Now that our B.C. government has extended into the new year the order criminalizing worship gatherings, I would like to offer a response as a pastor of a small Orthodox congregation.
Dr. Bonnie Henry recently sought to justify this extraordinary ban by saying, “Faith is not a building; it’s not about Sunday mornings, but it’s about every day, and how we connect with each other and how we support each other.”
Dr. Henry’s theological pronouncement about the essence of faith is beyond her (considerable) competence as a medical doctor. Certainly Christian faith involves kindness and good works every day, and is about our mutual connection and support.
But for Orthodox Christians, faith is precisely about what we do on Sunday mornings. For on Sunday mornings we are commanded by Christ to gather together so that He can be sacramentally present in our midst as He promised.
At that gathering, Orthodox Christians partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. One can pray at home and listen to sermons at home. But receiving the Eucharist, which for us is fundamental and life-giving, presupposes our gathering together. In fact the very word “church”— in Greek ekklesia —means “a gathering.”
By criminalizing and banning this Eucharistic gathering, Dr. Henry has literally criminalized ekklesia, or the Church, for the Church is not an organization (such as a trade union or service club), but an assembly; it is what happens as a result of Christ’s people assembling together.
Unlike certain B.C. churches that recently defied the ban on gatherings, I do not feel that the time for civil disobedience has arrived.
Yet my blood ran cold at the reports of police entering a building dedicated to worship gatherings, in order to disperse worshippers at their Sunday service. For Orthodox Christians, many from formerly Communist countries, this stirs memories of similar actions on the part of the KGB. Though not intended as such, this criminalization of church gathering and current dispersals by the police cannot help but conjure up for us the memory of such events.
Dr. Henry has said, “It’s not about rights. I do not believe, at all, that we are affecting people’s ability to [practise their religion] under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
For the Orthodox, the issue transcends legal Charter rights. The issue is one of conscience that involves practicing our faith as we believe Christ has directed. Seeking to be good citizens and in obedience to the latest Public Health order, my parish has currently suspended in person gatherings.
But it would be wrong to pretend that this order to suspend gatherings leaves the practice of our faith intact. I freely acknowledge that Dr. Henry’s orders are motivated entirely by her laudable desire to help people and stop the spread of the pandemic. In return I would like her to acknowledge that one unintended result of her orders is that it denies Orthodox Christians in B.C. the right to legally practice our faith.
Father Lawrence R. Farley,
Pastor, St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church, Surrey
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