Most Anglican churches and some United churches will be reopening for in-building services this Sunday after spending the summer practising their faith online.
Representatives from the United and Anglican churches, Ontario’s second and third largest Christian denominations respectively, said that balancing theological beliefs, public outreach programs, and safety protocols has been a challenge as they planned how to reopen safely.
“It’s a tough balance that each community and each church and the people have to strike,” said Alex Pierson, the executive officer of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario.
“If you get into a battle of theology and safety … safety has got to be fundamental.”
Stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening plan allowed places of worship to open their doors once again with mandatory face coverings, physical distancing, contact tracing, and other safety precautions in place.
Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches resumed in-building services almost immediately but the Anglican church opted to wait until September to return to its buildings while the United church — which is traditionally closed in the summer — left it up to individual congregations to determine how to move forward.
According to the 2011 census, more than 1.6 million Ontarians identify as members of either the United or Anglican church.
Jason Meyers, a minister at Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto, said his congregation went through a lengthy process to figure out the logistics of holding in-building services. Metropolitan United is usually open in the summer but with lower attendance, so its members decided to do a “soft launch” in late August before larger groups were expected in September.
“We have a building, we love our building, it is a cathedral building, grand and important in our tradition, but ultimately the church is a people bound to a vision, a vision of inclusivity and love that Jesus had for the world,” said Meyers.
“That’s the most important thing and we won’t lose that through this time when some of our folks are worshipping in person and some are worshipping in other ways, including online.”
Both Pierson and Meyers said that online services have been more popular than in-person services were at the same time last year.
“Even though the building’s been closed through our online worship experiences we’ve connected with people that are seeking answers to the big questions of life,” said Meyers. “COVID has really thrown off the blinders for a lot of us about what is important and this is a time of deep questions and seeking meaning.”
If someone decides to return to in-building worship services this weekend they will notice many differences.
Instrumental music will be the norm as congregational singing will not be permitted by either denomination, although some churches may have a soloist perform behind Plexiglas or with a face covering.
Celebrating the Eucharist, one of the most important rites of the Christian faith, has also adapted. Communion will still be taken at Anglican churches but only the priest will consume the sacramental wine while congregants will have wafers distributed to them individually.
Robin Sherman, the minister at Tecumseh United Church, said her congregation has many new protocols since reopening on July 5. Worshippers use separate doors for entering and exiting, are asked to sign in when arriving, and are given pre-packaged containers that contain a wafer and a small cup of juice for communion.
“We have those at the beginning, at the tables when they come to sign in,” said Sherman, who also notes that all donations are now done online to avoid the handling of currency. “Then we had a garbage can at the exit door and we asked them to put it in the garbage on the way out.”
Contact tracing has been another challenge for churches.
Church officials must keep track of the names and contact information so worshippers can be reached in case an outbreak is linked to the service. However, that’s not always an easy task when a church is trying to serve vulnerable populations that may not have ready access to a phone or the internet.
Pierson said that, in those cases, the church and public health officials have to rely on people using the same programs on a regular basis so that they can be asked to get tested in person because they don’t want to deny anyone access to soup kitchens, clothing drives, or 12-step programs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2020.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press