By Helen Reed, Chair, Chinook Winds Regional Council
Have you felt the pressure? “Other churches are open why aren’t we?” “We want to be back in our building?” “If we don’t return soon, we won’t survive… the money stopped coming in.”
We are midway through the summer and looking toward fall and we miss the comradery and comfort of being together on Sunday mornings. Even those churches who don’t usually meet over the summer are yearning to be together again.
But at what cost? In this COVID pandemic time, it is easy to be drawn into deciding with our memories, or with our fear, instead of with our hearts and our heads.
Over the last few days, I have heard from churches who are struggling with buildings staying closed and struggling with buildings being opened. While each Community of Faith has the responsibility to make the decision that best fits for them, they also have the responsibility to ensure that they do so having consulted with the best resources available.
We have wise people of God who are warning us of the physical risks – these people of science know and are learning more than we can about this virus. Even though our provincial guidelines have evolved to Stage 2 (most current is the June 22 Guidance for Places of Worship) I see this evolution as a response to the fact that some folk are not willing to wait for safety. One thing that has not changed is the Provincial warning at the beginning of those guidelines: “It is important that places of worship understand that the potential for spread of infection during gatherings is very high, and several large super-spreading events globally have taken place in faith-based gatherings. To best prevent the spread of COVID-19, places of worship are encouraged to continue hosting services and faith-based activities online or through creative mechanisms such as drive-in services.”
Our Chinook Winds Region and our Denomination have given us well researched advice and processes to guide us. We are responsible for taking these resources seriously.
Church is a risky business. We always have been.
But the risk has always been for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves.
We don’t use our voices for justice to make ourselves popular… we do it because there are those who need us to advocate for and act with them, to help them be their best selves, to ensure all people feel included in God’s world.
So why are we rushing to open our churches to make ourselves feel good when it can exclude others or put others at risk?
What are we saying to our leadership when we say that our need to worship in-person is more important than their health or the health of our most vulnerable people?
One of the communities that I serve has four churches in it of different denominations. At this point, of those four, the United Church will be the only one not offering in-person services in August or in September. The pressure is very real.
Why aren’t we opening? This Community of Faith is made of up ages 70+ for the most part. We could open our building for weekly worship but we know that it will be a struggle to not share hugs, to not sit in our regular pew, to not stay for coffee after service. We know that we don’t want to take the risk of being there that one morning when COVID comes through the door. We are aware that we have not had many COVID cases in our area – just enough to make us wary.
We want to be back in our building… but we are getting closer to the reality of knowing it won’t be the same. We did make the decision of hospitality to allow funerals in the church… and the one we had went well but certainly was very different: restricted by numbers; no singing; everyone wearing masks. It was an isolating experience. It also meant a higher volunteer need for hosting which strained our high-risk congregation.
The money stopped coming in. In our experience the funds that haven’t come in are from the elders who like to write cheques. Those who give through PAR continue their support. If the same cheque-writing elders won’t come back to church because it’s too risky the money still won’t appear if they don’t mail it in. This is their choice. For some it is made because their income is considerably reduced and as much as they love their church they simply can’t afford it. And really, do we want to invite people back because of their money?
I am willing to remain in our presentation of Sunday worship online and seeking other ways to be the church until risk mitigation and/or a vaccine makes it possible for all of us to worship and be together in-person including the most vulnerable. Many of our elders have adapted to this and embraced the technology that allows them to join us.
We have two wonderful faith statements in the United Church of Canada that describe the church.
A New Creed (Voices United pages 918, UCC 1968)
We are called to be the church:
To celebrate God’s presence,
To live with respect in Creation,
To love and serve others,
To seek justice and resist evil
Song of Faith (UCC 2007)
A church with purpose:
Faith nurtured and hearts comforted,
Gifts shared for the good of all,
Resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize,
Fierce love in the face of violence
Human dignity defended,
Members of a community held and inspired by God,
corrected and comforted,
Instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,
Neither of these statements suggest that the work of the church must be within the building. I would challenge each Community of Faith to identify how they can be and do these things outside of the building.
How are you loving others? How are you nurturing faith in these times? How are you defending human dignity? How are you the instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ?
Do you feel the pressure of the buildings?
God’s people, feel the pressure of being love to the same degree.
I invite you into a sacred and honest conversation about what is important, what changes are necessary to create that place of welcome that we yearn to return to.
Is it possible? Is it fair?
Is the risk worth it?
The struggle is real. The pressure is real. They need our attention.
Let’s give the Love of God the same attention.
Let’s bring up our fierce love for all people
and be the loving Spirit of Christ in this hurting world.
We truly are in this together.
Love your neighbour. It’s what we are supposed to do.
Helen Reed, Presiding Officer
Chinook Winds Regional Council