NB: this is a slightly revised version of a letter that was sent out via the church email newsletter on December 2, 2021.
Dear Southwood Church Family,
I hope and pray that these first couple of weeks of the Advent season have re-kindled in all our hearts a sense of joy and anticipation, as we journey together through the waiting, the anticipation, the excitement of Christ's coming. May all of this Spirit-filled energy build up with intensity-to-overflowing on Christmas Eve, as we gather for worship on December 24th.
I wanted to give you all an update regarding the details of our Christmas Eve services this year and Council's plans regarding COVID-19 precautions and protocols for them and for Sunday morning services in the New Tear.
If you attended the AGM this year, you'll know that we opened up a conversation about whether we wanted to ask for proof-of-vaccination for in-person attendance at worship services moving forward, with Christmas Eve as a kind of "test launch" for this (since we have multiple services, it is a good opportunity for a trial).
The Council continued this discussion at our November meeting (minutes posted here), and passed the following two motions:
That the Council implement the Restrictions Exemption Program for at least one Christmas Eve service, for attenders 12 years old and up, with the final decision about which service(s) to be made by the Lead Pastor in consultation with the staff team.
That the Council implement the Restrictions Exemption Program, for attenders 12 years old and up, for regular Sunday services beginning early in 2022, with the actual date to be determined by the Lead Pastor in consultation with staff team.
After a great deal of discernment, these decisions were made on the basis of three main driving factors:
For Christmas Eve, this means that in order to balance both accommodating as many people as safely possible and to be as inclusive as possible to those who may wish to attend, we will be holding two "REP" worship services (4:00 PM, 7:00 PM) and one "non-REP" worship service (9:00 PM). More details and registration links will be made available shortly here on the website, and this post will be updated.
** All three services will also be live-streamed at southwoodchurch.ca/live **
At this time, Southwood United Church's implementation of the Restrictions Exemption Program only recognizes proof-of-vaccination documents or Certified Medical Exemption letters, along with personal ID. Negative tests were excluded earlier in the Fall of 2021, when the Council first began working through how and where the REP would apply in our facility; as such, negative tests will not be accepted for REP Christmas Eve services.
At the December Council meeting, the question was raised and a discussion was held as to whether or not this policy should be modified for rolling out regular REP worship services on Sunday mornings in the New Year. As of that Dec. 8th meeting, the Council had not receive any further congregational comments/feedback about proof-of-vaccination vs. negative testing. This informed the Council's decision to maintain the "proof-of-vaccine or medical exemption only" policy for the New Year (i.e., negative tests will not be accepted). Please direct any questions or concerns about this decision to Jan McLean, Council Chair.
Details will be available soon on what the roll-out of the REP in 2022 will look like.
Ok, and now a pastoral word:
I recognize that the political rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a fever-pitch in recent days, particularly within the Province of Alberta. It seems that every day I have or hear of conversations where families, communities, and churches are at odds with one other over questions of "personal freedom," "social responsibility," and concerns about vaccines, masks, or various restrictions and bylaws.
As a pastoral leader, I have been careful to this point in the pandemic not to use my platform or the perceived authority that I hold to enter into these political debates. I don't believe these are are primarily political issues. They are, however—for people who claim to be followers of Jesus—matters of grave moral and theological significance. And so, I wish to offer you some communal guidance, as one charged with spiritual leadership in your midst.
Christian faith requires of us that we lay down our own rights, freedoms, opinions, and judgements for the sake of others. Particularly, we are commanded to do everything in our power to protect the most vulnerable in our midst and in God's world. As I have prayed, listened, observed, reflected on Scripture, and dialogued with many, many people over the past 20 months, I am convinced that this means we are called to go above-and-beyond in our efforts to reduce transmission of COVID-19; through wearing masks, through distancing, through following health guidance, and, yes, through getting vaccinated, if we are medically able to do so. People's lives quite literally depend on this.
My "right" or "freedom" to choose not to be vaccinated is superseded by my duty as a disciple of Jesus Christ to be a person who does to others whatever I would wish them to do to me (Matt 7:12); to love my neighbour as myself (Mark 12:31); and to lay down my life for my friends (John 15:12–13). As the Apostle Paul put it in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
"'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others" (1 Cor 10:23–24, NIV).
I won't go full-Bible-nerd on you here, but I have to tell you: this stuff is ALL OVER the Scriptures. From Eden, to the Patriarchs, to the children of Israel, to the Prophets, to Jesus, to the early Church—God's covenant people don't exist for their own sake, but for the sake of others. For the sake of the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the marginalized, the elderly, the minority, the oppressed ... the immuno-compromised, the differently-abled, the struggling ... for those whose medical conditions prevent them from getting vaccinated or for whom no protection against infection yet exists (small children). We are to be challenged, inconvenienced, and even to endure our own temporal suffering for the sake of others.
This is the way of Jesus.
I will stop short, here, of telling you "what do to." I am your pastor, your teacher, your brother-in-Christ—but, in our theological tradition, I am not "the boss of you." We are all priests; we are all bearers of God's image. And the Lord Jesus Christ is the "boss" of all of us.
I want you to know, friends, that I pray for you, every day—that you would be filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit; that you would be safe from harm; and that you would remain ever-faithful to the call of God, in Jesus Christ, upon your lives. I hope you know that. I hope you know that my love and affection for this congregation is abounding—and that I do not say or preach or write or plan any of the things I do without prayerful consideration and collaborative discernment. This letter is no exception.
To God be the glory. Amen.
My love in the Lord,