Concerns about mental health are growing as the church settles into an often-stressful “semi-permanent pattern of living and working” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told the Council of General Synod (CoGS) which met online Nov. 6-8.
In her opening remarks on the first day of CoGS, Nicholls said she was often being struck now, seven and a half months into the pandemic, by the creative ways people are addressing the challenges it poses. The online services being offered by many churches now, even after the resumption of in-person services, have benefited people unable to leave their homes as well as many who would not have entered a church, she said. And, she added, she sensed continuing hope and faithfulness in the church.
At the same time, she said, it’s clear the pandemic has been taking a toll on many people.
“There remains a concern for mental health, as the isolation and loneliness are weighing heavily on families, grandparents, single people and any for whom physical connection is essential. I think particularly of families with children with special needs,” she said.
Clergy and bishops are feeling stress also, Nicholls said. Work takes longer with staff working remotely, and many clergy often feel pressure from not being able to deal as readily with pastoral concerns. Some church leaders, she said, “are, frankly, just overwhelmed with weariness and exhaustion.”
The national office is trying to offer what help it can, Nicholls said, citing, for example, a video message of hope for All Saints’ Day her office had released the previous week. The national office is also preparing, she said, a service of Lessons and Carols for Advent and Christmas. The service, drawing on contributions from cathedrals in each of the church’s four ecclesiastical provinces, will be for use by parishes.
Increasingly, the primate said, Anglicans recognized that the “either/or” dichotomy of in-person worship vs. online worship would likely not fully return, as the church had discovered new opportunities to connect online locally and globally. The previous night’s evening worship service and installation of Archdeacon Alan Perry as the new general secretary, for example, had been watched by people across Canada and in New Zealand, Hawaii and Wales.
The primate reported that Anglican churches had been faithful in following the advice of medical professionals. To date, she was not aware of any COVID-19 outbreak traced to an Anglican gathering.
In October, Nicholls had visited Sault Ste. Marie and the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School, now the location of Algoma University. She had also visited the former Church of St. John the Evangelist, now home of the local Métis Cultural Centre, where she heard the Métis story of that area and was encouraged by the deep partnership between the Anglican diocese of Algoma and Indigenous needs and concerns in that area and community.
The House of Bishops had met over Zoom for five days in the fall, she said. Including three bishops elected since September, the house counted 18 bishops elected and consecrated since January 2015. At this meeting it had discussed the work of the Governance Working Group (GWG), the role of the Advisory Committee on Postulants for Ordination, and ongoing dialogue with the United Church of Canada.
Also in the fall, the primate had met with her counterparts from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the Episcopal Church. The four church leaders committed to deepening and sharing their learning and ministry, she said.
The previous day, Nicholls and primates around the world had met online with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. They spent the morning talking about the pandemic and how churches are struggling with COVID-19 and its economic impact. Several provinces shared difficulties with paying clergy stipends and spoke about retiring clergy who have no pensions or support, she said.
The primates also met with representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) to hear the latest updates on COVID-19, and their view that a vaccine would likely not be available until April 2021 at the very earliest. They shared what Nicholls described as the “disturbing” news that strains of COVID-19 had mutated, jumping from humans to animals and back. The previous evening, she said, she had heard a news report on the necessity of the culling of 17 million mink in Denmark due to these concerns.
The WHO made clear it saw faith communities as critical partners, Nicholls said, and were eager to meet with the primates as representatives of the Anglican Communion. WHO officials asked the primates to be “encouragers of shared values and working partnerships” with the medical community to keep the virus as controlled as possible so as not to overwhelm health-care systems.
Closer to home, Nicholls asked council members to remember the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, which had been hit by the unexpected death of Bishop Geoffrey Peddle while he was on a short leave. The death of the bishop—who had been intending to retire on Dec. 31—had “shaken the diocese,” Nicholls said. The vote for his successor will take place at the sixth electoral synod for the diocese on Nov. 28. She asked the council to pray for the Peddle family.
The primate concluded by putting forward a motion to appoint a new vice-chancellor. With the retirement of Ann Bourke in that role at the end of August, Nicholls had decided to recommend the appointment of a successor. The primate put forward a motion for the appointment of Canon Clare Burns as vice-chancellor, describing her as “a faithful Anglican with extensive legal experience.” The motion carried.