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Shadow and Light in the Post-COVID ChurchShadow and Light in the Post-COVID Church

Shadow and Light in the Post-COVID Church

Two long-time journalistic and personal friends, former CRTC commissioner Peter Menzies and Convivium's Peter Stockland, weigh the future of faith life in a Canada where churches have been shuttered by government order.

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Topics: Religious Freedom, COVID-19
Shadow and Light in the Post-COVID Church April 30, 2020  |  By Peter Stockland and Peter Menzies
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Peter Menzies: Sequestration of Church by State

Each of us, when and if this is over, will retain our own COVID-19 pandemic memories, preserved as still images in the mists of our minds.

Mine will include portraits – black and white, I think – of long, lonely walks through cold, deserted streets on what seemed at the time to be an endless series of Stephen King Boulevards. Another will be a selfie of a young woman in her wedding dress sent as a “what might have been” after announcing the postponement of her nuptials, hashtagged #pandemicbrides. Still another will be the strain in a pastor’s voice as communion (unsanctified but in the presence of God, as he put it) was “served” via online video on Good Friday. And who among us can forget the surreal sight of police officers taking numbers and names at a parking lot/no contact service held by the Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario?

Individually and collectively, we have all given up much to help calm the spread of COVID-19 to levels the health care system can tolerate. Each of us will remember the individual liberties we abandoned. Many of us will keep in mind how eager the State has been to scoop them up. 

It is now clear, post Aylmer, that the faithful gather only with permission of public officials. Their institutions sit empty while priests, imams and rabbis stream their services uncensored to those with Internet access. Pastors speak to cameras.The people of God bow to screens. Each self-serves and selects the wafer of choice: Ritz cracker or Stoned Wheat thin or, hey, why not Goldfish? Each chooses the liquid in the cup from which they sip – grape or pomegranate, Merlot, Malbec or Pinot noir. We get by as best we can. Only God may know our thoughts, but Google knows our browser history. And the government tracks our cellphones. So now we know they know. Sanctified. Vilified. This is faith in a world without touch or congregation. 

Hovering around it all is the current government’s ambition to implement new legislation governing our broadcasting and telecommunications systems, promised by Heritage Minister Stephen Guilbeault in June based on the recommendations released in January by his appointed panel of experts.

Very broadly, it is expected that these new laws will define online video as broadcasting. This will officially verify the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) claim on the public square that we call the Internet and that is, at the moment, the only public place Canadians are entirely free to gather. 

It is widely expected that legislation will give the CRTC broad discretion in how it does this and that it will, for now and if for no other reason than that it has limited resources, focus on large commercial carriers with earnings beyond a certain threshold. But to the extent mosques, synagogues, temples and churches now stream freely, it appears they will do so in the future in full knowledge they are doing so only because the CRTC decides they can. If and when the day comes when the regulator decides it wants to regulate Internet religious services as broadcasting, in the same manner as it has done with television and radio, it appears the government will give it power to do so.

As you ponder where this might lead, consider that the CRTC has always understood religion to be a matter of broad public “concern.” While it certainly permitted the unfettered broadcast of church services on Sunday mornings and the multifaith VisionTV cable channel beginning in 1987, the very idea that a “single faith” broadcaster could be approved was anathema to it until the early 1990s. Even then it was granted permission through a split vote and was – at least as legend has it – only considered a trade-off because the Commission believed it would have difficulty justifying concerns about religion while at the same time licensing pay per view porn.

In approving religion (yes, think about the bureaucratic hubris that entails), it said:

"Nevertheless, the Commission is persuaded by the argument that religious values, in particular, play an important role in the lives of many Canadians. Since these values are communicated increasingly through radio and television, the Commission considers that those religious groups who choose to use the Canadian broadcasting system to reach their congregations should not be discouraged.

"The Commission's objective is to meet the legitimate needs and interests of those who wish to receive various kinds of religious programming, without diminishing the integrity and strength of the Canadian broadcasting system. In seeking to achieve this goal, the Commission has taken into consideration the fact that religious broadcasting has the power to provide spiritual comfort. At the same time, the Commission is acutely aware of instances where this power has been abused. While the Commission is of the view that a more flexible approach to the licensing of religious programming services is warranted, it also considers that this flexibility must be accompanied by rigorous guidelines on ethics to assist broadcasters of religious programming and to guard against egregious intolerance and exploitation."

So, since 1992, single faith broadcasters have been licensed, but with obvious trepidation and strict rules lest, apparently, The Edict of Nantes be disrespected. Religious broadcasters have henceforth received special ethical guidance and while it is possible to have a football channel that never mentions baseball, the same cannot be said for a CRTC-approved religious channels. They must by condition of license give people of other faiths or no faith the opportunity to proselytize. This, one assumes, has prevented the third War of Kappel from breaking out. 

To be fair, this “balance” has evolved in some cases to consist of a very small percentage of the broadcast schedule and can be as relatively benign these days as Yes TV’s inclusion of Little Mosque on the Prairie within its otherwise profoundly Christian schedule. 

But the attitude that inspired these rules is still there, embedded deep within the regulator’s culture. And there’s nothing to indicate it won’t still be there when or if, given the opportunity, the time comes for it to raise its eyebrows in “concern” about online religious services.

Peter Stockland: A Moment of Our Own

In the column above, my long-time friend and journalism colleague Peter Menzies lays out a necessary, if disturbing, vision for the future of public faith in Canada as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. It is a cautionary tale that needs serious heeding. Peter tells it as veteran journalist who hit the heights of the industry before going on to a deep second career as broadcast regulator. But he also informs it with an abiding personal faith of the Scottish Calvinist fount, where what appears as pessimism must really be recognized as a focusing squint at hard, cold reality.

His column, and mine here, emerged from a long long-distance conversation the we had recently where the two of us, as we have done so often over the years our professional lives and out lasting friendship, shaped the bones of what we were thinking about writing without saying a word to each other about either the unfolding process or our full intentions. We then ran off separately and wrote it all down before we took the vapours and swooned from our own sheer genius.

The process is worth mentioning because it actively demonstrates how enduring friendship can smirkily thumb its nose even at State mandated isolation. Far more importantly, it shows how two or more gathered together even by iPhones can observe the same situation and juxtapositionally come to quite different conclusions.

I fully respect Peter’s arguments, and the experience from which he makes them, but I arrive at the very different conclusion that the apparent dark night of the soul for public faith could, can, and should be its golden moment. I think the COVID-19 crisis opens the door for those who profess faith in common life to re-introduce themselves to their fellow citizens as full partners in the national enterprise.

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We need not sit sipping Lysol lemonade and Clorox cocktails in the left outfield bleachers with Donald Trump, after all, to insist that recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is too important to be left exclusively to politicians and health care technocrats.

On the contrary, our arrival at the prudent “return to normal” phase of the battle against the virus is an opportune moment for the Church to use her bona fides as a reason-based, natural science affirming voice to press for a Gospel-enriched vision of what tomorrow’s ordinary must look like.

There can be no question we belong at the table as the discussion unfolds. Christian leaders globally showed courageous, albeit much criticized, sagacity in putting public safety first by closing churches for almost all of Lent. Painful as it was, the Church agreed to elevate the common good even when that meant forgoing the gathering of the people for Mass and worship services even during Easter, the holiest time in our liturgical year.

On that basis alone, the Christian Church’s voice in upcoming civil debates cannot be dismissed by even hardcore secularists as intrusion where she does not belong. For any who do raise such objections, we can point to certain emanations from the president of the world’s most powerful secular State to illuminate the difference between the rational and the woo-woo.

People who worship White Houses are hardly in a position to cast stones at those whose hearts seek true enduring wisdom in cathedral, basilica, or local church.

There are two intricately related areas where the Church – the clergy but all Christians engaged in civic life – must engage immediately, I think. The first is to challenge the insistence that returning to the pre-pandemic economic status quo is the necessary and sufficient ground for public policy measures in the months and even years ahead. The second is to counter the temptation perpetually whispering in the ears of those who wield power. It’s the leaving in place of restrictions on liberty long after they have served their purpose, and which are endured only because the population has forgotten what real freedom means.

We must, of course, “get the economy moving again” as the mantra has it. Credible voices argue effectively that deplorable suffering caused by financial loss, and the ensuing cracking apart of dignity and self-worth, rival the depredations of the disease itself. To prolong that hardship willy-nilly would be wicked cruelty. But crucial wisdom the Church can impart clearly, implacably and charitably comes at the conjunction where economic dignity and the dignity of liberty become one.

Two thousand years of Christian social thought, distilled into formal social teaching in at least the Catholic and Calvinist traditions, forms us to understand that human beings are not free because we are economically productive. We are economically productive because we are free. The secular world has lost that critical distinction in the staggers and jags of its convulsive avarice. The Church now has a powerful opening to remind the recovering world of the truth that because our creativity is of a piece with our createdness, our freedom is inseparable from our being, and from having been given to us not by the State, not by technocrats in lab coats, but by God.

One example of where this might apply is in the tentative steps being taken to issue so-called “immunity passports” so that certain people, meeting certain criteria of demography and medical testing, can return both to work and to social life. The proposal is based on the appallingly named concept of “herd immunity,” which might please epidemiologists but should horrify all who care about the humanness of humanity. Concern so far has whether such passports would be effective instrumentally against COVID-19 re-occurring. No one seems to have yet raised the demonstrable moral problem of dividing human beings into categories of pure and impure. A Church with a Saviour who touched lepers would be just the body to do it.

What the Church must counsel the world against is giving such thinking a free pass on the basis of perceived purely pragmatic temporary benefits. We’ve all experienced, after all, the rapidity with which the politically temporary becomes the technocratically permanent. We know, too, the power of appeals that ultimately make such measures seem natural.

The denial of human liberty is not natural. It is not the nature by which we were created or which we, in turn, create. Our created nature, or creative spirit, constitute gifts given to us by God. It is the Church’s field, and the Church’s moment, to say so.

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