Being a Church in a Pandemic

woensdregt column

Yme Woensdregt

Earlier this year, three churches in the lower mainland brought a lawsuit claiming that BC’s restrictions on in–person worship violated their Charter rights to gather.

In their statement of claim, these churches—Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack, represented by the Calgary–based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms—state that while Scripture requires them to obey the civil authorities, that “duty to obey our civil authorities ends when they command that we engage in behaviour contrary to God’s Word or when they prohibit what God commands us to do.” They continue by saying that “all Christians are called to assemble, in-person, for regular corporate worship services … because it is essential to our spiritual health.”

In other words, Scripture commands us to obey the authorities unless those orders violate our understanding of God’s Word, in which case we will do what our conscience bids us do, regardless of the consequences to others.

I was delighted to hear this week that Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled against their claim.

In his ruling, Justice Hinkson remarked that the question before the court “was not whether Dr. Bonnie Henry struck the right balance between her orders and infringement of religious freedom, but whether she acted reasonably given the information available to her.” He ruled that Henry’s orders “were attempting to address the risk of accelerated transmission of the virus, protecting the vulnerable, and maintaining the integrity of the health-care system.”

He noted that the “impacts of these orders on the religious petitioners’ right are significant”, but that “the benefits of the objectives of the orders are even more so.” In his view, Dr. Henry acted with a “reasonable and proportionate balance”, consulting widely with faith leaders, and continuing to reassess her orders “to respond to current scientific evidence and epidemiological conditions”.

To put it simply, Justice Hinkson ruled that while Dr. Henry’s orders do infringe on the Charter rights of religious communities to gather, in her carefully consideration of the effect of her orders would impact religious communities, and that protecting the public is more important in this instance than those rights. That is the reasonable balance we all need to set.

Now, I don’t know Justice Hinkson’s faith commitments, but it strikes me that his ruling says something profoundly true about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He understands something which those three churches, and others, do not: Being church does not mean insisting on our own rights, but serving others.

Paul reminds us in the hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13) that “love does not insist on its own way.” Jesus tells us that love means to serve our neighbours.

You can see something of the spirit of this lawsuit in the signs held by protestors on the steps of the courthouse: “We were created to give glory to God together”; “COVID test is a fraud”; “My government is lying to me”. They clearly think their rights are more important than the common good.

These signs are untrue. The protestors have fallen victim to the big lie of our time, that government is out to get us. More significantly, these protestors show how completely they misunderstand what it means to be church. They don’t have a clue about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Now I get how hard this pandemic has been for believers. I understand how difficult it is not to be able to gather. It has been tough for us all as we try to figure out a new way of being church. Like the rest of society, believers are struggling with loneliness and isolation and a hunger to be with others. I understand all of that fully.

But this court case is not the way. Ignoring reasonable health orders intended to help society overcome the virus is not the way. Humorously, I picture Jesus on his way to the cross, or early Christians persecuted for their faith, insisting that their rights are being violated.

Justice Hinkson knows something about what it means to be church. Dr. Henry’s orders attempt “to address the risk of accelerated transmission of the virus, protect the vulnerable, and maintain the integrity of the health-care system.” Isn’t that the mission of the church? Isn’t that what the church should be about? To protect the vulnerable? To maintain the integrity of a system which serves us all? To care for and care about people other than ourselves?

And these three churches, among others, have failed miserably.

It seems to be a contemporary affliction for individuals to insist on our rights. Previous generations knew what it was to work together for the common good. They bonded together to ensure that the welfare of all people could be maintained.

But not today. How often have we heard people refusing to wear a mask “because it’s my right”? How often have we seen people refuse to socially distance and to attend parties, or spring break gatherings on the beach, or go to bars “because it’s my right”?

Justice Hinkson points out to all of us once again that as members of a society, as members who are responsible to care for the health of the community, there are times we must be willing to give up our individual rights so that together, we can care for the common good. I believe that’s true of us all. I believe even more strongly that that is what the church is called to do and to be.

To insist on our individual rights is to live in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways. It is certainly not what it means to be the church which is charged to live above all by the rule of love which insists that we care for each other as a way of loving God.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook

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