A LETTER TO OUR PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
British Columbia’s response to COVID-19 has restricted mass gatherings – including worship services – to below 50 people. Worship services and pastoral duties have not been deemed by the province to be essential services. Scant attention has been paid as to how worship services may be slowly expanded during Phase 2 and 3 of British Columbia’s reopening plan.
In light of this, this letter has been written to the Premier, the Minister of Health, and the Provincial Health Officer, humbly asking that worship services be given greater attention and priority in the reopening of British Columbia. As church members are members of the body of Christ, churches will still continue to safeguard the physical health of their members by taking appropriate and reasonable steps to prevent the transmission of COVID.
We ask that pastors and church leaders from all denominations throughout the province review the letter below, consult their local church leadership, and sign the declaration of support below. Please consider lending your name to this cause so that the church may better serve the spiritual needs of its members and be a salt and light to the world around us.
Rev. Rob Schouten
Pastor Paul Dirks
May 21, 2020 (Online Publication Date)
June 5, 2020 (Submission Date)
Rev. Rob Schouten
Pastor Paul Dirks
Hon. Premier John Horgan
501 Belleville Street
RE: EXPANDING ACCESS TO WORSHIP SERVICES IN BRITISH COLUMBIA
Dear Honorable Premier John Horgan,
We offer our sincere and heartfelt thanks as you guide British Columbia through the COVID-19 pandemic. We keep you and your government in our prayers during normal times, but we especially keep you in prayer during these challenging times. We recognize the incredible difficulty in making decisions about how to best slow the spread of this aggressive virus while preserving the fundamental freedoms and economic stability of British Columbians.
We are thankful that British Columbia has managed this balance better than almost any other large Canadian province, American state, or Western country. We applaud your determination to avoid a lockdown of the entire British Columbian economy and to allow gatherings of up to 50 people. We are also grateful that your government has largely trusted its citizens to regulate their own activities rather than imposing many strict legal measures.
We believe that Christians have the responsibility to obey the government in all things lawful. Our churches have therefore carefully abided by the provincial health orders to take extra measures to prevent the spread of COVID. Some churches have completely suspended services, while many others continue to offer much smaller services with fewer than 50 people. We take care to abide by social distancing guidelines, minimize social interactions during our services, and thoroughly clean surfaces after each service.
However, the Christian church also recognizes Christ’s teaching that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4) and the command that we should “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). Corporate worship is essential to the Christian life. In the past 1500 years of the Western Church, the entire, universal Church has very rarely, if ever, been forced to reduce its worship services so drastically. Even through major wars or epidemics, the Church has always persevered in regular corporate worship.
We recognize that initially limiting worship services to under 50 people was necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19. We also thank you for engaging in discussions with faith leaders before introducing caps on the size of gatherings. However, as you unveiled phases for the reopening of British Columbia, we were disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of the importance of corporate worship services by lifting the cap on groups of 50 people as it applies to worship services. Phase 2 of BC’s reopening plan, beginning in mid-May, proposes to re-open the retail sector, personal service establishments, restaurants, and recreational and sport facilities (among many other sectors). Phase 3, beginning in June through September, contemplates re-opening select entertainment venues and resuming some in-class education.
Honourable Premier, we believe that religious worship services are more important than most, if not all, of the activities that will resume during Phase 2 and 3. Increasing access to worship services should be prioritized over recreational facilities or retail stores, not below them. On May 13, Dr. Henry explicitly mentioned that retail stores may exceed 50 people on their premises if social distancing measures are employed but denied this freedom for religious services. The reverse should have been recommended. Not only has God commanded His people to worship Him regularly and corporately, but religious services help to maintain spiritual, mental, and emotional health of congregation members. Prohibiting worship services over 50 people through the worst phase of the pandemic is understandable, but with the curve flattened and the virus under reasonable control, we believe that the province must begin to allow larger church services, with an understanding that the safety measures introduced be maintained to limit the spread of the virus.
We implore you to consider expanding religious services in Phase 2 and 3 of British Columbia’s reopening. We respectfully ask that you allow religious gatherings based on some percentage of a building’s occupancy rather than based on a uniform cap of 50 people. Guidance documents for grocery stores already base the suggested number of people allowed in the building on the building’s square footage. We suggest that the same model be employed in churches to recognize that not all church facilities have equal capacity. Recent projections have estimated that resuming 60% of social interactions may be the “sweet spot” to balance the suppression of COVID and the resumption of regular activities. We hope that we can also work towards that goal of 60% capacity for religious services.
Allowing churches to fill a percentage of their pews will allow churches of different sizes to hold services while ensuring physical distancing. Churches will continue to sanitize surfaces between services, require two-meter distancing between members of different households, encourage vulnerable members to worship online, and require that members with any COVID-like symptoms refrain from attending. Some churches will continue to voluntarily suspend in-person worship services out of concern for their members’ physical health, but we humbly ask that individual churches be given greater freedom to decide how many people should be allowed to attend their services.
We seek to balance the protection of human health through social distancing measures with our freedom to worship. We ask that the government regularly re-evaluate whether to raise the occupancy rate for religious services based on prevailing health conditions. Canada was largely founded by people who longed for the fundamental freedoms of religion and assembly. These rights may have been justifiably infringed upon earlier in this epidemic, but the longer these rights are infringed upon, the more concerning this infringement is.
In conclusion, we would like to reiterate our gratitude for the government’s response thus far, a response which has been much more reasonable and restrained than the response of many other provincial governments. However, now that COVID is reasonably under control, we ask that you allow churches to expand their worship services as soon as possible.
Respectfully submitted (at the time of submission),
For an updated list of signatories, click here
Please note that this letter has been cc’d to:
Health Minister Adrian Dix
Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry
The following 144 churches have signed up. The list will be updated daily.
July 8, 2020
Dear Rev. Schouten and Pastor Dirks:
Thank you for your email of June 5, 2020, regarding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Honourable John Horgan, Premier. I apologize for the delay in communication.
Protecting the health and safety of British Columbians is the top priority of the Ministry of Health (the Ministry). BC has begun the process of re-opening, re-starting, and easing the restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our made-in-BC approach will lift restrictions in phases, putting safety first, by gradually allowing for more social and economic activity, while closely monitoring health information. BC's Restart Plan is informed by health experts, common sense, and practical decision-making. By moving carefully and deliberately, we can help to keep our curve flat, respond effectively, and protect the health of our most vulnerable.
While we understand your desire to hold larger events in church, it must be understood there is an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission at gatherings of any size. As a result, by order of the public health officer, events where there are gatherings of larger than 50 people are prohibited and remain prohibited even now that some restrictions have been eased. This is not an order of convenience, but a requirement to protect everyone in our province. I welcome you to view a copy of the Mass Gatherings Event order at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/health/about-bc-s-health-care-system/office-of-the-provincial-health-officer/reports-publications/covid-19-pho-class-order-mass-gatherings.pdf
Event organizers are encouraged to ask all participants to stay away if they are sick, returning from affected areas, or have underlying health conditions that may be impacted by respiratory illness. Organizers should also complete a risk assessment considering what is happening in the local community and who may attend the event. Local public health teams are available to assist event planners with these assessments. Further guidance is also available from the World Health Organization and the BC Centre for Disease Control.
You can help keep yourself and your community safe by adopting the same measures used to prevent other common respiratory viruses during winter. These include cleaning your hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs, coughing or sneezing into your elbow sleeve, disposing of used tissues in the garbage, avoiding touching your face and eyes, and staying away from others if you are sick yourself. Anyone concerned they may be experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should contact their primary-care provider, local public health office, call 8-1-1 for further steps, or use the BC COVID-19 Symptom Self-Assessment Tool, which can be found here: https://covid19.thrive.health/
For more information and latest updates on COVID-19, I invite you to visit the BCCDC website: http://www.bccdc.ca/. Additionally, a dedicated phone service is available to provide non-health related information about COVID-19 by calling 1 888-COVID19 (1 888-268-4319). A service representative is available seven days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and information is available in more than 110 languages. For more information about BC’s response to COVID-19, I welcome you to visit our webpage at: www.gov.bc.ca/covid19.
HealthLinkBC is the best resource for all those in BC who have health related questions about COVID-19. Health experts are available help you with your non-emergency health concerns about COVID-19 and can direct you in accessing care. Please see HealthLinkBC’s website at: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-feature/coronavirus-disease-covid-19 or call 8-1-1 (7-1-1 for the deaf and hard of hearing) if you have questions. Translation services are available in more than 130 languages.
Now more than ever we need people in BC to be tolerant, kind, calm, and safe in our community. Let’s continue to work together to keep our province strong.
I appreciate the opportunity to respond, and hope you find this information helpful.
Patient and Client Relations
Corporate Issues and Client Relations
Ministry of Health