Dioceses begin to announce plans and safety measures for reopening churches

Some Anglican dioceses across the country are preparing for the resumption of in-person services. Photo: Inger Anne Hulbaekdal/Shutterstock
Published June 2, 2020

As several Canadian provinces announce timelines for reopening businesses closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anglican dioceses across the country have released plans for how and when to reopen churches for in-person services.

Bishop of the diocese of Rupert’s Land Geoff Woodcroft released a bishop’s directive April 29 in response to the easing of restrictions in Manitoba, which began allowing a number of non-essential workplaces to return to operation May 4. The directive allowed the following beginning May 4: the reopening of church offices, including for meetings such as vestry and Bible study, with the requirement of maintaining a distance of 10 square metres between all workers; allowing in-person worship in church buildings with the number of people in the building limited to 10; and limiting Eucharist to bread only. The diocese will “exercise extreme caution as we respond to this ever-changing situation,” the letter said.

Woodcroft added, “The rules will be changing as time goes on, and further directives will be issued as necessary. The experts upon whom I am relying are certain that we will experience a second wave this fall which will necessitate a review of these guidelines.”

In the diocese of Brandon, which covers western Manitoba, Bishop William Cliff announced in a statement that a return to modified public worship would be possible starting May 31. Services will be open for gatherings of no more than 25 people, including clergy. Up to 50 people may attend outdoor services. Parishioners must not have travelled outside the province within the preceding 14 days, must not be sick or coughing, and must not have come in contact with “anyone feeling unwell or diagnosed with COVID-19.”

In preparing to open, churches in the diocese must meet a number of qualifications for cleanliness and social distancing, and must file and gain approval for a pandemic plan with the bishop’s office. Parishes on reserves “must meet the requirements of their individual health authorities and have permission of Chief and Council to reopen.”

In the diocese of Saskatchewan, Bishop Michael Hawkins released a set of guidelines for reopening in-person worship services May 21. From that date, in-person worship is permitted for gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including clergy. Physical distancing of two metres must be maintained in the church and aisles; frequent hand-washing is required, especially when entering the building; communion will be administered in one kind; and congregational singing is suspended.

The guidelines “should allow for the resumption of smaller weekday services and for the provision of these where not normally held before and should give ample opportunity for folks to receive Holy Communion in the next month,” Hawkins wrote.

Bishop Jane Alexander released guidelines for churches in the diocese of Edmonton May 28, stating that “the Bishop sees the possibility of some parishes holding public services beginning, at the earliest, on June 15. Others may choose to plan for the beginning of July, August or September as a starting point, depending on their situations.”

In accordance with the relaunch strategy from Alberta’s provincial government, churches in the diocese will be limited to meetings of “50 people or 1/3 of the congregation’s usual size, as defined by the government guidelines,” must maintain physical distancing and implement hygiene practices. Each parish must also submit a risk mitigation questionnaire and risk reduction plan to the bishop for approval at least two weeks before gathering.

In the diocese of Fredericton, Bishop David Edwards announced May 22 that in accordance with the provincial government’s recovery plan, religious services of 50 or fewer people (indoors or outdoors) are now permitted. Edwards noted that an operating plan must be made and posted for each type of gathering. He also noted that churches should not open if they feel they are not ready.

“With regard to Holy Communion, the guideline given by the provincial government to denominational leaders is that it should be administered ‘safely.’ Personally, I would still give it in one kind, the bread, but I am aware that there are some who prefer to do so in both kinds. I am therefore lifting the moratorium on Communion in two kinds, though people should not drink from the same cup and should follow all public health guidelines,” the bishop wrote.

Other dioceses urging caution

In other dioceses, even in places where provincial governments are beginning to lift restrictions, bishops are urging caution.

In the diocese of Calgary, Archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson (who is also metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land) stated in a letter May 12, “I must be very clear at this point: No parish in the diocese of Calgary will reopen physical gatherings without the Archbishop’s permission. At this point, we remain in the protocol of not allowing physical congregational services including weddings and funerals.”

While the government of Alberta has released plans for relaxing physical distancing and guidance for places of worship, “there remains some ambiguity in these transition plans as to how the protocols are to be implemented, particularly in our Anglican liturgical practices,” Kerr-Wilson wrote. Kerr-Wilson also 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. “This will likely mean that our sister dioceses will transition to new protocols sooner than the diocese of Calgary,” he wrote.

Kerr-Wilson also announced that he would be commissioning a task force of clergy and health professionals in the diocese to help create a transition plan.

“The COVID-19 virus is not going away,” Kerr-Wilson wrote. “The length of time it will take to return to regular in-person worship is to be measured in months not weeks.”

Dean Ansley Tucker, diocesan administrator for the diocese of British Columbia, also released a statement May 15 noting that though Provincial Health Officer for B.C. Dr. Bonnie Henry has announced that faith communities will soon be able to gather, the diocese “will continue to keep [its] churches closed for a while yet.”

Henry’s announcement addressed “a broad range of faith traditions who gather in diverse ways,” Tucker wrote. “Anglican liturgical practice poses unique challenges related to such things as movement, touch (of people and surfaces), length of exposure to recirculating air, congregational singing and so on. Further, many active Anglicans—including our clergy and staff—are vulnerable to the coronavirus by reason of age or underlying health conditions.” The diocese is working to produce guidelines and a target date for reopening, according to the letter.

Also in response to Dr. Henry’s announcement, Bishop Lynne McNaughton of the diocese of Kootenay stated that in-person worship in the diocese would continue to be suspended “at least until the end of June.” McNaughton cited similar concerns regarding age and vulnerability of clergy and parishioners.

The diocese of New Westminster, however, has released a plan for reopening which lays out a phased approach to restarting in-person worship. Rather than the blanket lifting of restrictions for the diocese, Archbishop Melissa Skelton wrote, “each parish…must discern the appropriate actions and timing for itself in terms of when to reopen its building and what activities to offer.”

Skelton also wrote that each parish “does not have to move to a particular phase on the same timing as other parishes do, but you may not move to the next phase until my office informs you that you may do so.”

Metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario Archbishop Anne Germond released a letter on behalf of the Ontario House of Bishops May 15. (Germond is also bishop of the dioceses of Algoma and Moosonee.) In the letter, Germond wrote that “Bit by bit our leaders are taking tentative steps to open up the country, and here in Ontario the Premier has just announced what Stage 1 looks like in our communities.

“While we share the desire of many other churches in the province to physically gather in-person to worship our Heavenly Father, we are not adding our voice to petitions of the Premier.”

Germond wrote that the ecclesiastical province would be “taking a cautious and measured approach” in regards to reopening, and consulting with medical experts and diocesan leaders.

On June 1, the Ontario House of Bishops released a more definitive statement calling for a “summer Sabbath rest,” and for churches to stay closed until September. “This Sabbath time of rest, reflection and renewal, while we wait to be back in our cherished and familiar sacred spaces, offers us an opportunity to discern what our worship patterns, stewardship practices, and parish ministries might look like going forward,” the statement says.

The ecclesiastical province of Ontario comprises the dioceses of Algoma, Huron, Moosonee, Niagara, Ontario, Ottawa and Toronto.

The diocese of Ottawa also announced May 26 that the it is “working with the Provincial House of Bishops and consulting with public health authorities as a staged plan for reopening is developed. Bishop-elect Shane Parker has also commissioned an epidemiologist to provide specific advice concerning our interactions as we gather for worship, including our Eucharistic practices.” The diocese “hopes to offer [its] plans to health and political leaders for endorsement, rather than waiting for a plan to be developed for us,” the communique says.

In a letter to the diocese of Toronto May 22, Bishop Andrew Asbil wrote, “We recognize that the process for coming back will likely take more time than we anticipate. We need to be careful, cautious and prudent.” He noted that the diocese was working to develop safety protocols for churches to follow when they are able to return to in-person meetings. The letter also announced an extension to the previously announced Jubilee for parish payments in the diocese, which will now include the month of June.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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