The pandemic has left its mark on the church in many ways—including, possibly, a permanent decrease in in-person attendance—and new spiritual resources will be needed as the church continues to emerge from it, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told the Council of General Synod (CoGS) Nov. 5.
In her opening address at the first in-person meeting of the council since March 2020, the primate said her recent conversations with bishops and clergy had revealed a number of new challenges to the church.
“The hopefulness that anticipated the end to the pandemic in the spring and summer has given way to new and other concerns,” she said. “The grief of all that has been left behind is real and strong.”
The transition to online worship during the pandemic has affected the worship habits of Canadian Anglicans in diverse ways, she said.
“Some are re-evaluating their participation in church,” Nicholls said. “Some are staying online in their PJs with coffee; others are enjoying the diversity of multiple services across Canada and across the world. Others have simply lost the habit of Sunday morning as worship time.” Still others have re-discovered the joy of the daily office, through morning and evening prayer, she said.
An estimated 20 percent of Anglicans have not returned to in-person worship—though admittedly some jurisdictions have not finished lifting pandemic restrictions, she said.
For many, Nicholls said, returning to the inside of a church is not just a matter of whether the building is open, but based on multiple factors including levels of community transmission, personal risk evaluation, and even whether they’ll be allowed to sing or not.
As pandemic restrictions lift, Nicholls said, the church must re-engage with a society that is different from the one that entered the pandemic; the ways people meet their spiritual needs, for example, are changing.
“The earlier longing for the pandemic to end is giving way to anxiety and fears about what lies ahead, and we will need to re-engage with a realistic hope,” the primate said.
Echoing concerns she had expressed earlier at the November 2020 session of CoGS, Nicholls also said she worried about the toll the pandemic had taken on the mental health of church leaders. Stress and mental health were the focus of an evening session of the October meeting of the House of Bishops, she said.
Similar themes were suggested later that day by Canon Neil Elliot, the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistics and research officer, who presented Canadian results of a 2021 UK-led survey of Anglicans intended to give some idea of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the church (See also “Rising to the coronavirus’s challenge,” November 2021, p. 4, online at https://bit.ly/3DkAXyw). Elliot also drew upon annual diocesan statistics returns for 2020, parish returns from his own diocese of Kootenay and data from other dioceses to produce estimates of the pandemic’s impact on the Anglican Church of Canada.
The church’s ability to move to online worship in response to the pandemic should be celebrated, Elliot said, but Anglicans must be cautious about claims of congregational growth; it’s possible that membership is being significantly overreported, he said, since a large number of Anglicans are attending online services at more than one church.
But 39 per cent of clergy said they had found it hard to cope with the pandemic and 60 per cent reported mental health problems. How to support and keep clergy, Elliot said, was an important question for both dioceses and the national church.
November’s meeting—held at the customary location for meetings of CoGS, a Roman Catholic retreat centre in Mississauga, Ontario—was in fact hybrid, with a number of members attending remotely via videoconference. All those attending in person were required to show proof of full vaccination.
Regarding public health restrictions due to COVID-19 that have placed limitations on in-person worship, the primate acknowledged often competing claims of government authority and individual freedom.
She said she had been approached by other faith leaders to share their objections to any pandemic-related limitations on worship—but declined.
“I disagree both theologically and ecclesiologically with their stance,” she said. “Worship is a privilege which we exercise in community. Our identity as Christians, as Anglicans, is not ultimately dependent on whether we have been inside a church building on Sunday. It is dependent on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ which includes worship, but never restricts its definition only to buildings or to in-person gatherings.”
The church will need to embrace change as it emerges from the pandemic, Nicholls said. She compared the church today to the ancient Israelites as they wandered in the desert. Hearing reports of strong opposition and giants in the promised land that awaited them, they were held back by their fear from entering it, and instead ended up in the desert for 40 years. The church, Nicholls said, should not be deterred by the fear of risk.
Nicholls, who said she has long valued the ability to plan things with certainty, realized recently that the pandemic had taught her the value of accepting situations where everything is subject to change at the last minute. The church too, she said, is being drawn to embrace what is provisional. “It is a frightening time, but it is also an exciting time as we begin to see possibilities before us,” she said. The primate suggested that the triennial theme chosen in 2019—“A Changing Church, A Searching World, A Faithful God”—has turned out to be more even relevant now. Through all the church’s provisionality, its experimentation, its fears and anxieties, the primate said, “What we do have is a faithful God. Thanks be to God.”