The Church, COVID, and the Government: Manitoba edition

The Province of Manitoba is struggling with Church-Government relations.

An anti-mask protest and unlawful assembling in one of Canada’s Bible belts, Steinbach, and a major act of defiance by one of the largest churches in Winnipeg. These incidents show simmering tensions between the Government and some faith groups.

Steinbach has a population of almost 16,000 and is the regional centre for 100,000 in outlying areas.1 It is a city populated by many who are of Mennonite descent. Startingly, their COVID positivity test rate is at 40%. Why? It is unknown. Some blame it on the anti-mask rally but there certainly may be other more critical factors that researchers have yet to discover.

On November 14, 2020, a gathering of about 200 people dubbed as an anti-mask rally2 in Steinbach has brought condemnation locally, nationally, and internationally.

The titling of it as an anti-mask rally may be accurate or an over-generalization. It may only be part of the story.

The rally or the disregard for the rules against gathering may have nothing to do with Steinbach or its predominate Mennonite population. It may have everything to do about a small church called the Church of God of Restoration. A denomination that is not a subset of the Mennonite league of churches but born out of the American holiness movement. It is fundamentalist and has no connection with Pentecostal or Charismatic movements. The church location is just outside of Steinbach. It was just happenstance that the community of Steinbach got caught in this crossfire.

Or it could be a reflection of the deep-rooted tension Mennonites have with Government authorities—especially when it comes to limiting rights. Mennonites first migrated to Manitoba out of Government persecution and limitations of their liberties in the Ukraine and Russia. They sought to live a peaceful life in Manitoba with little Government interference. Many families moved to South America, fearing the Manitoba Government imposing restrictions in the earlier 1900s. They have felt urged to move to three different continents to live a peaceful life. These experiences have given a heightened sensitivity to Government involvement in their affairs.

On November 29, 2020, The Church of God of Restoration defied orders and is holding a drive-in church service.3  4

In Winnipeg, Springs Church had a drive-in service on Saturday, November 28th, 2020. Drive-in service is in the shadow category of the law and against the spirit of the Government’s intended purpose. According to a spokesperson representing the Government of Manitoba, this is a no-no.5

It is not known how long Springs Church has done this rite,6 whether it has been a continued tradition, or new. Why Springs Church chose now or continue this style of worship is surprising. Springs Church has since brought this matter for the courts.7 The Winnipeg Sun, the second largest newspaper in Manitoba, attempted to explain the reasons behind the decision to have a drive-in service and quotes Leon Fontaine, the leader of Springs Church.

“We believe this is an oversight on the part of the Government of Manitoba as other provinces across Canada have made accommodations for drive-in worship services while working to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Leon Fontaine, the senior pastor at the church.

He made the argument that the province has deemed rules sufficient to keep people safe as they drive to liquor stores, cannabis stores or big box retail stores park and enter those facilities, churchgoers should be able to sit in their own cars and watch a service on a big screen while listening over the radio with members of their household.8

Manitoba’s Court of the Queen’s Bench has since dismissed the argument.

“These orders necessarily restrict rights … in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba.”– Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of the Queen’s Bench.9

A small number of church leaders, led by the Rev. Erik Parker, Sherwood Park Lutheran Church, Winnipeg, have signed an open letter to Leon Fontaine and Springs Church, asking them to repent for their alleged unconcern for the community around them. None of the Winnipeg signatories are from Leon Fontaine’s alliances in the Charismatic, Pentecostal, or Third-Wave Churches.10

There was no need to contradict quarantine rules in either of these cases. The actions chosen by the Church of God of Restoration and Springs Church are not acceptable. There are alternatives to protest, display defiance, or show concern about Government interference in our daily lives. Springs Church may have learned their lesson and bringing the matter before the courts is the proper channel.

On December 8th, 2020, the Manitoba Government removed the restrictions on drive-in services.11

There is a sense in many Christian theatres that the Government has taken too many liberties, or a fear that this can happen. There are suspicions that the Government may sneak legislation or Cabinet orders that could permanently alter our freedoms under the guise of COVID. No evidence has shown this type of behavior. However, this could change, and Churches must keep watch. The response should not be by holding anti-mask rallies or other acts of defiance 12 but with our devices, computers, words, and social media.

It is also our role as a church to lament about both the direct and indirect consequences of this virus. We are to pray for any of the following: a solution, better understanding of the virus for treatment or control, and for those struggling financially, emotionally, or other losses related to this epidemic. We are also to express sadness at its effects. More so, to pray for those who succumbed or are struggling. There are likely churches out there who are praying for persons and families entirely unrelated to them. I do not know of any in particular, but sure they are out there.

The concept of prayer for removal for the virus is a noble one, but it is purposely left out because of the weird and whacky prayer by the charismatic evangelist Kenneth Copeland. His antics have created a stereotype that is hard to overcome. It is best just to stay out of that territory. He is not representative of many Christians such as myself.

Finally, the church should not meet together in person out of respect. This statement includes me who likes to go to church. It sends a positive signal to those who are older or are compromised in one way or another that they are an essential part of the community. It is very selfish to meet together and antithetical to the central message of loving your neighbour.

Wearing a mask is an inconvenience that is tolerable. It is not an assault on anyone’s belief. It is a symbol of concern and respect for the well-being of our neighbors. This ideal is something Christians should applaud and encourage.

  2. Huffington Post records Manitoba’s Premier stating is was 700 while Amber McGuckin and Erik Pindera of the Canadian media outlet, Global News believed it was 200.
  3. As taken from Malak Abas on Twitter, @malakabas_ , cub reporter for @winnipegnews (November 29th), “I’m at The Church of God this morning, 15 minutes out of Steinbach, which is holding a drive-in church service in defiance of public health orders. There’s already a police presence – I was warned by an officer that should I walk any closer, I’d be at risk of a $1200+ fine.”
  4. See also Kayla Rosen and Danton Unger of CTV news: Steinbach, Man. minister who spoke at anti-mask rally fined for holding service on Sunday
  5. CBC News. Hundreds pack Winnipeg church parking lot for drive-in service, breaking pandemic restrictions
  6. For more information go to the Springs Church drive in Church webpage
  7. Brittany Greenslade. Global News. Decision on Winnipeg church’s fight for drive-in religious services on hold. December 3, 2020
  8. Joe Aldrich. Winnipeg Sun. Manitoba’s drive-in worshipping ban faces court challenge. December 3, 2020
  9. As found in the CBC article Dozens pack rural Manitoba church parking lot for outlawed drive-in service, December 6, 2020
  10. Rev. Erik Parker An Open Letter to Pastor Leon Fontaine and Springs Church, Winnipeg. December 6, 2020
  11. Bryce Hoye. CBC News. Manitoba extends COVID-19 restrictions through holidays, but exempts drive-in events and more>
  12. the text also referred to drive-in services but removed because of the change in orders.

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