The COVID-19 pandemic will force many churchgoers in Southwestern Ontario to sacrifice a common tradition to start off Lent: Ash Wednesday services.
With the province’s staggered COVID-19 reopening beginning only Tuesday, many churches in the region are opting against in-person Ash Wednesday services this week, with some even planning to wait weeks to reopen their doors.
“Unfortunately, we will be missing our Ash Wednesday masses,” said Matthew Clarke, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of London.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the six weeks of prayer and penitence leading up to Easter.
The Diocese of London’s more than 145 churches in Southwestern Ontario won’t begin services again until Monday.
That means the traditional use of ashes during Ash Wednesday mass will be moved to a later service. And instead of being marked with an ashen cross on the forehead, parishioners will have ashes sprinkled above them to avoid physical contact, Clarke said.
After the one-week delay, Clarke said it should be an easy transition back to in-person services, as the Catholic church already has reopening protocols from the previous lockdown.
Churches are allowed to reopen in most Southwestern Ontario regions — all of which are below the grey (lockdown) level in the province’s colour-coded restriction framework — with physical distancing, mandatory masking and up to 30 per cent capacity.
Despite being given the go-ahead, many churches are erring on the side of caution.
The Diocese of Huron, which covers more than 200 Anglican churches in Southwestern Ontario, isn’t reopening any sites until Feb. 28, forcing Ash Wednesday and early Lenten services online.
It's also advising churches in the red (control) zone to wait until they're moved to orange (restrict) or yellow (protect) to reopen for in-person services.
Barry Slauenwhite, executive director of the Christian Churches Network of London, said only about half of its more than 240 member churches will run any sort of Ash Wednesday in-person gathering, or even open this week.
“People are getting a little more nervous to go back, so that’s creating some difficult decision-making for churches to know exactly what to do,” he said.
Slauenwhite said many will continue with digital services in the coming weeks, and those that reopen are opting to run multiple “mini-services” with small groups instead of larger and longer ones.
And in a year when the pandemic has already forced Canadians to give up so much, adding an additional sacrifice for Lent takes a new meaning, Slauenwhite said.
“I’m hearing a lot of pastors and priests talking about how this is making a great sermon illustration,” he said. “This is allowing them as teachers to bring home the real idea of what sacrifice means. In this day and age, most of us have no clue what true sacrifice means.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press