A St. Albert reverand is trying to understand how new public health orders will affect their congregations.
“I was very frustrated at the disparity between what was said in the press conference and what appeared on the Government of Alberta website,” said Rev. Janet Taylor of the Braeside Presbyterian Church during a phone interview on Thursday.
Premier Jason Kenney announced a province-wide state of emergency on Nov. 24 in the midst of rising COVID-19 infections, ordering new restrictions limiting places of worship to a maximum of one-third normal attendance per service. The new restrictions require masks and physical distancing between households, and and allow in-person faith group meetings to continue, as long as physical distancing and public health measures are followed.
However, Taylor said the provincial restrictions posted online changed "overnight" to clarify capacity restrictions for churches. Worship services can only be for one-third of pre-COVID numbers, not for the venue’s maximum capacity.
“We have a responsibility as well as an obligation to respect the laws as they are presented, and certainly with a state of emergency provincially, we want to respect the requests and mandates that are being put out there. We have to suspend in-person worship. My concern is for congregations that are using the news conference as their cue and believing that the worship numbers can still be one-third of fire-rated occupancy.”
For a church like Braeside Presbyterian, the fraction allowed according to the provincial website basically equates to a stop order.
“For a congregation like ours, that means we have had to stop worship in person – because our pre-COVID worship numbers, a third of that is less than the number of people who were attending up till this past Sunday. We would have to leave people out, and who do you turn away at the door?” she continued.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, signifying the beginning of the Christmas season in the church calendar. Closing the doors means the church won’t be able to see its members in person over the holiday season.
Faith-based leaders have also been encouraged to move services online, which Braeside Presbyterian has done on its website at pccweb.ca/braesidepc, though it has been a new experience. Taylor said many places of worship have learned an “enormous amount of adaptability” since the pandemic arrived.
“We’ve had to learn how to be able to turn on a dime to switch from online worship to in-person worship to live streaming to whatever venues the particular faith organization chooses."
Her congregation has taken the task in stride as best as possible. She noted that comes from a belief within the Christian heritage that the Holy Spirit still inspires. They have chosen to look at COVID-19 as a “limitless opportunity, rather than as an insurmountable challenge,” she said.
"It's more the ‘Always being prepared for there to be a change,’ and being able to adapt to that change quickly enough that people can still experience worship. If that means that we have to make a decision on a Friday or Saturday that's going to affect Sunday worship, then we have to know that we have the mechanisms in place to make that happen very quickly.”