Pandemic, Advent and the church

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Pandemic, Advent and the church
Engraving of the Prophet Micah by Gustave Doré. Art: Wikipedia

I started at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg, in February 2015 as an interim priest and was appointed incumbent in September 2016. During the interim period and through discussion and prayerful consideration, the parish delineated “Cultivating and Nurturing a Culture of Inclusion” as an overarching theme and focus for its ministry. We evaluated the church’s mission and ministry to determine the extent to which the parish had, in keeping with the theme, cultivated and nurtured a culture of inclusion.

The Rev. Edmund Laldin, incumbent of the Parish of St. Saviour, Winnipeg Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Edmund Laldin, incumbent of the Parish of St. Saviour, Winnipeg
Photo: Contributed

Our honest, vulnerable and transparent reflection helped us re-configure the church to make it accessible to every member of the congregation, re-focus existing ministries and initiate new ministries for that cultural change. To this end, we held seminars on mental health issues, the struggles of members of the LGBTQ community in the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) and modifcations to the liturgy to make worship multicultural and multiethnic.

In my 2020 annual general meeting comments, I advised the congregation to take 2020 to strengthen the ministries through evaluation and absolute honesty. Needless to say, everything changed on March 15, 2020, because of the pandemic. The diocesan leadership advised us to close in-person services and to suspend every activity of the parish. This directive changed everything and presented us with new challenges, threats and opportunities. The lay and clerical leadership of the congregation welcomed these restrictions as opportunities to utilise technology and tried-and-tested, member-to-member communication. Our worship services are now live-streamed, while youth group seminars, meetings and social activities (such as parish breakfasts) occur on Zoom.

I was pretty satisfied with our congregation’s response to the restrictions. By summer, infections decreased exponentially and were pretty much down to zero, and every conceivable business was again open. I was pretty optimistic for the church to be back to the pre-coronavirus ministry, notably after the government allowed the churches to have in-person worship with 30% capacity of church buildings. June and July, as it relates to coronavirus, were good months for Manitoba.

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Towards the end of July, I was asked during a Zoom meeting to articulate the ACC’s response to the organisers of Black Lives Matter. My answer hailed the organisers’ efforts to highlight the plight of African Americans and give voice to every discriminated person in the world. The person who asked me was not, however, satisfied with my somewhat politically correct and measured response and asked me to clarify how BLM challenges or complements ministry and the church’s message. Again, I took a calculated route and tried to argue that the church has preached, throughout her existence, equality of human beings, and now BLM has taken this message to the streets and has morphed it into a justice issue within civil society. The person’s next question: “Is there racism in the ACC?” I answered affirmatively. Their next question? A haunting, “What are you going to do about it?”

This encounter happened when there was an increase of anti-Semitism, racist incidents and violence in the name of religion in different parts of the world. Furthermore, stagnant economies widened the chasm between the rich and the poor. Billions of people faced malnutrition and lost their savings, jobs and houses. The Canadian government, despite its efforts, was not able to address Canadians’ every need. Mental health specialists reported a surge in depression, anxiety and pandemic fatigue among Canadians, for example. If that was not enough, the second wave of the pandemic crippled the province in early autumn: strict protocols and business closures, along with a rise in infections and COVID-19 related deaths. The second wave, as predicted, has been more deadly, and most of us are tired, exhausted and anxious of the financial, physical, mental and psychological toll and trauma.

We started this Advent with a reading from Mark 13:24-31. In this passage, Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man would come when the sun is dark, the moon loses its light, stars fall from the skies and the foundation of the whole earth is shaken. The Lukan version of the same passage remembers Jesus telling his disciples when they see these things taking place, to stand up and raise their hands because their redemption is drawing near.

One can take the “coming of the Son of Man” passage literally and wait for the coming of the Son of Man. By doing so, the person will abdicate his/her responsibility to work for the kingdom of God. The church can fall into the same trap and let incidents overwhelm her. This response will engender a defeatist attitude and will mire the church in hopelessness and despair. Another option is to conclude that the challenges are an opportunity to address obstacles to the church’s mission and ministry.

How the church can address the challenges of the world is, indeed, a critical discernment. How a person can stand up, raise his/her hands and believe that the redemption is drawing near is the other necessary insight. The Prophet Micah (6:8) said, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This can be the principle the church uses to address these challenges. Effective and pro-active implementation of this verse will enable a person to stand up, raise his/her hands and believe that the redemption has drawn near.

The pandemic has allowed the ACC to reexamine its priorities at the national, provincial, diocesan and parish level. It is time for the church to break the shackles of bureaucracy, top-down leadership, the tyranny of buildings, institutional and systemic racism, and ancient and archaic models of ministry. The church must employ Micah 6:8 to determine mission and ministry as it relates to shackles mentioned above.

Bishop James Cruickshank defined “to do justice” as to sort out what belongs to who and return it to them. Loving-kindness and walking humbly with our God is dependent on our desire to do justice. The ACC, at all levels, should uncover what has been taken from whom and return it to them. The ACC will realise that it has usurped rights and privileges of Black, Indigenous and people of colour Anglicans through systemic and institutional racism. And the way forward is to return the dignity and integrity of the marginalised by empowering them to morph homogenous communities into heterogenous congregations. It will also learn that the core leadership, whether paid or volunteer, is Caucasian (with the exception of Indigenous church leaders)—and it is time to invite and appoint visible minorities conscientiously to core leadership. This critical reflection will also reveal that the church is more than a building, as our buildings have been closed since March 2020. Moreover, dwindling congregations of many parishes can worship in one building and use the other facilities to address the needs of their neighbourhoods in partnership with other organisations. Concrete steps and decisions mentioned above will manifest kindness towards fellow human beings and a humble walk with our God.

Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. The coronavirus has altered the world immensely – tried-and-tested models of governance, workplace, business and religious communities have adapted to the new reality. Instead of lamenting at the losses, let us stand up and raise our hands—because our redemption has drawn near through doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.

The Rev. Edmund Laldin is incumbent of the Parish of St. Saviour, Winnipeg. The primary focus of his ministry is to cultivate and nurture a culture of inclusion.

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