Rev. Jeff Rock is the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCC Toronto).
I remember, in the fall semester of 2002, when my first-year virology professor finished his lecture by declaring that the world was 20 or 30 years overdue for a global pandemic. “It’s not if there will be a major pandemic in the near future,” he said. “It’s when.”
I went on to complete my undergraduate in microbiology and immunology, but then decided to leave it behind and switch career paths, going to seminary in pursuit of a Masters of Divinity and Ordination in a Christian ministry. Yet, here I am, finding that science degree coming in handy as the senior pastor of a downtown Toronto church. I’m using my science background to interpret the latest COVID-19 announcements and discern how it will affect the community of faith I am tasked with leading.
Those dual tracks in my life have made it such that I cannot help but weigh in on a brewing controversy between church and state amid this global pandemic. In recent weeks, the rights of faith communities to gather has been pitted against provincial health directives. The RCMP have arrested James Coates, a pastor with a church near Edmonton, and charged him for violating Alberta’s COVID-19 rules; he has since refused his bail conditions and remains behind bars. The B.C. courts recently rejected an injunction by the provincial government to shut down three churches meeting against pandemic protocols. In Ontario, several hefty fines have been doled out, and cases are before the courts. Anti-lockdown marches in major cities have been taking on a particular religious fervour, with a recent Edmonton rally featuring Christian placards alongside the tiki torches associated with far-right movements.
Faith communities, and in particular faith leaders, are becoming fed up, especially as we approach the one-year anniversary of when so many of us suspended on-site services. I can hardly blame them. I, too, long to see and care for the people I shepherd, to celebrate our rituals, to perform weddings and funerals. As I read the news and listen to press conferences, I sometimes find myself questioning the latest health directives: Is all this really necessary?
But I also know that health authorities are doing everything in their power to keep me and the people I care about safe. We all know the Hippocratic oath – the promise taken by doctors before they are licensed to practice: First, do no harm. I firmly believe those making the difficult decisions around this pandemic have this on their minds every day. My undergraduate degree in microbiology and immunology pales in comparison to the lifetime of work by people such as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and her U.S. counterpart, Anthony Fauci. In fact, Dr. Tam recently held an online forum with more than 3,000 faith leaders from across the country, thanking us for our patience and recognizing the importance of our role in ending this pandemic and encouraging vaccine uptake. (By the way, get the vaccine if you qualify – it is safe and saves lives.)
But medical doctors aren’t the only ones who have an oath to uphold. We faith leaders have one too, albeit one that is less official: the Golden Rule. In my own Christian tradition, that rule is articulated by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 7:12 when he says: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” In the Muslim tradition, it is voiced by the Prophet Mohammed in the Hadith: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” My Jewish colleagues will know the quote of Hillel in the Talmud: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” Similar verses are found in virtually every major world religion including Indigenous spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, the Baha’i Faith and more.
This debate isn’t about the government being pitted against religion, or the scientific community against faith communities. It is really about doing our best to love our neighbours in these trying times. And right now, our neighbours – especially the most vulnerable – need us to stay home as much as possible and follow the expertise of health professionals. Faith communities are absolutely essential, but in-person services are not. We must continue to suspend in-person services for the time being. After all, that’s our oath.
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