Some faith groups cancel in-person worship, say Alberta rules fall short

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Some Alberta faith communities are opting to suspend gatherings, despite rules allowing in-person worship to continue across the province.

On Tuesday, the government announced new restrictions on places of worship, in areas like Calgary and Edmonton — anywhere with an enhanced status. The rules stipulate that faith leaders must calculate their pre-COVID attendance and cut it down to one-third of the regular total.

The province encouraged online services, along with the distinction that in-person meetings and religious gatherings cannot be conducted in a private home while the measures are in effect.

But some religious leaders say this doesn't go far enough and have ceased offering mass and in-person religious gatherings for the time being. Others have tightened their restrictions above and beyond the province's mandate.

The Very Rev. Leighton Lee is the director of the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, which is the Anglican cathedral in downtown Calgary. He's also the dean of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary.

When cases began to climb, Lee was asked to reconvene a task force to come up with recommendations and measures to respond to the second wave of the pandemic.

The decision was to suspend services beginning Nov. 15 until at least Dec. 6 — subject to change based on the pandemic situation.

"We were making this decision to say, 'look, we can do our part and we can, in fact, be leaders in the community,'" Lee said. "We are faith leaders and we can demonstrate that by saying we believe the responsible thing to do as citizens of this province is to stay home as much as possible."

The Rev. Anna Greenwood-Lee of St. Laurence Anglican Church said that while the diocese has decided to suspend mass for the time being, a message from the government would be more impactful and less confusing.

"I commend churches that are sort of taking matters into their own hands," Greenwood-Lee said. "Frankly, it's confusing when we sort of put an extra layer of responsibility on churches to have to go above and beyond the guidance provided by the province."

During the pandemic, Greenwood-Lee said there are other things more important than mass for her community, such as acts of service to the vulnerable populations who need a hand.

"We're called to donate to the food bank. Some of my parishioners are driving for the food bank right now to drop off food hampers at people's homes," Greenwood-Lee said.

"There's all sorts of good work that we can do as people of faith, even though we can't worship together on Sundays in person."

Government 'sending the wrong message'

Greenwood-Lee said the government's lack of limitations when it comes to in-person faith gatherings sends the wrong message, especially when faith-based gatherings have accounted for several of the province's outbreaks.

"[Premier] Jason Kenney seems hesitant to curtail people's rights or freedoms, but there's a basic ethical concept that none of us have any rights without responsibilities," Greenwood-Lee said.

"We have responsibilities to our neighbours. We have responsibilities to pay taxes. We have responsibilities not to drive while intoxicated. And right now we have a responsibility to limit public worship, to limit social gatherings, to wear a mask in order to protect the most vulnerable in our society."

'If it's not safe we won't do it'

First Alliance Church Calgary has two campuses in the city. In pre-pandemic times, one of the auditoriums was able to seat more than 2,000, lead pastor James Paton said.

But after the pandemic's first wave, attendance was not encouraged, just available. To his knowledge, when people attended worship services after reopening, at most they were sitting 200 to 300 people, with distancing in place.

With the rise in COVID-19 cases across Alberta, Paton said it was decided to stop weekend services until the weekend of Jan. 9.

"Whether that becomes the date with the open or not, I think would be very dependent on whether the multi-wave pandemic has got back under control," Paton said. "If that's not safe, we won't do it."

Imam says mosque going above and beyond rules

Shaikh Fayaz Tilly, a senior imam with the Muslim Council of Calgary and chaplain with the University of Calgary, said mosques in-person programming has moved online. The only in-person worship is permitted for Friday prayer.

"All of our programming, with the exception of Friday prayer, has switched to online programming," Tilly said. "The Qur'an speaks about, you know, Friday, the day of congregating, as long as it is safe for people to congregate. And we truly believe that, you know, families who pray together, stay together as a community to pray together, stay together as well."

Tilly added the mosque is going above and beyond government recommendations in terms of attendance and health measures. For Friday prayer, he is encouraging only those who are healthy and without comorbidities to attend in person.

Prayer lasts for approximately 12 minutes, Tilly said, and congregating isn't allowed.

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'How can we preserve human life?'

Rabbi Mark Glickman is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Tikvah. He said in-person gatherings have been suspended. He cannot speak for other temples but noted some of the more conservative groups have practices and rules that don't allow an easy shift to online worship.

"The Jewish perspective on the question of to shut down or not shut down comes down to how can we most effectively preserve human life? And that trumps everything in Judaism," Glickman said.

"That's really what we're looking for … however possible."

Alberta Health did not have a percentage breakdown to reflect how many COVID-19 cases have been traced to faith communities. But the agency did note there have been "various large outbreaks" throughout the pandemic.