I am a pastor serving a congregation in Winnipeg. I am also a blogger, having blogged here since 2013. This blog is full of commentary on issues of the day as they relate to the Church and people of faith.
Yesterday, (December 8th, 2020) the province announced some changes to public health orders. And as of this week, drive-in worship will be allowed again (for now).
To be clear, the initial public letter was not about the relative safety of drive-in worship during a pandemic. I am not a public health expert, it is not my place to debate the application of restrictions.
I am also extremely sympathetic to the strain and difficulties that the restrictions on gatherings have added to our lives and communities. During these stressful times when everyone’s inclination is to gather, it is really hard to have to stay apart. So many of us have been apart from family, friends and community for a long time.
Rather, the issue I hopefully articulated, and that others signed onto in the letter, was the flouting of public health orders. It is about faith leaders and faith communities signalling that public orders are okay only as long as they aren’t too inconvenient. And if they are inconvenient it is okay to break them (be fined for it) and fight them in court.
There is no debate that some faith communities have deliberately defied public health orders and that fines were issued for doing so.
As the public health orders were “tweaked” yesterday, it might *seem* like a victory for those upset about the brief suspension of drive-in services.
I think this is the wrong lens through which to view this issue. This is not about winners or losers. The only way to win during this pandemic is to save lives and to care for one another as much as possible.
If the province changed the rules because of the complaints regarding drive-in gatherings that is problematic. It means that rules are being changed for small interest groups instead of for the health and protection of the public and the health-care system.
But if, as Dr. Roussin says, public health orders are only in place for the shortest amount of time they are needed and they are being lifted because it is safe for our province to do so, then that is acceptable.
And knowing that, I have to wonder what on earth was all the protest about?
Just as promised, the restrictions were temporary in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They were not part of grand government design to stamp out Christian faith.
Yesterday’s tweaks to the orders don’t reveal who won or lost in some perceived debate, instead they reveal some important questions about the past couple of weeks:
What did it serve to break the orders?
What was the point of incurring the fines?
What was the point of the expensive legal battle?
And why send the message that our inconveniences as churches and faith communities come before the greater good?
(Unless the actual issue is that some don’t believe that this pandemic is real and dangerous).
In my eye, the change in public health orders today only reveals how unnecessary all of this standing up for personal rights and freedoms really has been.
If there comes a day when the government legitimately tries to stifle the practice of faith, I will be the first to stand up in protest. Today, and any day during this pandemic, is not that day.
Follow up to the Open Letter
In regards to the Open Letter to Pastor Leon Fontaine and Springs Church regrading their objections to public health restrictions in our province, so far, 79 Clergy from across Manitoba have added their names. Leaders from many different denominations. 47 more clergy from a cross Canada and even the United States have also added their names.
I have received many, many responses to the letter. Many comments on Facebook and Twitter, over 100 comments on my blog, and almost 200 emails. The majority are positive and supportive, but also many have been negative.
I have received such gracious support from so many colleagues in ministry. There have been many messages from church folks glad that their faith leaders said something in response to the actions of the churches going against public health orders. And many messages from non-church folks grateful for the witness of the letter.
The responses that hit me the hardest were from front-line healthcare workers angry and frustrated by the actions of churches fighting against public health orders. The letter and signatories were a welcome response. They helped to calm hurt feelings and anger.
On the other side, I have also received many comments, posts, emails and voicemails from those who did not appreciate or agree with the letter. Many from folks who support the churches going against orders, and some non-Christians who are frustrated with public health restrictions.
Some have been polite, most have not. Most have accused me (and the other signatories) of acting in poor faith, being attention seeking, being un-Christian, being a poor pastor, not being a real pastor, clinging to a dying church. Some have even compared me and the other signers to the German church that collaborated with the Nazis. Some have tried to go around me and contact my congregation directly insisting that I be fired, along with any other church staff. And some comments I won’t share here at all. (Many of the comments are publicly viewable on my blog and Facebook page.)
Many have asked if I have been in touch with Pastor Leon from Springs. I posted to Spring’s Facebook page after the initial plans to proceed with their services, despite public health orders, were first announced. I also tried to find some direct ways to contact Pastor Leon through the church website, but there is no email or phone number that provides direct access to him. Most contact is initiated through contact forms, which are a way for businesses and organizations to obtain contact information like names, addresses, emails and phone numbers. Eventually, I found a generic church email address that let me email the church directly (without using a website contact form) and have emailed the church inviting conversation. I have not heard back.
But just as importantly, the office of pastor is a public office. This means that the things one says and does while occupying that office are public. The instructions on resolving conflict in Matthew 18 correspond to conflict between siblings in faith. Yet, when Pastor Leon issued his press releases he was providing a public narrative that purported to speak for all Christians and communities of faith. This narrative needed to be addressed – publicly.
John the Baptist preached publicly about his concerns with other faith leaders. Peter addressed other faith leaders publicly in the book of Acts. The Apostle Paul wrote public letters (which we have included in scripture!) addressing faith leaders and communities. Jesus often had public conversations with the faith leaders of Israel.
Pastors are called, by virtue of our office, to speak publicly for our communities and that sometimes involves addressing other faith leaders in public.
Some Biblical Foundations
Some responses have claimed that the open letter was not biblical. So let me clearly address some biblical foundations.
First off, the issue of personal rights is not a biblical one. Rather, as this excellent blog post by Dr. Brian Cooper explains, personal rights are a modern political concept. When the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of personal rights he talks about setting them aside for the sake of the gospel.
Secondly, one approximate analogy to the suspension of in-person (or drive-in) gatherings in scripture is when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in Mark 3. The Pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus into breaking the law on the sabbath day by doing “work” and healing the man. Jesus responds by saying,
“Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
The laws of the sabbath governed the way the people of Israel observed their day of worship. Yet, Jesus insisted on setting aside the rules in order to heal and care for people. He did not insist on setting aside the rules for his personal rights and freedoms. But always for the sake of the other. Always for the sake of caring for the most vulnerable in his community.
Certainly, given Jesus’ consistent example in the gospels of transgressing boundaries and rules for the sake others, particularly the most vulnerable, Jesus would have been the first to forego in-person gatherings for a short time, in order to save lives.
Thirdly, the Apostle Paul also addresses the way a community worships in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church was struggling to discern its own membership and community. Some were eating their fill together before coming to worship at the Lord’s table while leaving other members of the church to go hungry. Paul admonishes this behaviour. He writes explicitly that the obligation is for the Corinthians to make sure that needs and well being of the whole community is looked after before gathering to worship.
Paul writes that those who fail to discern the body – fail to understand just who is a part of their community and needs to be cared for – do so to their own condemnation. I don’t think this is prescriptive but rather descriptive.
When we struggle and fail to discern who in our community needs to be cared for and put our own needs first, we are poorer for it as people of faith.
Over the past 8 months, we have been asked over and over again by our community – by the leaders of the our province – to do our part to care for our community, even when that comes with personal sacrifice.
As Christians and as people of faith, we should recognize this call as biblical and central to how we live out our faith during this pandemic.