Saskatchewan faith leaders ask for public worship to be part of Re-Open Saskatchewan plans as COVID-19 restrictions are eased: province responds with guidelines

Across the province, churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship have restricted gatherings since March, in order to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (File photo by Dan Classen - Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News

A coalition of faith leaders from across the province recently lobbied the provincial government to include a return to public worship as part of “Re-Open Saskatchewan” plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The response from the provincial government has been to directly address worship services in a new set of Phase 3 guidelines to take effect June 8.

“Soon after the release of the Re-Open Saskatchewan plan, faith leaders from across Saskatchewan gathered online to discuss the re-opening of places of worship,” states a May 29 media release from the faith leaders. “We drafted a letter asking the Saskatchewan government to work together with faith communities to develop responsible guidelines bringing places of worship within the Re-Open Saskatchewan plan.”

Click here for full text of Saskatchewan faith leaders’ May 14, 2020 letter to Premier Scott Moe

“We represent diverse traditions, including the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, and Unitarian communities, and the following Christian churches: Alliance, Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran (ELCIC and LCC), Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, and the United Church of Canada. We represent communities that are large and small, urban and rural. All told, we represent at least 700,000 Saskatchewan residents.” – Letter from faith leaders of Saskatchewan to Premier Scott Moe.

“The government has responded to our request with the designation of two members of the COVID-19 Response Team to liaise with faith leaders. We are extremely thankful for the professionalism and commitment of these public servants. A robust and fruitful dialogue has produced guidelines that have been submitted for approval of the relevant health authorities,” according to the statement from the provincial faith leaders. “We confidently expect their imminent release.”

The May 29 media release from the faith leaders continues: “We have been assured that the provisions included in Phase 3 of the Re-Open plan will be adjusted as further experience commends. Guidelines addressing other aspects of worship and community life within our faith communities will be added in the coming weeks.”

Later the same day, the government of Saskatchewan released new guidelines for gradual re-opening of public worship to take effect Monday, June 8, 2020. The public worship guidelines include increasing the number in attendance to one-third of occupancy space, to a maximum of 30 people, and details about physical distancing and other requirements: LINK to guidelines.

An earlier May 14 letter from faith leaders to Premier Scott Moe noted how faith groups and places of worship in the province suspended activities and closed their doors even before required to do so, while pointing out that until now, faith gatherings had not been addressed in Re-Open Saskatchewan plans.

“The current Re-Open Saskatchewan plan addresses commerce and recreation but does not address spiritual gatherings. There are increasing tensions within our communities, and pressure on leaders to make decisions about what we can and cannot do at the present. These questions and decisions go beyond permission to gather up to ten people in a worship space. We are concerned that without clear communication and directives there will be well-intentioned but misguided decisions at the local level as well as outright rogue behaviour,” states the letter.

In the letter to the premier, the faith leaders also stress the importance of spirituality and faith. “While religious services may not be deemed ‘essential’ services in an official sense, the ministries that we provide are vitally important for the health and well-being of the people of Saskatchewan. Day-by-day and week-by-week the religious communities of our province provide support, encouragement, and hope to people whose circumstances are sometimes very difficult. Through prayer, worship, fellowship, mission, and service we both support our adherents and make valuable contributions to the wider community,” states the May 14 letter.

“While we quickly closed our doors to physical gatherings, ensuring that we did not contribute to the spread of the virus, we swiftly moved our activities online and continued to provide spiritual support and encouragement to the people of Saskatchewan in all kinds of safe and creative ways. Still, the health and vitality of our religious communities will be hampered by an extended period of being unable to gather together physically.” Letter from faith leaders of Saskatchewan to Premier Scott Moe.

Members of the faith leaders’ working group (representing a group of 28 leaders) are:

  • Most Rev. Donald Bolen, Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina
  • Rev. Amanda Currie, Synod of Saskatchewan, Presbyterian Church in Canada
  • Rev. Tricia Gerhard, Chair, Living Skies Regional Council Executive, United Church of Canada
  • Rt. Rev. Michael Hawkins, Bishop, Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan
  • Rev. Paul Israelson, District Superintendent, Saskatchewan District, Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada
  • Rabbi Jeremy Parnes, Beth Jacob Synagogue, Regina
  • Imam Ilyas Sidyot, Islamic Association of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon)
  •  Rev. Dr. Bernie Van De Walle, District Superintendent, Canadian Midwest District of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church

Related: “Public celebration of Mass slowly resumes in diocese of Saskatoon as COVID-19 restrictions are eased”