Churches prepare to re-open—but not everywhere

The Rev. Deacon Tyson Røsberg (right) is ordained a priest on July 25 by Mary Irwin-Gibson (left), bishop of Montreal, with assistance from her husband, Mark Gibson (centre). In-person worship services in the diocese were set to resume as early as September, though ordinations continued under strict rules. Photo: Archdeacon Tim Smart/Diocese of Montreal
Published September 1, 2020

As Anglican churches across Canada returned or planned to return to in-person worship this spring and summer, some senior church leaders were reporting a considerable level of desire on the part of parishes to continue online services.

In late July, as this article was being written, several diocese of Montreal churches were putting together plans to recommence in-person worship on Sept. 6—but most of these wanted worship to continue over the internet, Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson said.

“I think that what is interesting is that they are almost all making plans to maintain an online version—either separately or at the same time as the in-person service is held,” she said. “I have also heard that some of the very small congregations will opt to continue online and not open for a while.”

Other bishops reported similar findings.

“In Algoma … I thought that every parish would want to resume in-person worship as early as possible. This is not the case at all,” said Archbishop Anne Germond, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario and bishop of Algoma. “One of our larger parishes has indicated that they are not comfortable returning to in-person worship in September and will be continuing with online worship only, and one of our smaller parishes is hoping to be ready by Thanksgiving.”

Some parishes have turned to outdoor worship. For example, members of Meota parish in the diocese of Calgary gathered for an outdoor healing service across the street from St. James Anglican Church, Priddis, Alta. Photo: Dawn Kuum

In the diocese of New Westminster, which covers the Vancouver area, 50 of 66 parishes had been approved as of July 16 to re-open for in-person services. But “many, many” of these were continuing to offer online worship as well, said Archbishop Melissa Skelton, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon and bishop of New Westminster. At least one diocese in the ecclesiastical province was reporting that many parishes were finding their online viewers outnumbering their regular Sunday attendance.

Bishop of the diocese of Fredericton David Edwards, who was elected metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada in June, said one of the main “learning points” during the pandemic was the development of online resources. Parishes across the province have been engaged with this to varying degrees, he said, with most dioceses supplementing and augmenting their efforts.

On reserves and beyond borders

The church’s Indigenous Ministries department was finding online ministry important to Indigenous Anglicans during the pandemic and was hoping to continue it. In an effort to lift the spirits of Indigenous Anglicans, and of people across the church, the department of Indigenous Ministries had put on two online gospel jamborees, June 5 and July 1. As this article was being written, it was planning a third for August 14.

“We have had a very strong positive response to the jamborees, from Indigenous peoples, who feel affirmed, and from non-Indigenous peoples, who are happy to be included in this slice of Indigenous life and spirit,” said National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald.
The pandemic, he said, posed a particular threat to Indigenous people, particularly elders, because of the poverty, scant access to medical care and isolation that many reserve communities face, so that Indigenous communities generally are under stricter lockdowns than those faced by the rest of Canada.

Indigenous Ministries Coordinator Canon Ginny Doctor added that, since the slow internet connections that exist in many Indigenous communities have hampered access to online events, her department and partners in the Anglican Church of Canada have been reaching some areas through regional radio broadcasts. Improving internet service in Canada will be vital for the church to deliver Indigenous ministry, she said, since the COVID-19 pandemic seems likely to continue for some time.

Online worship has also been a mainstay of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) during the pandemic. On April 2, PWDRF’s Canadian Anglican Partnership Program team launched “Praying with PWRDF,” a Zoom worship service for volunteers and PWRDF supporters. Public engagement coordinator Suzanne Rumsey organized the service to include a land acknowledgement, inspirational musical reflections from YouTube, a scripture reading and a guest reflector. The first reflector was Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The initial broadcast drew 60 people and soon became a weekly fixture and drew international participants. “When a director from Village Health Works joined us from New York, we were even able to connect to Burundi and had live music from the Village Health Works Band,” said Rumsey.

PWRDF intends to continue the Zoom service in the fall.

A complex landscape

The varying extent to which different parts of Canada have been affected by the pandemic has led civil governments to respond in different ways, with some relaxing social distancing rules earlier than others as infection rates of COVID-19 began to fall. Within the Anglican Church of Canada, correspondingly, ecclesiastical provinces, dioceses and parishes have moved toward re-opening with varying rules—around how many people are permitted to attend a service at one time, for example, and how they might be able to take communion—and timelines.

In some cases, decisions have been made for dioceses at the ecclesiastical province level. Other ecclesiastical provinces have allowed to dioceses to make their own decisions. Among the latter is the province of Rupert’s Land, which covers a vast swathe of Canada, including the three prairie provinces, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and part of northern Quebec—all of which were affected by the pandemic, and the civil regulations relating to it, in widely differing ways.

“As we span four provinces and two territories, it makes no sense to try to coordinate amidst the varying civil provincial guidelines,” Archbishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson, metropolitan of the province of Rupert’s Land and bishop of Calgary, told the Journal.
Some parts of the province—such as the dioceses located in the civil provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which have had some of the lowest infection rates in Canada—saw Anglican churches return to in-person worship in the spring. On April 29, Bishop of the diocese of Rupert’s Land Geoff Woodcroft released a bishop’s directive announcing limited in-person worship in church buildings as of May 4. The diocese of Saskatchewan allowed churches to re-open for public worship as of May 21, following sanitizing and social distancing guidelines.

Other parts of the province of Rupert’s Land have had to aim for later dates. In the diocese of Calgary, Kerr-Wilson in a May 12 letter noted that government data showed higher rates of COVID-19 cases in the Calgary area than in areas of the province covered by the dioceses of Edmonton and Athabasca, and said the time needed to return to in-person worship would be measured in months, not weeks. As this article was being written, Kerr-Wilson said the diocese was likely to announce a return to in-person worship in September, although some congregations, he added, had already been gathering outside, following physical distancing protocols.

The ecclesiastical province of Canada—which covers the Atlantic provinces as well as the dioceses of Montreal and Quebec—also allowed dioceses to decide for themselves.
In the Atlantic provinces, another region of Canada where infection rates remained relatively low, some churches opened their doors in the spring. In the diocese of Fredericton, for example, Edwards announced May 22 that in accordance with the provincial government’s recovery plan, religious services of 50 or fewer people (indoors or outdoors) would be permitted as of May 29, though as a result of an update by the government, this date was pushed back to June 5.

But Anglican churches in the civil province of Quebec—one of the areas of Canada hit hardest by the pandemic—did not open this summer. In June, the dioceses of Montreal and Quebec both announced their churches would not re-open until Sept. 6 at the earliest.
“This is a continually evolving situation, and we are all praying to get it right,” Irwin-Gibson told the Journal July 16.

Ontario dioceses were on a similar timeline. The ecclesiastical province of Ontario—which covers roughly the same territory as the civil province—also announced this June that its churches would remain closed for in-person worship until at least September. The ecclesiastical province prepared a re-opening template for dioceses to follow, but they are also creating more detailed re-opening plans specific to their situations, Germond said, with Algoma and Moosonee hoping to re-open Sept. 6 but others looking at re-opening a week later. A spike in cases or a second wave of the pandemic, she said, would mean a return to online worship only.

In the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, dioceses were returning to in-person worship according to a variety of timelines. The diocese of New Westminster released a plan with a phased approach to restarting in-person worship; some parishes in the diocese opened for live gatherings as early as June 14. The diocese of Yukon returned to live worship, with some restrictions, June 21. In the diocese of British Columbia, parishes were permitted to re-open July 12, but several were planning to wait until the fall, according to information Skelton forwarded to the Journal.

—with files from Joelle Kidd


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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