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As Christians around the world raise “hosannas” to their Saviour this Palm Sunday, the congregation of Aldergrove Canadian Reformed Church might also be putting up umbrellas.
Members of the church located near the western end of B.C.’s Fraser Valley at long last have been granted government permission to worship together. But their release from COVID-19 prohibitions on faith gatherings has a near Roman-imperious caveat: services must take place outdoors.
Contrary to mythology West Coasters eagerly spread about their early daffodil-blooming corner of Canada, Vancouver and its surrounding area is no meteorological new Jerusalem at the end of March. Spring rain buckets down. The wind rarely whips with Winnipeg’s Portage and Main savagery. But, trust me as someone who grew up in the area, it drives a dampness that eventually feels like it’s coming from inside your bones.
Meanwhile, as Rev. Rob Schouten points out, Aldergrove’s congregants will be outstanding in their field while their 12,000 square foot church stands empty.
“Support groups can meet inside our church building lawfully,” Schouten says. “We could have exercise groups of up to 25 people meeting in different parts of the church. We could use the building all day for the daycare centre. But we have to stand outside in the rain.”
A particularly galling irony is that someone from B.C.’s homegrown film industry could rent the church as a backdrop for a movie about, oh, say, a Palm Sunday service marking Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. When it comes to actual religious services though…
“We can’t use the church for the purpose for which it was built by the people: the worship of God,” Schouten points out.
What he and others perceive as the incongruity and inequity of the provincial government’s approach to indoor worship prompted Aldergrove and nine other Canadian Reformed churches across B.C. to take legal action. On March 3, they asked the B.C. Supreme Court to declare the COVID-19 prohibitions a breach of Charter guarantees to religious freedom.
A similar application by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms on behalf of other churches was summarily punted by the court last week. It was not exactly a Heaven-sent sign of success for the Canadian Reformed Church case. Yet Schouten says the legal effort will press on because the alternative is civil disobedience. I know from media advice I’ve given the group, ignoring the law is an absolute last resort for them.
“Christians don't want to be in noncompliance with the law,” Schouten says. “Christians earnestly desire to be in compliance. Christians don't want to be at odds with the authorities. We want to live at peace with all men, and we want to live at peace with the government.”
Click here for Peter Stockland’s interview with Rev. Rob Schouten of Aldergrove Canadian Reformed Church.
At the same time, he knows of 45 to 50 churches across B.C. that are already defying the public health order banning indoor worship. Frustration is growing within congregations. With it comes pressure and sense of urgency to act in defiance of a government that doesn’t seem to be listening anyway.
“We've lost one year of our communal life essentially. We've lost four months of public worship entirely. That's a very significant period of life that you can't get back. It's a period of missed worship, of missed blessings of the sacrament, missed wedding feasts, missed funeral gatherings, missed choir performances, missed children's confirmations….
“So much goes on in a year that builds our faith and deepens the bonds between us and increases our joy and spiritual vitality. And we've lost that for an entire year. That's a really big deal. And for some reason, the government is not able to fathom it.”
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Indeed, Schouten points out the province’s top public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, recently expressed public amazement that gathering for worship is so important to Christian communities. He says her lack of understanding is indicative of widespread dismissiveness within government circles toward religious faith. There is secularist inability to comprehend that staying at home watching a service on Zoom isn’t even a pale imitation of being fully present with your co-religionists in a place called church.
“The assumption is that if you can practice your relationship with God in your home, what on Earth do you need anything else for? Why are you so upset?”
Or, alternatively, if you want to raise hosannas to your Saviour, it’s surely no issue if the government causes you to raise your umbrella to ward off buckets of B.C. spring rain, is it? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Canada’s Charter protections for religious freedom mean the State doesn’t get to tell people of faith where and how to worship. And that, Schouten says, is what the legal action and, if it occurs, any unfortunately necessary civil disobedience are about.
“If different entities within society do not defend themselves, if they do not stand up for their God-given rights, which are also recognized in Canadian law, that's not a way to generate respect with the authorities. We have, we have worked really hard to maintain a respectful tone with our government. We continue to pray for the authorities. We recognize they are in a difficult position. At the same time. We, we cannot continue as we are without public gatherings for God's people. It's just not doable any further.”
Schouten’s voice is very calm as he speaks but you can hear the cry that’s about to come in from the cold.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!
After Canada’s July 1 bash for our 150th birthday, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) challenged every mosque, church, temple, synagogue and place of worship to commit to 150 acts of public service this year. Convivium publisher Peter Stockland asked CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel for more details.