Safe space in light of COVID-19

July 21, 2021 | Opinion | Volume 25 Issue 11
Carol Penner | Special to Canadian Mennonite
(Photo by Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash)

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 This article originally appeared in our May 24, 2021 print issue.

Read more by Carol Penner:
Report names Jean Vanier as an abuser
Prayer for the List of Coming Disasters

(Photo by Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash)

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I appreciate this article on consent culture and found it quite helpful. However, there is one point that I disagree with. I think it is fine to be intrusive and ask about vaccinations when it relates to attending a worship service, even if the question is upsetting. The unvaccinated are a public health threat and a threat to others' sense of safety. I consider it similar to walking into church with a loaded assault weapon. Granted, a very small percentage of people cannot be vaccinated. That can be explained, and they likely would not choose to attend a worship service anyway. The Delta variant is raging through the States via the unvaccinated. The longer this virus is allowed to spread, the greater the likelihood of it mutating to a variant that can overwhelm the vaccinated.

Thanks for your comments Gordon. If we ask people if they are vaccinated, what do we do with that information? Do we say unvaccinated people cannot attend worship services? Do we provide a glassed in section of the sanctuary for them to sit in? Do we provide the wider community with information about vaccination status, so they can know who they can safely interact with in meetings and visits? How might that cause rifts in the community? I think it's better to continue with social distancing safeguards and masking, acknowledging that some in the community are not vaccinated, while at the same time encouraging people to get vaccinated.

That said, I do think that church leaders should let people know whether they are vaccinated, so people can make choices. Pastors and deacons regularly visit people with vulnerable health conditions. It could be difficult for a church if their leaders are not vaccinated...can they require a pastor to be vaccinated as a condition of employment? So many complicated questions to be wrestled with!

It is not difficult to make safe spaces for people who don't get vaccinated. For many years, health care professionals in the facility where I work who choose not to receive influenza vaccines have worn masks at work for the flu season, usually December to April. Churches could choose to display the same concern for the common good. The only requirement is that people behave in a manner consistent with the truth about their vaccination status.

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