OPINION | ‘Comfortable martyrdom’ on display as churches defy government COVID-19 orders

This column is an opinion from Michael Coren, an author, broadcaster and columnist, and also an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church of Canada.

I’m an Anglican cleric.

My lockdown life has run along a fairly familiar path for almost a year. I help lead Sunday morning and afternoon services, often preach, lead morning prayer and lead two or three group meetings a week.

I participate in organizing sessions sometimes three times a day, spend hours on the phone listening to people in need and pain, trying to help, arranging medical, welfare or housing support, and call the lonely and bereaved.

Morning services attract 150 people, and our church feeds thousands. All of this is performed remotely, observing the spirit and the rules of the lockdown.

It’s a busy vocation, but these are the glorious rhythms I signed up for when I was ordained in 2019.

I mention this because while the lockdown has certainly made life more challenging for all of us, clergy included, it certainly hasn’t made it impossible.

Buildings may be closed, but the church isn’t. That’s because the most central teaching of Jesus is to love God, and love one’s neighbour as oneself. That means love for community, a concern for the well-being of others, a selfless and sacrificial empathy for everybody.

At a time of plague, when COVID is ripping a path of pain and destruction, that necessitates a temporary loss of the church services we once took for granted, so as to help defeat the virus and make us all safer.

An extreme fringe

This is the view not just of me or of Anglicanism, but the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian churches, most evangelicals, Orthodox churches, and so many others.

In fact, it’s only an extreme fringe within Christianity that believes otherwise. It’s those churches, however, that tend to make the noise and gather the attention. A case in point being, for example, Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary and GraceLife in Edmonton.

The former was charged in January under the Public Health Act, and received a $1,200 fine. It failed to follow instructions established by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, with hardly any congregants wearing masks or standing six feet apart.

At the time, minister Tim Stephens said, “Unfortunately, we’ve come to a situation where health orders make it impossible for us to obey God.”

The Almighty was unavailable for comment.

That same church held a service last Sunday — with full capacity — in sympathy with GraceLife in Edmonton.

GraceLife was ordered closed in January for repeated violations of COVID measures, and earlier this month minister James Coates was charged with repeated contraventions. He handed himself in to the police shortly afterward, but the church has continued to open.

The case has, predictably, attracted international attention.

GraceLife Church in Edmonton was ordered closed in January for repeated violations of COVID-19 measures, and earlier this month minister James Coates was charged with repeated contraventions. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Christianity Today, arguably the most influential evangelical magazine in the world, ran the story with the headline “Canadian Pastor Jailed Over COVID-19 Violations.”

I can’t help thinking that this is precisely what these churches want. Because while the Gospel sings of the values of love, peace, care, equality, justice, grace and change, there are those who have a contrary, jarring interpretation of scripture.

They see legalism and judgment, look more to the Old Testament than to the radical preaching of the gentle rabbi Jesus, and want everybody to know about it. As GraceLife says in its doctrinal statement, “God’s holiness and justice demand that all sin be punished by death.”

The truth is that various government measures to try to keep us safe during this time of plague are not in any way an attack on religious freedom, and it’s obvious that the more fundamentalist and conservative the church — in Western Canada but also in Ontario — the more likely it is to scream at the perceived injustice of it all. And, by the way, to embrace various conspiracy theories about the virus, deny it’s even a problem, see the immoral hand of secular government behind the lockdown, and to regard resistance as some form of Christian command.

There’s an element of comfortable martyrdom on display in these churches, because they know that their punishments will be light, that fundraising campaigns will more than pay their fines, and that their rejection of authority appears heroic to their base.

Bombast and hubris

The usual conservative legal groups and websites have already rushed to their aid, and they can tell their supporters that they’re being persecuted for their faith. This is meat and drink to Fox News, and the various right-wing networks and online platforms across North America.

Part of this bombast and hubris from conservative Christians in Alberta is because they assume they’ve a special relationship with, or influence over, Premier Jason Kenney.

They know, and he knows, that they supported him electorally and politically, and that while he’s a Catholic, he’s on the right wing of his church.

As such, he’s sending out mixed messages, and churches that should be forcibly closed are being “observed.” That approach could lead to further contamination, suffering and even death.

As a Christian, this is all grimly difficult to watch, because it’s so potentially dangerous. Also, frankly, because it makes the beliefs I hold so dear to appear crass, extreme, anti-science and hysterical.

This is, please believe me, not the church.

The next time I listen on the phone to someone from my congregation crying because they’ve lost a parent or spouse to COVID, I’ll pray very hard to forgive those who refuse to listen to human reason and compassion. It won’t be easy, but I’ll try my best.

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