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Jack Knox: Faith groups eager to go back inside, but maybe not right away

Even for those who believe in miracles, the notice is a little tight. So, although Dr. Bonnie announced Thursday that places of worship are permitted to resume indoor services, they aren’t necessarily rushing to do so.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. [Government of B.C.]

Even for those who believe in miracles, the notice is a little tight.

So, although Dr. Bonnie announced Thursday that places of worship are permitted to resume indoor services, they aren’t necessarily rushing to do so.

Some are going to give it their best shot, though.

Just more proof that extracting ourselves from ­Pandemicland isn’t simply a matter of changing the rules.

Faith communities haven’t been allowed to gather indoors since November.

Thursday’s changes will let them resume what they were doing prior to that — services for up to 50, soloists but no choirs, pre-registration mandatory, all the usual COVID protocols — though this time congregants will have to wear masks, too.

Many were eager to get those details Thursday. Mahmoud Shaheed, the chair of the board of directors at the Masjid Al-Iman, spent the morning checking his phone for updates to provincial health orders. Ditto for Gary Gordon, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria.

Shaheed said he was eager to spread good news. The Quadra Street mosque has been holding outdoor services in its parking lot, up to three of them on Fridays, a maximum of 50 people at each. Worshippers register online for one of the spots, then bring their own prayer mats. It has worked, but it’s not the same as being inside, particularly for older people. “This is something the community has been missing.”

Gordon said something similar. “The ability to gather and celebrate together, and to pray together, is going to be huge.”

He thinks priests who have been holding outdoor or in-car services will keep doing so for a bit, but others will try to resume indoor services as soon as they can. It’s a logistical challenge, though. “You cannot go from zero to 100 in a day.”

Others were more cautious. Angican bishop Anna Greenwood-Lee likes the idea of services with real, live people in the same room — “There is something about in-person worship that can’t be replicated” — but also wonders about the absence of critical elements. Congregational singing, everyone lifting their voices in unison, plays a vital role. So does communion (though no one expects the return of the common cup, everyone drinking from the same chalice, any time soon).

Greenwood-Lee will meet with archdeacons and synod staff June 2. Some clergy, rather than go through a partial reopening, would prefer to retain alternative forms of services until the fall when restrictions are eased further and the doors can be flung open, no one left outside. “Most of us have been in the wilderness for a long time,” she said. “If we have to be in the wilderness for a little longer, it will be OK.”

Note that not all of the 46 Anglican churches on Vancouver Island and its surroundings held indoor services last summer. With social distancing rules in effect, some of the tinier ones couldn’t even hold 50 parishioners.

Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El, was also cautious. “I don’t think we’re rushing to go back in.” A committee of congregants with medical, scientific and epidemiological expertise will offer guidance. Maybe the synagogue will start with a small weekly service outdoors.

Like Greenwood-Lee, he wonders about what would still be missing under the new orders, such as the after-service food shared by worshippers. “Most people come to synagogue not just for religions purposes, but for social purposes.”

He sees this as a good time to re-evaluate things, to figure out the best way to serve people. Zoom, as awkward as it can be, lets him reach those who are physically incapable — or still too COVID-wary — to attend in person. Online services have also attracted followers from Toronto, Ottawa and the U.S., people the synagogue doesn’t want to cut off. Maybe a hybrid service, some in person, some online, will be a solution for now.

Gordon also sees value in online services. As soon as the pandemic hit in March 2020, the bishop turned to communications technology. “I have been livestreaming the liturgy every day from the cathedral. Then I did it while on holiday, from Tahsis.” People throughout the Island now feel connected to the larger church.

It has been, he said, an unintended benefit of the pandemic. “COVID has not been a good thing, but there have been some good learnings out of it.”

It has still been a challenge, though. Have faith, it will get better.