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‘So much excitement’: Okanagan church to resume small outdoor services

B.C.'s top doctor has permitted outdoor church gatherings as long as organizers have a COVID-19 safety plan. Global News

With public health orders being loosened to allow for church services to be held outside, some religious and spiritual leaders are expressing enthusiasm.

“We are excited about that,” said Rev. LeAnn Blackert with Wild Church Okanagan.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry relaxed the current health order on Tuesday, permitting outdoor services on the condition that organizers have a COVID-19 safety plan in place to ensure everyone follows the rules.

Services are still not allowed to take place inside at this time.

Read more: Judge fines, releases jailed GraceLife Church pastor — ‘Shepherd ought to protect his flock’

Wild Church Okanagan (WCO) does not have a brick-and-mortar church.

“Our meetings are always held outside on the land,” Blackert told Global News. “We typically rotate through parks in the communities that we are a part of.”

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But even though its services are always outside, public health orders put in place last fall prevented the in-person gatherings.

“We have been very careful with our protocols to follow everything the government has asked of us,” said Blackert.

Click to play video: 'Church says virtual services protect entire community' Church says virtual services protect entire community
Church says virtual services protect entire community – Mar 12, 2021

Like many of its counterparts, WCO has been hosting virtual services in recent months using platforms like Zoom.

But not all churches have complied with the guidelines.

Several continued to violate the rules and have been fined, with some even taking the province to court.

Read more: B.C. churches won’t rule out appeal on ‘surprising’ ruling upholding in-person service ban

The Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack lost their appeal in B.C. Supreme Court a few weeks ago.

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B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson found Henry’s order did infringe on religious rights, but that the infringement was reasonable and proportionate.

The lawyer representing the churches said that banning religious gatherings but allowing pubs and stores to remain open amounts to religious discrimination.

WCO is fairly new in the Okanagan. It started in October 2019.

“We’re umbrellaed under and funded in part by the United Church of Canada,” Blackert said. “We have folks who come who have no denominational affiliation. We have folks who come who are Buddhist and people who come and say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious and really find my connection with God in the natural world,’ so our umbrella is pretty wide.”

Despite rules being loosened, the outdoor WCO gatherings will be small at under 10 people because with social distancing protocols still in place, forming a large circle would present certain challenges, such as not being able to hear each other properly.

“I just feel like mentally everybody is tired of not being able to be with one another and see other people outside of their very small bubbles,” Blackert said. “And we’ve had great energy in our group from people saying yes it’s going to be great to be able to be with one another again in the same space.”

Click to play video: 'Church challenge of government restrictions hears questions about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s policies' Church challenge of government restrictions hears questions about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s policies
Church challenge of government restrictions hears questions about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s policies – Mar 3, 2021

—With files from Amy Judd

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