The power of prayer, so to speak. At a press conference earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford announced that, starting June 12, places of worship would be allowed to open at a much higher capacity. ”During these uncertain times, our faith has never been more important,” he said. “That’s why I’ve asked that places of worship across the province be able to reopen at 30 per cent building capacity.” That came as something of a shock to many church leaders, in that they didn’t all request this move, had not been widely consulted, don’t all agree, and won’t be reopening for some time.
Leaders have asked how the 30 per cent figure can be regulated, who will be allowed entry and who not, how pews (with their length and relative lack of accessibility) can be kept clean, whether choirs will be allowed to sing and communion given, whether the handshake or kiss of peace will be permitted — and, generally, how church buildings, which are often small and enclosed, can be made safe in a time of virus. Although some consultations have taken place, Ford doesn’t seem to have properly considered any of these genuinely challenging concerns.
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In fact, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Lutheran, and most other churches have been extremely responsible throughout the pandemic, moving to extensive online services and support. It’s been an intensely difficult time; the absence from church is often painful. But the view is that Christian love for one’s neighbour demands care and concern for that neighbour’s health and well-being. We sacrifice for the greater good, which is essential to an authentic Christian faith.
The loudest protests about church closures have, naturally, come from white evangelical churches south of the border. In California, a group of pastors filed a lawsuit against Governor Gavin Newsom, claiming that the “stay at home” policy was contrary to the Constitution because it criminalized “the free exercise of religion.” Florida mega-church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding two services involving hundreds of people, and Louisiana pastor Tony Spell was also arrested for holding services that saw 26 buses bring worshippers to his church. More than a dozen U.S. states, however, made places of worship exceptions in their lockdowns, partly because they faced political pressure from the evangelical lobby.
In Ontario, the calls for a potentially dangerous reopening have been far quieter, but their source is interesting. The homepage of a professionally designed website named “Reopen Ontario Churches” announces, “Greetings in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ! Thank you for considering partnering with other Ontario churches to help initiate the reopening of our churches for Christian worship and witness. We are a vital service for the people of our Province.”
Of the more than 400 churches that have signed a petition to support this, almost all are conservative evangelical; there is little, if any, representation from the mainstream Christian denominations that constitute most of Ontario’s churchgoers — and hardly anything beyond Christianity.
One of the two “Primary Contacts” on the site is the Reverend Joe Boot, the founding pastor of Westminster Chapel in Toronto and one of the more right-wing and harsh voices in Canadian Christianity. When Boot was a guest on my former television show in 2014, we discussed American football player Michael Sam’s announcement that he was gay. I argued that we must not allow zealots to define the debate or the language of discourse. Boot disagreed and insisted on using the words “sodomy” and “sodomite.” I said that he was being deliberately offensive, that it was absurdly reductive to distill gay relationships to a single sexual act, that the language was archaic and by its nature insulting, that half of the gay community were women, and that many gay men might not even consider this activity as part of their relationship. I also argued that gay people do not choose their sexuality and that we must appreciate the genuine love that exists between LGBTQ2 people. My guest strongly disagreed with me on all these issues.
Knowing a number of the churches and pastors involved, and of their conservatism, one has to question the reasons behind this jarringly sudden announcement from the government. Is this hurried and perhaps risky return the will and voice of the majority of Ontario’s people of faith — or a political gesture to friends and allies? People’s lives are at risk, and we have a right to know.