Last weekend my wife and I went out for dinner at a restaurant to celebrate life. And on Sunday, for the first time in four months, we were able to attend church in person. It was Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, this day when the loss of Jesus on Good Friday was revealed as God’s great reversal.
A couple of days earlier (March 24), Dr. Bonnie Henry had finally given all worship communities a modest measure of equality by permitting them to open their doors to people – just like gyms, pubs and restaurants.
When I say modest, I’m referring to the fact that churches had to choose just four of the next 49 days to open. It was a cautious move by a government trying to ease itself into accepting that for people of faith, meeting together in person to feed our soul is as important as gathering together to feed our body.
For four months faith leaders had been pointing to the inequity of provincial health orders which allowed restaurants to remain open while synagogues, mosques, temples and churches were forced to close their doors.
But sitting in that restaurant, I felt grateful that churches could open for Easter, the holy day that defines Christianity. We celebrated, not knowing what Monday would bring.
The new week arrived with the announcement of spikes in transmission that traced back to restaurants and pubs, where liquor is served and where enforcing protocols has been difficult. During her March 29 press conference, Dr. Henry issued a public health order shutting down gyms, pubs, restaurants – and indoor worship services! We lost our indoor Easter services.
Celebrate the Loss
Many reacted to this loss with frustration, but I was encouraged! On Monday, what many leaders in the church have been asking for finally happened. We were treated with equity. Gyms, pubs and restaurant had to close – and so did our churches. Our goal throughout this pandemic has not been to gain special treatment for churches from the government of BC, but more equal treatment, and now we had it.
I don’t want to focus on the inequities we have suffered under for the past four months because they are many. The purpose of this article is to talk about our common ground – hospitality, fitness and religion are all in the business of experience and transformation. We can’t ship experiences and transformations or deliver them online. These are incarnational moments that require a person’s presence with others.
A Fight for Existence
Neither do I want to downplay the pain of the shutdown on these businesses. Shutting down is painful and expensive; it threatens their existence – which is exactly what churches have suffered under for four months. We don’t celebrate their closure for we are in solidarity with them.
As a Christian minister who has spent 30 years preaching, praying and caring, I know what it takes to keep a community of faith together and viable. There are some who believe that churches are completely unlike businesses, but they’re not.
We also have budgets, staff and obligations. We also have a model of receiving money that depends heavily on personal connections which cannot be replaced online. We also contribute to the broader community providing social benefits and services that when lost, cost tax payers four times over to replace.
I have friends and colleagues who serve in a multitude of ministries and churches, giving me an inside view of the toll this closure is having on the Christian community. Churches have ceased operations and disbanded, pastors have become unemployed, staff have had to find work elsewhere and people have suffered in isolation. Yes, churches as organizations are suffering, just like restaurants will.
Stop and Listen
While leading churches, I volunteered for seven years as a leader within a federal political party. I discovered by hanging out with people who regularly had to hold press briefings and make unpopular decisions that politicians face enormous pressures. Sometimes they can’t please anyone.
Many of us have not felt as though the provincial government has been a friend to our churches. However, the government is not our enemy – and I am concerned with this new closure that we demonstrate the true nature of what it means to call Christ our saviour.
Please consider thanking Dr. Bonnie Henry for the work she has done and Minister Adrian Dix for the leadership he has provided. I would like our words, in our on-line posts as a Christian community, to reflect the life that Jesus demonstrated for us when he went to the cross without protest. Our words and actions should be ones that he would make.
You can win a concession and lose something more precious – your reputation. Any conflict between two parties will escalate to hostilities when either side doesn’t consider the situation of the other. In this moment, please stop and listen.
Advocate For Equity
Should we advocate for our place in society? Absolutely! Dr. Brian Bird at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC has made a very good case that provincial restrictions on religious gatherings should cause us – and them – to reflect on the Forgotten Fundamental Freedoms of the Charter).
It is also important to draw our attention to the oft-stated argument that churches should be treated differently than restaurants because they can always hold services on-line.
This weekend, many older or impoverished members of our congregations will sit at home on Easter morning alone, unable to attend online. This weekend a technological and financial divide separates them from their faith.
I know of churches where a majority of their congregation cannot attend an online service, and of some ministers for whom this is beyond their ability to provide. To say we can just hold services online is a privileged approach, often spoken by those with money and those who are young.
This Loss is a Win
Tomorrow is Good Friday, a day of loss. As Christians we celebrate loss. It is central to our faith. It’s what defines us. It was an unimaginable loss as Christ Jesus, hanging on the cross, gasped to give his last words to his mother, a few women, and his last remaining disciple. We hold services tomorrow to remember that loss because it defines us. We even call it good.
But this loss only defines us because we know that Sunday is coming and the resurrection triumphs. We embrace this loss because we know that death could not hold him, and it cannot hold us. We embrace this loss because hidden within apparent defeat is victory.
As we celebrate the loss of Easter this year, let’s pray that the equity expressed to us by Dr. Henry would remain and that on April 19 the government of British Columbia will open restaurants, pubs, gyms – and our churches.
Rev. Shannon Stange is among the faith leaders consulted by the provincial government in the lead-up to the changes made to public health orders in British Columbia on March 24 and 29.
Photo Credit: Zac Durant: https://unsplash.com/photos/_6HzPU9Hyfg