Defying COVID rules puts church needs above community safety

On Dec. 24, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the Windsor-Essex County medical officer of health, reminded faith communities of the requirement and the wisdom of limiting the number of people attending worship services to a maximum of 10, including parishioners, officiants and staff. He also said he was not recommending in-person gatherings of any kind because of the high risk of COVID transmission.

As a pastor, I worked closely with congregational leaders to develop ways to protect the health of our community and also celebrate Christmas Eve.

We did things that had not been done in previous years: We mailed a printed devotional booklet to every household in our care. We produced a special worship video to view online at home. And we offered a “drive-thru” Nativity event in the church parking lot with actors from within household bubbles and live animals that families viewed from the comfort and safety of their vehicles.

We used an LCD projector and a screen I made from dollar store white-boards to show a brief video of our carollers offering greetings and blessings. We kept the number of people outside their vehicles well within the rules.

Most church folks and congregational leaders I know understand what is at stake right now. We make decisions that set aside our “wants” for the sake of the needs of others. It is saddening, confusing and frustrating when we hear of local congregations who don’t seem to take to heart the wellbeing of their own members and the community as a whole.

Just a few days after Dr. Ahmed’s reminder, police were called to two churches in the Leamington area. Officers observed the number of people in attendance in these churches to be well above legal limits.

Any discussion of individual rights that disregards our basic responsibility to not harm each other is misguided and morally vacant.

Apparently, at each church, one person “took responsibility” for all in attendance and only they were charged with violating the Reopening Ontario Act. I don’t think we can under law, common sense or basic morality, relieve other people of responsibility for their actions simply by saying the words. I think every person of legal age in those overcrowded worship spaces should have been charged.

A legal advocacy group has taken up the cause of these two churches and their leaders, along with congregations in several other Ontario communities, including Windsor’s Harvest Bible Church, who chose to defy the Reopening Ontario Act. They argue the charges laid infringe on their charter rights to peacefully assemble for worship.

It’s worth noting that more than a dozen leaders from Anglican, Presbyterian and Mennonite congregations in Windsor, Oldcastle and Leamington signed an open letter saying that “as a tangible expression of our love, we will suspend our large on-site, in-person gatherings for alternative methods of worship that follow appropriate health guidelines.”

The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 16,000 people in Canada and continues to push our health care system beyond its capacity to protect the population. Any discussion of individual rights that disregards our basic responsibility to not harm each other is misguided and morally vacant.

As a child, I learned at home, at school, in church, and as a cub and boy scout, that we are meant to avoid hurting or killing others. This is taught in one way or another, in the major faiths practised in every culture on our planet. We know it best as the Golden Rule — and I don’t mean “Whoever has the gold makes the rules!” You can check out a great collection of expressions of the rule from around the world at this site: Golden Rule (

In my own faith tradition, and presumably that of those local churches which defy guidelines about masks and laws limiting the size of gatherings, we look to a saying of Jesus of Nazareth: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Even though we currently live in the grey zone, I find it hard to see any grey areas in our faithful requirement to not wilfully make ourselves walking transmitters of a deadly virus. 

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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