In-person or virtual? Calgary churches make tough decisions about Christmas Eve services

·2 min read
Father Mark Goring, pastor at St. Mary's Parish Catholic church in Ottawa, in front of an iPhone broadcasting the Easter Sunday mass live on YouTube. Some Calgary churches are hosting their services virtually this Christmas.  (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Father Mark Goring, pastor at St. Mary's Parish Catholic church in Ottawa, in front of an iPhone broadcasting the Easter Sunday mass live on YouTube. Some Calgary churches are hosting their services virtually this Christmas. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As the Omicron variant spreads throughout Alberta, church leaders have had to make difficult decisions about whether to offer in-person or online services.

Any churches or faith groups who are holding Christmas Eve services must cap attendance at one-third capacity due to provincial health restrictions.

Knox United Church in downtown Calgary, has capacity for up to 1,200 people, but the pews will sit empty this Christmas Eve.

"A second pandemic Christmas, 21 months of a pandemic, has convinced us what we kind of knew all along. That normal might be different, that we're not going back to what it was. We've changed," said Greg Glatz, minister of Knox United Church.

"The church has needed to change and make transition for a long, long time. And maybe the upside of this pandemic is that it's forced us to do that a little bit more intentionally and a little bit more quickly."

Glatz said the decision not to offer in-person worship was a difficult one, but says it was the right thing to do to avoid creating a super-spreader event.

He said instead, the church will be hosting virtual services on YouTube.

Participating in traditions

Other churches are opting for a hybrid model for their Christmas Eve services. One of those is Bethany Chapel in Calgary's southwest.

"We have the whole spectrum of people, those that maybe are quite nervous and those that are glad to assemble, especially on Christmas Eve," said Steve Marston, executive pastor at Bethany Chapel.

But for others, being able to participate in the traditions they've had for years is important.

"It kind of precludes some of that loneliness, especially at the Christmas season, for some folks in their congregation," Marston said.

For many people — especially over the holiday season — attending services is really important, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.

But she would like to see churches implement a vaccination proof requirement, but it wouldn't eliminate risk.

"Even that wouldn't leave us feeling completely confident because there's a lot of breakthrough infections with this variant. So I do think that there is some substantial risk there," she said.

She said she's also worried that multi-generational gatherings, like church services, could shift dominant groups of spread from 20- to 40-year-olds back into the older than 60 group.

"I think there's a lot of things that are going to be happening over the next week that are going to be offering a fair amount of risk, honestly."

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