church’s response to restrictions on public assembly is a matter of our collective public witness. Will we use our freedoms well? Will we continue to heed the restrictions, creatively doing our work and ministering to people’s needs? Or will our perspective be heard as complaining or lack of concern for the health of our neighbours? Even if the church was deemed essential, many of the church’s regular activities would be risky as they involve groups of people meeting in a closed environment for an extended period of time. We must also weigh the risk of collective gatherings to the lives and health of our congregation and community.

This is an important teaching moment – a time for churches and other religious charities to explain to a watching world what it is that churches do. More than half of Canadians do not attend places of worship at all, and some of those have never been inside a church. We may not all be able to go to church together right now, but we continue to be the Church.

The current public health restrictions are not targeting religious belief and practice. We are limited, alongside other similar groups, in not being able to meet in large groups in a closed environment. Gathering together is an important part of our faith and not to be neglected, but asserting our rights in a way that places others in danger and further stresses our health care system is also a form of witness. Refraining temporarily from meeting together to worship as a large group may in fact be one important way that we demonstrate our love for our neighbours.

We may not all make the same decisions about how or when to worship together, now or in the year to come. In fact, we may reevaluate our decisions weekly as our circumstances and understanding of the virus change. Let us extend grace, known by our love for one another, as we seek to worship God.

Bruce J. Clemenger is president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

[June 22, 2020]