Vancouver Island places of worship have suspended or altered weekend services and social events after health officials advised cancelling gatherings of more than 250 people.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is advising religious leaders to consider alternatives to enclosed spaces for worship, because transmission of COVID-19 has occurred at religious gatherings.
“And as we have more cases in our province, it becomes riskier,” said Henry. “We are asking religious leaders of all faiths to look at ways they can reduce the number of people that meet in public together, or within a building together.”
Henry asked religious leaders to give followers “permission” not to come to a particular building to practise their faith.
“I think faith is more than showing up, perhaps spiritually and mentally as well as physically, and supporting people to be able to do that in a communal way without actually physically being together.”
Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Henry held a teleconference with about 130 faith leaders this week to discuss ways to keep congregations safe from the virus, particularly seniors, who are more likely to have severe illness if infected with COVID-19 and who might be negatively affected by isolating themselves.
“We need to find ways to support them to keep them safe, whether that means sharing iPhones and having FaceTime, whether it means organizing some of your groups to do calls to seniors on a regular basis,” said Henry. “We know seniors, in particular, being isolated, not being part of a group, can be very socially hard on older people.”
Dix said the government is encouraging people to use the internet and conference calls “to do some of the things that we’ve done historically in a face-to-face way.”
At the same time, health officials want to ensure that “social distancing doesn’t become social isolation” for vulnerable populations.
Glad Tidings Pentecostal church, with locations in Victoria and the West Shore, has cancelled its Sunday services until further notice. Pastors were busy on Friday recording a service to be played online during regular Sunday service times.
The church sees more than 2,000 people on Sundays and the 11 a.m. service alone draws about 900 parishioners. “We did wrestle with it,” said lead pastor Andy Moore, speaking by phone from Mexico, where he is helping to co-ordinate the changes. “Every one of our gatherings is larger than the 250 cap.”
The church already carries a livestream of its Sunday services for people who are homebound or can’t make it to church, so using technology to share the service online was already in the works and the heath officer’s announcement just expedited plans.
Punjabi Akali Sikh Temple in Victoria is also suspending Sunday services until further notice, said Kashmir Lalari.
First Metropolitan United Church in Victoria, St. Andrew’s Cathedral Catholic church and Christ Church Cathedral Anglican church are not suspending services, but are changing their rituals to reduce the chances of spreading the virus.
Places of worship are asking members of their congregations to stay home if they are sick, immune-compromised or elderly and at greater risk of having severe illness if infected.
They are also asking parishioners to remain a metre away from each other and not to shake hands.
Post-church coffee socials and meals are largely being dropped, and the institutions have increased cleaning. Many are posting updates for congregations on their websites.
At First Metropolitan, the 9 a.m. communion on Sunday will continue to be served using individual glasses for both grape juice and bread. The church already livestreams its 11 a.m. Sunday service for those who can’t attend.
Barry Foster, executive officer of the Anglican diocese, said many of its churches on Vancouver Island are small. For the larger ones — such as Christ Church Cathedral — that might see 500 parishioners at a Sunday service, the faithful have been advised to stay home if they are sick, older than 65, or have a health condition that would compromise their recovery if they were infected with COVID-19.
“That should leave us with a small congregation of people at low risk who could gather for worship,” said Foster. “This is a short-term emergency. This is just a reality we are going to have to live with until we are told otherwise.”
Foster and others said they appreciated the teleconference with Horgan, Dix and Henry.
It was clear that they respect the role communities of faith play, and see them as partners in protecting the most vulnerable, said First Metropolitan Church president Rev. Jay P. Olson and regional executive minister Treena Duncan in a letter to parishioners.