As the pandemic persists, Anglicans across Canada continue to adapt life- and death-defining liturgies
“Baptism by fire” may be a fitting description for the first baptisms carried out by the Rev. Michael Tutton.
A full-time journalist with the Canadian Press who was ordained in 2018, Tutton is currently an assistant priest at the Anglican Parish of St. Timothy and St. Paul in Halifax. He officiated at his first two baptisms last fall and winter. Both took place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the measures required to safeguard against COVID-19, including masks, social distancing and frequent sanitization, the experience of the baptisms was highly fulfilling for Tutton—and, he believes, for others as well.
“It feels special to be performing baptisms in a time of adversity for people, knowing that they’ll look back on that day and it’ll be part of their family’s story and their legacy,” Tutton says.
“It was also, I think, very uplifting for the people of the parish, because everything we do now, we don’t know if we’ll be able to do it in three weeks or four weeks,” he adds. “When we can do it in the proper and safe way, it just reminds us of how privileged we are to be able to do … things we [used to] take for granted.”
While vaccine rollouts are ongoing, the fight against the novel coronavirus is far from over. As the pandemic drags on, Anglicans are increasingly striving to adapt liturgies to the “new normal” of the pandemic, including services marking some of the most significant parts of life and death: baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Following health guidelines
When Tutton officiated the baptism at St. Timothy’s, capacity inside the church was limited to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. All participants wore masks and observed strict social distancing.
Parishioner Colleen Munn brought her daughter Janessa to be baptized on Jan. 24. Her family had originally planned to baptize Janessa on Easter 2020, and then Thanksgiving. However, spikes in COVID-19 infections meant they had to reschedule each time.
Finally, they were able to baptize Janessa on their third attempt, when she was 13 months old.
“It was different in the sense of not being able to greet each other like you normally would…. But everybody was very respectful,” Munn says. “The church was very tidy, very clean.” She praised the reassuring presence of Tutton, who wore a mask and sanitized his hands before and after baptizing Janessa.
“He made it very comfortable…. You didn’t have to worry,” Munn says. “There was no stress. It’s not like going to a grocery store. It was very warming, very comfortable. You didn’t feel at that moment that there was COVID … besides, obviously, looking at everybody with the mask on.”
In Ontario, the Rev. Matthew Brown, associate incumbent at the Parish of the Valley, presided over five baptisms between September and December at Holy Trinity Church in Pembroke. Each baptism took place on Saturday instead of during Sunday worship due to the capping of attendance in the building at 50 people.
As with St. Timothy, people observing the baptism at Holy Trinity wore masks and kept six feet apart. Ushers escorted people to and from the pews, while the church recorded the names and contact information of all in attendance to facilitate contact tracing. No singing took place.
Along with baptisms, Brown has presided at a number of outdoor interments during the pandemic—graveside services with masks and distancing—and one indoor funeral service in the fall. Conversely, a wedding he was scheduled to preside at was delayed until the following summer.
“My own thinking is that we need to continue following the guidance and direction of local health authorities,” Brown says. “So we shouldn’t gather if we’re directed not to gather. But presuming our own dioceses and bishops give us permission to and the local context feels it’s OK, I think it is really significant that we find ways to have a baptism, to have a wedding, to have a funeral if we’re able to.
“God’s at work in people’s lives and life marches on…. We can’t really [put] all of life on hold because of the pandemic. It’s just, how do we adapt to care for each other as these services come together?”
Brown and his wife Gillian, also a priest, are new parents themselves, following the birth in July of their first daughter, who has not yet been baptized. A major consideration is the attendance of family members spread out across Canada and the United States—some of whom are immunocompromised and unable to travel.
“We’ve opted as a family to delay having our daughter baptized, and that’s been a difficult thing to sit with, both as a parent and as a priest,” Brown says. “But we trust that she’s surrounded by God’s love and that we’re surrounded by God’s love and that the moment will come.”
Smaller and fewer gatherings
Weddings, too, are more challenging when family members aren’t able to travel. Last August, Megan Collings-Moore, archdeacon of Waterloo and chaplain at Renison University College, officiated at the wedding of two recent graduates. The bride, originally from Venezuela, was unable to bring her family to Canada for the marriage ceremony due to travel restrictions.
Initially the couple chose to delay the wedding. But having recently bought a house, they finally decided to hold a backyard ceremony at the home of a family friend. Chairs were set six feet apart. Catered food was individually wrapped.
“They were very much a couple who wanted it to be a church wedding and to feel like a church wedding, even though it was outside,” Collings-Moore says. To approximate the experience of a church wedding, organizers created an aisle 12 feet wide for the bride to walk down. But there was no communion and no singing: instead, the groom played music on a ukulele.
However, when the photographer attempted to take traditional wedding photos with close-ups, the bride—who now works in Hamilton as a nurse in an intensive care unit—drew a line.
“Of course, she was more aware than anybody else [of health risks and said] nope, we’re going to follow all the rules and the restrictions,” Collings-Moore says.
In the end, she adds, “it was a lovely wedding. It was not quite what they had anticipated, but it went well.”
In northern Saskatchewan, baptisms and weddings have been relatively few in number. Yolanda Bird, a suicide prevention worker for the Anglican Church of Canada and resident of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, says baptisms in the region had recently been starting to pick up again but stopped due to renewed lockdowns.
“There haven’t really been a whole lot of baptisms in our area,” Bird says. “But when they do have them, it usually would be a private service, just to be safe for the baby’s sake and the family’s.”
The pandemic has also had “a really big impact on weddings,” she adds. While Bird knows some couples who are getting married, they tend to be smaller, private gatherings, and overall numbers have dropped.
“I’m not really hearing too much about weddings lately,” Bird says. “Last summer, I can remember every single weekend, there was like two or three weddings. So that’s a big, dramatic change.”
‘There have been many funerals’
The trend for funerals, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction. “There have been many funerals,” Bird says. In December, her community saw four deaths due to the virus.
Shortly thereafter, her own aunt Annie Charlette died of COVID-19. A funeral service was held in February at St. Joseph’s Anglican Church in Montreal Lake. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, mourners had to remain six feet apart. A strict limit of 30 people in attendance was enforced.
“Normally people like to hug when they’re greeting people that are grieving, and there were restrictions on that as well,” Bird says. “It was kind of at your own risk if you wanted to hug people. But they didn’t really recommend that people get into too much close contact, simply because they didn’t know whether or not people would still get sick, even though [Charlette] had passed away.”
Many elders could not attend the funeral due to health risks. The length of time available for the wake also saw a sharp reduction.
“Usually we would, in northern communities, have two or three days for a wake service during the evenings,” Bird says. “That gives the community enough time to come and be a part of the whole process of grieving and letting go.
“But since COVID began, they’ve been giving us maybe one or two days to grieve, and we have to bury them almost immediately. Because of the restrictions as well, we didn’t have as many pallbearers. So the whole routine of a regular funeral was just totally different and it was really sad. It just didn’t feel like it was something that we’re used to. It just felt like we were kind of rushed into our grieving process.”
In the course of researching this story, the Anglican Journal heard a recurring theme when looking for Indigenous perspectives on baptisms, weddings, and funerals during the pandemic: funerals were far more common.
The Rev. Vivian Seegers, priest of Urban Aboriginal Ministry in the diocese of New Westminster, says that since the start of the pandemic she has only performed funerals in the Greater Vancouver area. Memorial services generally take place outdoors, with fewer numbers able to attend due to travel restrictions and health concerns.
The greater frequency of funerals in Indigenous communities during the pandemic, Seegers suggests, is the result of ongoing intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools. She compares the isolation many Indigenous people are feeling during lockdown to the isolation of those separated from their families due to the residential school system.
“That isolation is just so in our bones, and this COVID has touched that memory,” Seegers says. “We touch that pain, and the desperation of that. We know isolation so well. We know alienation so well…. With the truth and reconciliation process, we were trying to heal that as a community. Now we have this COVID thing, which just basically put the brakes on that community healing that we were doing, and everyone is back into the isolation.”
The funerals Seegers has officiated at, she says, are often linked to “deaths of despair” related to addiction and suicide.
Adversity and resilience
With COVID-19 making it more difficult to hold funeral services, Seegers is doing what she can to help people mourn. She recalls a woman who called her recently wanting to grieve for another woman, Sharon, whom she loved and missed despite not knowing the latter’s last name.
“I just took her into the church and lit a candle, and we prayed for Sharon and all the people that loved Sharon,” Seegers recalls. “It was just her and I. We did the whole ritual around a funeral type of service. Then she said that she was going to take that back to the community … and just tell them what we did so that they’d know that there was a ceremony done.”
Back in Nova Scotia, the power of the church’s life-defining liturgies in times of adversity was a core theme of the sermon Tutton delivered at Janessa’s baptism.
Drawing upon the story of Peter, whose discernment “ebbed and flowed” as an apostle of Christ, Tutton offered a note of perseverance. He provided a copy of the sermon to the family should their daughter wish to read it someday.
“Just like all of us, [Peter] faced his challenges in being a follower of Christ…. Part of the Christian life, part of discernment has often been adversity, often about failing and then making a comeback, and that certainly was Peter’s journey,” Tutton says.
“I don’t think I could have written that sermon without it occurring in the time of COVID,” he adds. “I’m saying [to Janessa] that these struggles are going to be part of life, including your internal struggles. You have to find a way. You have to know that you come from a lineage of people that have faced this and done this and stuck with their baptism.”