Canadian Anglicans respond as pandemic disrupts family life

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“Right now, we are all the caterpillar in the cocoon, unaware of what is coming next. This is a time of transfiguration!” says Kate Newman, children’s, youth and family coordinator at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, B.C. Newman, like many others across the Anglican Church of Canada, has been bringing her ministry online to reach families shut in their homes because of the lockdowns. Photo: Video still from Christ Church Cathedral Facebook page

While concerns grow about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns on families and children, some Canadian Anglicans have been reaching out in new ways to help them.

Sheilagh McGlynn, the Anglican Church of Canada’s animator for youth ministries (and a practicing psychotherapist) says she worries about the effect that social-isolation measures now in place will have on the development of young people.

“I think it would be easy to say, ‘Oh, young people are going to be really fine through all of this’ because they know how to adapt technology-wise, but I think that on an emotional level, young people are really feeling the brunt,” she says.

“Social interactions are incredibly important for youth. It’s part of their development and becoming who they are—figuring themselves out in the world. And the way they do that is through interacting with others. I think that’s a really hard thing for them.”

Social isolation intended to fight the pandemic is also reported to be causing a global increase in family violence, which public health authorities say tends to heighten when families spend an unusual amount of time together confined to reduced space. On April 8, the directors of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, including the Rev. Olav Fykse, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, issued a joint statement expressing concern about the effect of the lockdowns on the world’s children, and urging extra measures to protect them during the pandemic.

“Efforts to contain the coronavirus are vital to the health of the world’s population, but they are also exposing children to increased risk of violence—including maltreatment, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation,” the statement reads.

McGlynn says she’s concerned about victims of child and spousal abuse in Canada, and especially vulnerable youth—those who are wondering about their sexuality in homes where such questions aren’t welcome, for example.

“It’s hard to think about kids that are in those situations and don’t have a way out,” she says. “Sometimes the church is the safe place for them and now that that safe place…has closed its doors.”

Declarations of states of emergency and similar responses across Canada in recent weeks have resulted in the suspension of services deemed non-essential, including much church ministry; social gatherings have been restricted and people have been urged to stay at home as much as possible. Since early March, churches across Canada and the Anglican Communion have been suspending in-person worship services, in many cases replacing them with online versions.

Many young people are also struggling with anxiety about a new range of uncertainties they’re facing, she says, given the temporary closures of schools and current economic suffering and uncertainty. Canadian Anglican youth are also experiencing the disappointment of a slew of cancellations of church-related events, she says.

“The young people out there that I’ve talked to are feeling very insecure about everything,” McGlynn says. “School has changed, their social interactions have changed and now church things have changed…. Everything has changed, and that is incredibly anxiety-producing for a lot of people.”

But McGlynn, who has regular videoconferences with youth leaders from across the country, says many Anglican individuals, parishes and dioceses are now attempting to meet the challenges posed by the lockdown by offering ministry in a range of new ways. An annual Holy Week gathering for youth organized by the diocese of New Westminster was held online this year, for example, and members of the diocese of Ottawa’s youth internship program have continued to meet by videoconference. At the diocese of Montreal, staff had a marketing strategist give a Facebook presentation on the technical aspects of videoconferencing when the diocese’s own youth project coordinator, Lee-Ann Matthews, fell ill with COVID-19 and was unable to host her weekly Facebook Live session. (Matthews is recovering, and recommenced her Facebook presentations on April 7 with a session in which she spoke of her experience with the illness.) In the diocese of Niagara, a small number of children, youth and family lay ministers launched the Anglican Family Hub, a virtual gathering-place for Anglican families and the only one of its kind in the Anglican Church of Canada, McGlynn says.

The Anglican Family Hub, says Katherine Kerley, children, youth and family ministry (CYFM) coordinator at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Thorold, Ont., and one of the hub’s organizers, arose in the wake of suspensions of programs, services and other gatherings across the diocese. Kerley and a small number of other CYFM lay ministers created a website and Facebook page with a wide range of resources for families—online craft and prayer workshops, a faith-building session involving LEGO, Sunday school rotation, Godly Play and more. Another organizer, Sarah Bird, CYFM program consultant for the Diocese of Niagara, spread word about the hub through various national networks, and now Anglicans from across the country are joining, Kerley says.

“Ultimately, our hope is that we can help people stay connected, offer a place where ministry gifts are shared to all, create boundaries around where and how information is shared, and primarily continue to lift one another up and grow through these challenging times,” she says.

In Victoria, B.C., Kate Newman, CYFM coordinator at Christ Church Cathedral and faith educator at Christ Church Cathedral School, says she’s been creating videos to share via Facebook Live—and also experimenting with videoconferencing school chapel services. One recent online service of prayers and singing, she said was attended by 87 children. Though the results were “imperfect,” Newman says—conversations between children and their parents made for a certain amount of background noise, for example—the service was fundamentally a success.

“We were together and we worshipped,” she says. “God was with us.”

Newman says she sees profound change as an inevitable result of the pandemic and lockdowns—and coping with today’s massive uncertainty will require a different way of being in time.

“Right now, we are all the caterpillar in the cocoon, unaware of what is coming next. This is a time of transfiguration!” she says. “When COVID-19 is over (the day will come) we will look back and see that we have been transformed completely. Until then, on some days, it will be just enough to know what is happening in the next minute, the next hour.”

It’s crucial for parents and other caregivers, she says, to remember to take care of themselves—partly because their own emotional turbulence may feed anxiety in their children without their being aware of it.

“Children pick up on our energy and emotion,” she says. “Through our understandable stress, we are oblivious to how we are expressing ourselves. A tantrum that surprises a parent may be a young person’s reflection of our own emotional state that is confusing them or shocking them…. When we take the time to breathe, to pray, to consider the world through our faith, then we can care for children well amidst stress.”

Though parents may feel they simply don’t have the time to spend on self-care, it’s important to remember that a practice as simple as taking three deep breaths can make an important difference, Newman says. So can taking small amounts of time—once a “safe, enclosed and engaging space” has been created for the children—to just stare out the window. And so, of course, can prayer.

“For those parents who must press on tirelessly without rest, constant prayer will be a life saver,” Newman says. “Make each breath a prayer of thanks. Relying on the short words, ‘Lord have mercy!’ can turn impossible moments around.”

Parents can also tend to themselves psychologically by cherishing the times of family intimacy they’ve experienced.

“Celebrate the little moments, recognize those moments and record them in your memory: the moments when you see your child and are filled with love,” she says. “These moments can catch us off guard, are all too easily overlooked yet they can be our sustenance in these times of stress.”

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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