Not long ago a group of churches and church leaders across the province signed a letter asking Ontario premier Doug Ford to allow churches to reopen at the beginning of the month of June. I did not sign the letter.
Despite the way some church leaders have tried to frame this issue, the restrictions we’ve been facing are not a matter of religious freedom. People of faith are not being unfairly targeted because of their religious beliefs or practices any more than are those who would like to go to the gym or watch a pro basketball game.
Religious freedom is precious, and I do think there are times when Canadian secularism overreaches. This is not one of those times.
Some church leaders have taken this line of argument a step further, arguing that we have been experiencing some sort of anti-religious, state oppression. This is not what has been happening.
There are places around the world where Christians (and members of other faiths) are persecuted because they threaten the state’s ideology. This is not one of those places.
Furthermore, quick-and-dirty equivalencies of this sort are disrespectful to those who really have suffered on account of their faith.
Nevertheless, it is true that some members of our communities have experienced severe loneliness during this pandemic. Not only can we not worship together, but we cannot gather for funerals or baptisms or child dedications.
Doing these things together, expressing the solidarity that our physical presence suggests, is both a spiritual and social act. Missing out on these things is, without doubt, spiritually impoverishing.
While I am thankful that we have other ways of connecting, I know it is not the same. Digital connections are best when they enable positive encounters in physical space. They are not good as stand-alone modes of communion.
What troubled me most about the letter sent to provincial leaders late last month was that it seemed so self-serving. It seemed more concerned with defending “our” rights than caring for the good of others.
Across the centuries churches have been at their best when caring for the vulnerable. The push from some church leaders to reopen appears to me to have been driven more by political ideology than by concern for the common good.
My reluctance to lobby for permission to reopen is not the same as saying we should put faith on hold until we get a green light. I actually think that our current situation presents us with an opportunity to deepen our faith and renew our spiritual practice.
Many of our households have been able to experiment with a new pace and pattern: maybe with less commuting, maybe spending less money on entertainment, maybe finding fun things to do close to home. We are also receiving valuable encouragement to learn to worship in smaller groups and to develop the spiritual practices of the desert.
It’s possible that we wouldn’t have chosen any of these things, yet these past months have given us the unmistakable invitation.
When the opportunity comes for our churches to resume worshiping together, I hope that we do so, not driven by an urge to “get back to normal” or “defend our rights,” but by the conviction that meeting together for worship and prayer is a profoundly good and properly human thing to do.
I hope that we will not be motivated by the urge to “get the holy club back together,” but by the belief that what we do is good for ourselves, good for those around us and that it is a necessary response to the beauty and goodness of God.
Anthony G. Siegrist pastors at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ottawa, Ont. He blogs at anthonysiegrist.com, where this post originally appeared. His latest book, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, is available now from Herald Press.