Putting some faith in restrictions

Despite my best efforts to stay healthy this past year, I fell ill over the Easter weekend. While my symptoms were not related to COVID-19, I did my due diligence. I reported my illness to my employers, stayed home, got tested, saw a doctor and recovered. I followed the rules.

Unfortunately, there were some Canadians this Easter weekend who were not so cautious.

During its Sunday services, the Christian Church of Morden willfully broke health orders. The church announced its intentions in a now-deleted post which stated, “After much deliberation, prayer and scriptural direction, we have come to the conclusion that we can no longer comply with the restrictions imposed on us by the government of Manitoba. Live stream services are no substitute for personal fellowship.”

The statement went on to argue that the church is divinely appointed to the task of providing support to the community and equipping them for a “practical Christian life.” What is strange about the church’s statement is that it does not provide any reasoning as to why this work must violate health orders.

Contrary to what the Morden church implies, in-person Easter services do not necessarily violate health restrictions. Both the World Health Organization and Manitoba’s own guidelines provide a myriad of reasonable suggestions for carrying out in-person services. Taking the service outdoors is one obvious solution. Conducting multiple small services throughout the day with the appropriate sanitization and social distancing is another.

I can understand some degree of reluctance to comply with health orders, as there are some that mandate changes to how services and rituals are conducted. For instance, the health orders recommend that attendees do not handle communal objects or offer food or drink like communion, except for in pre-packaged individual portions. This changes how rituals must be conducted. However, religious groups can embrace the changes and come up with creative solutions that safely honour their faith.

Thankfully, there are many churches that embraced these challenges and have come up with creative ways to host services in COVID-conscious ways. Take, for instance, the St. Thomas Anglican Church, which kept its Sunday service below the 25 per cent capacity and hosted a safe parade mostly from the distance of the congregation’s cars.

Unfortunately, some in religious communities have been quick to criticize efforts to promote safety measures amidst the pandemic — possibly contributing to the reluctance in some communities to take the necessary measures outside of the church, as well.

When Pastor John van Sloten of Marda Loop Church in Calgary, Alta. wrote a clear theological justification for mask-wearing last fall, the church’s Facebook page was inundated with furious, conspiracy ladened comments. Congregants at Calgary’s Journey Church began to spread the widely debunked Plandemic video and repeat QAnon conspiracy talking points. The pervasiveness of these conspiracy theories had moderates in Journey Church concerned about the possibility of fracturing their communities.

If these groups in Calgary are any indication, faith groups permeated by similar highly vocal conspiracy theorists risk backlash for enforcing public health orders. This can increase hesitancy when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect their communities. That hesitancy will cost lives.

What ought to cause more concern for religious liberty than changes to rituals and services is the unequal application of these restrictions between groups. Quebec set a bad precedent last year by allowing restrictions to be lifted for Christmas celebrations but maintained restrictions during Hanukkah. The reactions from Quebec’s Jewish communities ranged from outrage at this flagrant privileging of one faith over another to confusion as to why restrictions were being lifted at all.

Those in Quebec that questioned this decision have a point. The problem is that religious gatherings, like restaurants and bars, are known hotspots for COVID-19 transmission. For example, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Sarto, Man. saw a significant 10-case outbreak March 12. Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin commented at the time that “We know where people gather, especially for prolonged times, we’re going to see outbreaks and clusters.” This particular outbreak was also linked to other outbreaks at faith-based gatherings. The very next day, public health orders to allow household groups to remove their masks in church while observing the social distancing requirements and not singing went into effect.

Additional care must be taken to keep religious gatherings safe. Additional care, in cases like the Christian Church of Morden, is not being taken.

Manitoba does not yet know what consequences the Easter weekend will hold. Dr. Roussin claims that an accurate case count will be available after two COVID-19 incubation cycles — about four weeks. Will spring break and Easter push Manitoba into its third wave? Only time will tell. In the meantime, every member of every community, faith-based or otherwise, must remain cautious. With vaccine initiatives speeding up, Manitobans are so close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.