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Pastor Erik Park records a Christmas sermon at an empty Lutheran Church in Sherwood Park, Winn., on Dec. 22.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Rev. Erik Parker recorded his Christmas Day service Wednesday afternoon, preaching to a video camera in front of rows of empty pews. His Boxing Day sermon is already filmed and edited.

The pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in Winnipeg, like faith leaders across the country, has been forced to adapt to new COVID-19 restrictions around religious gatherings during what’s normally one of the high points of the church calendar.

Many provinces cut capacity for faith-based services by half this week, or even banned them, as health officials try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. At Sherwood Park Lutheran, they were hoping they could still hold two in-person Christmas Eve services, with strict capacity limits that allow people to spread out, but chose to record their Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 services ahead of time.

Rev. Parker says it’s impossible for churches to plan too far in advance with the rules changing so quickly.

“That’s our plan for now, but things could change again in the next 24 hours. You’re kind of holding your breath, waiting for new restrictions or the numbers to get so high it’s no longer safe to gather,” he said on Wednesday. “This has been tough for a lot of churches. These would normally be our best-attended services of the year.”

On Thursday evening, Rev. Parker’s church decided to cancel all in-person services because of a growing COVID-19 testing backlog in Manitoba.

Churches in Manitoba, where 556 new cases of the virus were reported on Thursday, are allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity if they check vaccination records. Those that allow unvaccinated worshippers are limited to 25 people. Rev. Parker’s church, which resumed in-person services in September for vaccinated members only, asked people to preregister for the Christmas Eve services, and is directing everyone else to watch on Facebook.

Restrictions on faith gatherings vary across the country, but all provinces have placed limits on how many people can get together under one roof. In Ontario, church services require a physical distance of at least two metres between worshippers, unless proof of vaccination is required. Toronto Public Health is encouraging faith groups to hold virtual and outdoor religious services, and to keep things as short as possible.

In Quebec, up to a maximum of 250 worshippers can gather in the largest of cathedrals provided that’s less than 50 per cent of capacity, but they must provide vaccine passports and remain seated. In Newfoundland and Labrador, which on Wednesday increased the limits on gathering, names and contact information of all attendees must be recorded and shared with public-health officials if requested.

In British Columbia, where bars, gyms, weddings and Christmas parties have been shut down, indoor faith services are limited to 50 per cent capacity.

As the Omicron variant surges through the country, Nova Scotia, like most provinces, has limited faith services to 50 per cent of capacity. But churches there have another restriction – they must choose one designated singer, and congregations are prohibited from communal singing.

Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer, said the new ban on group singing is because the coronavirus virus is particularly transmissible when airborne, even if people are masked.

“I know it’s important this time of year for faith services, but we’ll not allow choirs or congregational singing. That’s simply a reflection of singing significantly increasing the likelihood of virus spread in a shared airspace,” Dr. Strang told reporters this week.

While his parishioners are still allowed to sing, albeit with masks on, Rev. Parker said they’re getting used to disruptions in normal church life after nearly two years in a pandemic. There’s been some good that’s come out of this, too, including the ability to reach more people through virtual services and learning a lot about video production and editing, he said. Those skills could be put to use even after restrictions are lifted for those who can’t attend services in person.

But the pastor admits he misses preaching to a full crowd, and says videos can’t replicate the feeling of looking into people’s eyes and sharing in worship with them. Coming together has long been a significant part of faith, he said.

“It’s been different, and it’s a little strange. I have to focus on that little camera lens and imagine there’s somebody on the other side,” he said. “There are times when it’s starting to feel like I’m a YouTuber, instead of a pastor.”

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