Vancouver United Churches cancel in-person services over Christmas to prevent spread of Omicron variant

Instead, some are offering services and concerts online, including a Christmas Eve jazz show by We Three Queens at St. Andrew's-Wesley

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      Christmas church services are a hallowed tradition for millions of Canadians.

      But with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 contributing to a record number of infections in B.C., several United Churches have decided to move services online this holiday season.

      They include St. Andrew's-Wesley United, Canadian Memorial United, Highlands United, Mt. Seymour United, and University Hill United.

      These churches decided to do this even though the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has not banned in-person services over Christmas.

      This came after officials consulted with the Pacific Mountain Region of the United Church and medical professionals about how to avoid creating super-spreader events.

      “Christmas Eve and all the celebrations around that time are often the most significant religious holiday for churches,” Rev. Rhian Walker of St Andrew’s-Wesley United said in a statement. “We know how much people were longing to gather, sing carols, and hear the familiar stories of the season, but we need to honour the huge sacrifice of healthcare workers and first responders who need us to slow the spread of COVID.”

      St. Andrews-Wesley United, in particular, is known for hosting live events in its renovated and spectacular historic space at the corner of Nelson and Burrard streets.

      On December 24, a live We Three Queens Christmas Eve jazz concert was scheduled with Karen Plato, Jennifer Scott, and Kate Hammett-Vaughn. It will now be held online from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., just as it was last year.

      Christmas Eve service will also be held online from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m and from 11 p.m. to midnight at St. Andrew's-Wesley United. A list of other online events at the church is available here.

      The United Churches of Vancouver acknowledge that moving services online will make it more difficult to generate funds for the worthy causes that they support.

      “The Christmas services is where we raise money for our community partners and they count on those donations," Rev. Dan Chambers of St. Andrew's-Wesley United said in the statement. "We are hoping we can still generate interest online so people can support food banks, climate change, refugees, and safe housing organizations who need these gifts to operate in 2022.”

      Some of the churches plan to remain online until January 18, whereas others will go to requiring vaccine passports, masks, proper spacing, and a maximum 50 percent capacity.

      "We have to remember that God is with us whether we gather in person or not," Rev. Aaron Miller of University Hill United said in the statement. "I think Jesus would support this decision of putting the safety of others first.” 

      Meanwhile, an Alberta physician and University of Calgary professor who's a member of the United Church, Dr. David Keegan, thinks all United Churches in Western Canada should replicate the actions of the Vancouver churches.

      “I suggest that the United Church has the opportunity to save many lives, prevent hospital admissions, and long-term disability, and to focus on the social justice and life orientation of Jesus by switching to online services for Christmas/Christmas Eve," Keegan said in the statement. "Let’s give the gift of life this Christmas.”

      For three consecutive days, B.C. has set one-day records for the number of COVID-19 infections over a 24-hour period. On December 23, the province announced that there were 2,046 new infections, including 880 in Vancouver Coastal Health.

      Since March 2020, 2,410 British Columbians have died as a result of COVID-19.

      Anglican and Catholic churches remain open

      On December 22, the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster issued a statement declaring that if all participants are vaccinated "as determined by the worship service leader", there would be no capacity restrictions on worship services and choirs.

      "If participants are not all vaccinated, worship services and choirs are limited to 50% seated capacity," the Right Rev. John Stephens said in the statement. "Masks are required but may be temporarily removed for ceremonial eating and drinking, and by officiants, readers or for singing a solo where physical distancing is observed."

      The archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, J. Michael Miller, urged pastors on December 9 to balance "safety and unity".

      In a memo to priests, the archdiocese noted that faith communities are not required to check for vaccine passports. Instead, they "have the flexibility to use their own system to ensure that all participants are vaccinated".

      In addition, the memo stated that social distancing is not required except for "celebrants, readers and soloists".

      "In the current situation with provincial restrictions, the principal aim of the Archdiocese is to give as much access as possible to the Sacraments (especially the Mass) to the greatest number of people possible," the memo declares.

      "In the implementation of solutions for Mass attendance, our guiding principle should be to do all we can to maintain both the safety and unity of the faithful, so we can witness to the world how we show Christian love for one another during difficult and polarizing times," it continues.

      "Each parish will have to determine how best to serve the needs of all parishioners in the coming weeks; not with a view to restriction or division, but with a sincere desire to see as many people as possible be able to participate in the source and summit of our faith."