On a cold wintry night in the middle of February around a decade ago, I arranged five chairs at the table for our committee meeting. One person came in looking wretched; she blew her nose and sneezed through the whole meeting. I felt like moving my chair away, as I was sitting next to her, but I didn’t want to be rude. At the end of the meeting she said, “I thought about not coming because I’ve got this terrible cold, but it was difficult to schedule this meeting.”
I got very sick two days later and so did someone else who was there. We both had to take time off work.
At the time, I wished that the sick woman had phoned or emailed, saying, “I have a bad cold, do you still want me to come?” We could have made the decision together. We weren’t given an option; we didn’t consent to taking that health risk.
How do we create safe and healthy spaces together? Many churches think about safety in relation to sexual abuse, and have worked on safe space policies in that context. What does safe space mean in the light of COVID-19?
When government-mandated, physical-distancing sanctions ease, and churches start meeting in person again, our communities will need to negotiate boundaries about health. We won’t know who has had a vaccine, and who has not, or what people’s underlying health conditions might be. We won’t know who wants to maintain physical distancing.
With their existing safe space policies, some churches have cultivated a “consent culture” about physical contact. Instead of assuming everyone wants a hug, you are encouraged to ask before you touch people. Being asked and giving permission means that everyone feels respected and safe.
How we frame things matters. If I say, “Can I hug you?” it can be socially awkward to answer negatively, “No, I don’t want a hug.” That’s why, in consent culture, framing a question where all options are fine is a best practice: “Is shaking hands good, or would you prefer a hug?” They can respond by saying, “Shaking hands is good.”
How can a consent culture of respect and careful communication help us negotiate each other’s boundaries around health? In large group settings the church may very well mandate rules, “Everyone must wear a mask when we worship together.” But we will need to navigate small group meetings and social gatherings. This can be awkward if we make assumptions. I have already had uncomfortable social dances as people have tried to move close and I’ve tried to move away.
Asking questions is going to be important. “Are you physical distancing, or is a handshake good?” “Can we have this council meeting virtually, or would you prefer an in-person meeting?” We can create a habit of checking-in before we meet, to gauge how we interact.
How we frame things matters. I have heard people ask, “Is it okay for me not to wear a mask?” This is a socially awkward question because it means someone might have to reply with a negative answer, “It’s not okay. I need you to wear a mask.” It’s much better to ask, “Is wearing a mask good, or would you prefer no masks?” You are signalling that both options are fine, and the person can respond, “Masks are good.”
Consent culture is not about explaining why; it’s about respecting decisions. If someone doesn’t want a hug, we don’t ask, “Why don’t you want a hug from me? Why are you uncomfortable with hugs?” That would be intrusive. Similarly, we should not expect people to divulge their health situation and choices; it’s a violation of privacy to even ask. It’s intrusive to ask whether someone is vaccinated, or why they can’t or won’t. If people want social distancing or masks, we should offer that with no judgement. We do not know why; we just comply out of respect.
Many people are tired and frustrated because of the pandemic, and want life to go back to normal. Others are living with ongoing health risks. What does it mean to be the church in this pandemic reality? Unwillingly exposing others to our viruses will be a stumbling block, which not only endangers their health, it also means that the community doesn’t feel safe for them.
Creating safe spaces is part of being the church, and that includes cultivating a consent culture in which we ask good questions and go the extra mile to accommodate everyone.
Carol Penner teaches practical theology at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont., and has a blog of worship resources at leadinginworship.com. This article originally appeared in our May 24, 2021 print issue.