It’s not the first time it’s happened, and I fear it won’t be the last. But the punishment of six members of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo for breaching Ontario’s lockdown restrictions is causing quite the reaction. Regional police monitored a church gathering on December 27, saw a congregation that was larger than the 10 indoors/10 outdoors allowed, and brought charges under the Reopening Ontario Act.
“For years, we have taught our children to respect police, and now our children and grandchildren are witness to their fathers and grandfathers receiving charges from police for worshipping Christ with our church,” responded the church in a press release. “It is a dark day for Waterloo Region and Ontario.” It added that the lockdown was “an unconstitutional and unlawful restriction of religious freedom.”
Predictably, this conservative church has been championed by a number of right-wing websites and blogs and held up as an example of courage in the face of tyranny. Which would be amusing if it were not so dangerous and tragic. Because as flawed and difficult as the lockdown is, it’s a central tool in the fight against the COVID-19 plague and will remain essential until vaccinations become readily available.
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And this in no way constitutes an attack on religious freedom: it’s a science-based defence of the general population, especially the most vulnerable. Freedom of worship has not been limited: restrictions have been placed on the right to assemble in churches and thereby increase the likelihood of the spread of infection. Such a spread doesn’t endanger only the person who decides to attend church, but also the innocent other parties whom the worshipper then meets. Remember the central teaching of Jesus: “This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Canadian churches have, in fact, been overwhelmingly supportive of these painful but necessary measures, and most have never demanded regular attendance, though it’s advised and appreciated. The largest one that does insist — Roman Catholicism — has been highly responsive regarding the pandemic, even though, in theory, Rome demands that adherents receive the Eucharist at least every Sunday, and believers are in a state of sin if they miss without valid reason. The Catholic Church in Canada has given a general dispensation during the crisis and also airs services online.
It’s safe to say that the more fundamentalist the church, whatever its denomination, the more likely it is to embrace conspiracy theories about the virus, to see the evil hand of secular government behind the lockdown, and to regard resistance as some form of Christian duty. It’s worse south of the border, where a number of churches have exposed their members to potentially fatal infection. Difficult to forget the CNN coverage of a woman leaving such a church in Ohio and explaining that she wasn’t worried because, she said, “I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.”
On a personal level, I’m the pastoral associate, an ordained cleric, at a large Anglican church in Burlington. We hold Zoom services each Sunday morning and regular weekly morning prayer. I lead or participate in church men’s group, mental-health groups, prayer shawl groups, and groups that don’t even have a name. I give my phone number to congregants, they call me whenever they need to, and we chat, laugh, cry, pray. We help one another and share our faith. I spend time with people who have lost parents and loved ones, with those who grieve and weep. I listen because people need to be listened to. It’s what I signed up for, and it’s a privilege and an honour.
And I am one of many, all across the province, the country, the world. Of course we would sometimes like to be physically present with people, but, in truth, there are times when the imposed distance is liberating and helpful for the situation. But the point is that we are living in a plague year, and business is simply not as usual. We are about saving souls but also about saving lives — and certainly not putting them in greater danger.
It’s difficult not to conclude that there is an element of soft martyrdom at play in the “resisting” churches, a certain self-righteousness and paranoia. Those who organize and lead prohibited services are given a relatively small fine or penalty and then parade themselves as if they were part of a genuinely persecuted church. As someone who has seen the persecuted church, stood with people in regions of the Middle East whose loved ones have been slaughtered because of their faith, the comparison is downright insulting.
Like all people of conscience and a sense of communal solidarity, Christians have a duty right now to listen to informed wisdom, keep people safe, and not be selfish. It’s ethical and vital, and it’s what Jesus would have done.