COVID and Christian unity
by Nicholas Jesson
After 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the churches of Canada have begun to take stock of their experiences and make plans for re-opening in the coming months. In some ways, the shared experience of our churches has drawn us together in ways that have significance for the work of Christian unity. In this blog post, I gather a few insights about the churches’ experience in the pandemic.
Many people have noted that the pandemic has revealed to us the inequities of society. Even with a first-class public health system in Canada, we have discovered that some people have greater difficulties accessing health care than others. Poverty, race, age, disability, gender, culture, education, and immigration status are all factors inhibiting the ability of people to access social support or receive the care they need. Of course, this is not a recent discovery but one that, until it was revealed to us by the stark reality of the pandemic, was rarely heard outside the confines of social services and health care policy. Churches have recognized our social capital in forming public opinion and influencing governments, and we are increasingly working together in these areas. During the pandemic, ecumenical and interfaith groups have begun to engage government on policy related to public health, long-term care, vaccination programs, mental health, and spiritual care.
Most Christian churches have responded to the pandemic by implementing public health orders and moving public worship into virtual spaces such as video conferencing, livestreaming, and pre-recorded services. Religious education has fared quite well in this digital environment as parishes, dioceses, colleges, and other church offices have developed a flood of conferences, lectures, workshops, and meetings. Especially during times of strict lockdown, such offerings have been very well attended.
News reports have highlighted those few churches that have disregarded public health measures. Yet the vast majority of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have gone above and beyond the advice of the health officials out of concern for their members and the wider community. In places where there was already healthy cooperation between the faith communities, local ministerials, councils of churches, and interfaith councils have assisted in promoting adherence to protocols, sharing best practices, addressing misinformation, and encouraging vaccination. In many cases, constructive solutions have been offered to health authorities that have greatly improved the health orders. At times, conflict over pandemic restrictions has revealed that religious liberty is widely misunderstood in Canada, both among governments and the religious communities. Within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
, religious freedom may be limited for the public good, but governments have a responsibility to demonstrably justify that the limit is reasonable in a free and democratic society (s. 1). Interpretation of the Charter
will require considerable dialogue between faith communities and governments and should not be left to civil disobedience or adjudication in the courts. Further work in this area will be needed following the pandemic.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that religious groups in Canada have not found great success in forming virtual communities where there was no existing community. Churches have found creative ways to bring people together, but priests and pastors have struggled to maintain a connection with their flocks and respond to their spiritual needs. There have been notable examples of vibrant community life in digital space. Some churches are now looking for new ways of Christian initiation, formation, and pastoral care for those connected to their community from considerable distances.
Almost every kid that has attended Sunday school will remember the little lesson with clenched hands: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and here are the people.” The lesson’s purpose is to recognize the different ways of being church: the church is not primarily the building; the church is the people. With our buildings closed during the pandemic, we have found ways to be the church without our buildings. Still, we have also uncovered the many ways that our buildings are important community gathering places. Unlike most affinity groups in our society, churches gather together people of different ages, occupations, hopes, and dreams. The church is a communion of all those, saints and sinners, who together form the body of Christ.
We also learned the importance of physical and sacramental elements in our spiritual life. We could anticipate our craving for the Eucharist when Masses were cancelled or restricted to limited numbers. It was harder to predict the impact of other aspects of community life together. Our worship has been impoverished by the inability to sing together, hug, offer a sign of peace, or see one another face-to-face. We have learned once again that Christian worship is not just spiritual but incarnational. Christ’s presence among us is embodied in the sacraments, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the people of God assembled by the Spirit, and in the sensory expressions of life together: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight.
Many churches that suspended services during the pandemic experienced a decline in offerings, while those that have found ways to continue their ministry have seen a less precipitous drop in revenue. In most cases, the churches that suspended services did so because they were already small and struggling before the pandemic. Yet the decline in these churches is not primarily in their balance sheet but in their ministry to their members and their outreach to their neighbourhoods. The churches that have thrived during the pandemic have been those that remembered that the church exists not for its own sake but for the mission of God.
As churches have experimented with digital worship, many of us have begun to ask questions about the value and significance of such worship. Are there aspects of the Christian tradition that might guide us as we explore the meaning in a digital context of Christ’s promise to be present “where two or more are gathered”? In what forms is Christ present? What is necessary to be a gathered community? In many Christian traditions, liturgy includes congregational responses that establish a dialogue with the worship leader and ultimately with God. In what ways must liturgy be adapted for a digital environment where responses are not audible to other worshippers, where the limits of the technology result in a time delay of several seconds or more, or where many worshippers are viewing the recording some hours or days later?
I have heard many commentators remark that the world will never be the same after the pandemic. While this is true of any historical occasion, their point is that this pandemic has changed how people understand themselves and their place in the world. Every public institution, including churches, will need to respond to the change in people’s expectations and participation. While some people are predicting a drop in church attendance, early indications in countries that have already begun to re-open suggest that there will be a short-term increase in attendance. It is my profound hope that the shared experience of the pandemic will also lead to an increasing appreciation for the spiritual and theological gifts of other religious communities, which will contribute immensely to the ecumenical and interfaith understanding in our society.
Nicholas Jesson is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Regina, former ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Saskatoon, and former executive director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. He is a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, editor of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogues Collection, and editor of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue archive IARCCUM.org.