All over Canada Sunday morning as the novel coronavirus loomed, people who had missed last-minute phone calls, e-mails and Facebook posts arrived at church to find a message delivered in person or just as a notice taped to the door, in one form of language or another: Go home.
“Sunday was very strange,” says downtown Toronto Anglican priest Maggie Helwig, whose church feeds about 100 people early Sunday morning.
“I was up at 5, as I normally am, and went in for the breakfast, but we had to abruptly, and without any warning for our guests, introduce a takeaway format. People came in, we gave them bags of food, they were able to use the washroom and then they had to leave immediately,” she said.
“It’s hard to do.”
“I’m glad we’re still able to give people food, but people also want their social space and somewhere to sit down, Some of them have been walking around all night, and we had to tell people that they couldn’t stay, but we gave them bags of food and did a big wipe down of all the high touch surfaces with Lysol wipes before and after, which took a fair while.”
After that, Helwig led a service, livestreamed on Facebook, that involved only two other people, one of whom was filming it.
“A couple of people turned up. We’d send out emails, we’d done a phone tree, we’d done all that, but still a couple of people turned up and we had to say, ‘I’m sorry, no church today.’”
Helwig was acting on instructions from her bishops, who had told clergy late Friday (capitals in the original) that:
“The key principle to follow is: NO CONGREGATION IS TO BE ASSEMBLED, OF ANY SIZE, AT ANY TIME.”
“Think ‘bare minimum’ in all things,” the bishops wrote. “Although it is antithetical to what Church is all about, our goal at this time must be to gather as few people as possible.”
Toronto’s Catholic diocese made a similar decision, cancelling Sunday masses, but allowing smaller ones on weekdays.
United Church congregations also cancelled public services, choosing to stream smaller versions live online on Facebook and post them for longer-term use on YouTube.
Going forward, churches will face increasingly difficult questions:
What to do about funerals
Funerals will have to be radically smaller than families and friends might want or expect, clergy Global News spoke to explained.
“Funerals have to go on,” Mississauga, Ont., priest Daniel Berereton says. “People have to be buried.”
“But we are asking people to limit the size of groups, which means that maybe not as many people come as they may have wished.”
If a family wanted to have a funeral in his church, Berereton says he would severely limit the numbers present and have them sit as far away from each other as possible in the space.
Helwig says she would avoid using her church at all.
“It would have to be a private funeral for a very small number of people,” she says.
“It would have to involve talking to the most immediate family members and saying, ‘We need to do a graveside service for only you.’ We can’t invite anyone, it would be better not to do it in the church, and we can look at scheduling a proper big memorial service when all this is over, whenever that is.”
“I’m sure that is going to happen at some point. It’s only been a few days, but I’m sure it will happen.”
What to do about Easter
Easter is less than a month away, and it seems very unlikely that the crisis created by the coronavirus outbreak will be resolved that soon.
For lack of a better option, churches are looking at plans that don’t involve gathering in a physical space.
“I’m really hoping at this point that we will be able to gather for Holy Week and Easter, because it is the central point of the Christian year,” Berereton says.
“But our fundamental principle, apart from loving God, is to love our neighbour, and so if the safe thing is for people to not gather, as hard as that would be, we have a moral obligation as well as following the government’s dictates, that we don’t have large gatherings. That’s not just about protecting ourselves and our own parishioners, but also the wider community.”
What to do about weddings
Berereton, whose church doesn’t happen to have a wedding scheduled, says that the options at this point would be to either have an extremely small ceremony or postpone it.
“You don’t need that many people for the wedding to be legal.”
“I don’t have any weddings booked, but if I did I would say maybe you can proceed with getting legally married, with an officiant and a couple of witnesses, maybe your immediate family, but you postpone a big celebration until later. We have a moral obligation to put off those kinds of gatherings that can promote people passing on the disease.”
Both Berereton and Helwig said they were concerned about what the shutdown means for lonely and isolated members of their congregations.
Moving services online is better than nothing, but it doesn’t leave a space for elderly or socially marginalized people who aren’t connected to technology.
“For some people, especially older people or single people, people who are lonely, that’s their community and that’s the only time that they are connecting with people and others are checking in on them,” Berereton says. “For them not to have that is a huge loss.”
“The biggest thing I’ve been turning around in my mind is: what can I do for the people for whom the church has been their one safe space, the one place they can rest, the one place they can have some peace?”
“It’s amazing how much work it is to not have church.”