[Update, 4/19: I include a link to a site raising questions about a double standard in mandate enforcement with churches and mosques. A commenter points to this article clearing one of the two mosques mentioned, even though the full parking lot understandably raised suspicions. According to the report, written a day before I wrote this blog, “Good COVID-19 protocols are in place and no warnings or orders have been issued. As attendees are not carpooling and are coming in separate vehicles, and some days have back-to-back prayer services, the parking lot does appear full at times.” It’s been suggested that I was “slandering” the mosques under suspicion. On the contrary, I would be happy if mosques and churches alike were left to their own business by the state.]
After a media flurry earlier this year, Alberta, Canada’s GraceLife Baptist Church is back in the news cycle this week. The pastor, James Coates, caused a stir when he went to jail in February for refusing to comply with COVID regulations for worship, including masking, distancing, severely limited capacity seating (15%), and severely limited social interaction among the congregants. He was released at the end of March, but the drama continues, as protestors have recently gathered around the building to demonstrate against the erection of a chain-link fence around the premises. Police presence has been stepped up accordingly to ensure the fence stays in place. Meanwhile, Pastor Coates himself led the congregation in worship from an undisclosed location this past Sunday and put the service on YouTube here.
During Pastor Coates’s time in prison, it was instructive to watch the reactions of some Christians to the case. Some were concerned to rush in and emphasize that this was not a case of “religious persecution” per se, since Coates wasn’t being punished merely for leading Christian worship. Rather, he was being punished for failing to adhere to guidelines that applied in religious and secular contexts alike. A restaurant owner with no faith commitments could have been similarly penalized.
But as others have pointed out, this argument is historically tin-eared. Anyone who’s studied the history of communist persecution knows that governments always have their official “reasons” for penalizing Christians. And in the particular case of GraceLife Baptist, the overfull capacity of mosques in the same area bespeaks a glaring asymmetry in how these mandates are being enforced. So the insistence that there’s no bias whatsoever at work here rests on, we’ll say, somewhat shaky ground. At the very least, it is safe to say that a government which levies such mandates has a willful disregard for the value and purpose of incarnated religious fellowship. To reduce a church gathering functionally to something like a play or a recital, where audience members quietly file in, sit in place to watch the show, then quietly file back out, is to strip church of its very essence.
At the time, some Christians who were sympathetic to Coates made a plea for support from people who might not agree with his choice, on the principle that there was freedom to disagree and still support a Christian brother under fire from the state. But such pleas didn’t tend to draw much of a response. On reflection, one can see why. Let’s suppose that instead of being a Baptist minister defying COVID mandates, Pastor Coates was a Pentecostal minister flouting safety ordinances about snake-handling. It would be difficult to gin up sympathy for his plight “as a Christian brother” if he was summarily penalized, and with good reason: Snake-handling is an objectively bizarre, pointless, dangerous activity.
But there’s the rub: Christians are divided on the very question of whether flouting COVID mandates is similarly reckless and fringey. For some, it is exactly analogous to the snake-handling minister. Well-meaning as the pleas for broad support were, in the end, substance matters, and the sad fact is that we are not all in agreement on the substance of this matter. Chances are good that if you express public support for Pastor Coates, you are doing so because you believe the mandates are objectively unreasonable, and Pastor Coates is objectively right to stand up to them.
The uncomfortable fact of the matter, which too few people are talking about, is that many pastors are quietly doing the same thing as Pastor Coates. But officially, their websites still have all the right boilerplate. Their doors still have the signs turning people away who are suffering “COVID symptoms.” But once you get inside and look around, nobody is staying six feet away from each other. People are having conversations and sharing hugs after worship. People are taking their masks off. They can’t do otherwise. It’s simply unsustainable, and behind closed doors, every pastor worth his salt knows it. Pastor Coates just had the intestinal fortitude to say it out loud.
The last thing the church needs is more fault-lines. It has saddened me to watch yet more cracks emerge in the foundation through this pandemic. Nevertheless, I’m proud to take my stand with Pastor Coates. This December 2020 sermon carefully lays out his guiding ecclesiology. It is a thoughtful piece of preaching, one which, I should say speaking as an Anglican, shows considerably more awareness of the dangers of hindering the means of grace than many Anglicans and Catholics are currently showing. If it takes a Baptist to remind us of such things, be it so.
Pastor Coates further unpacks his thinking and answers questions about this past week’s events in a new interview here (which also includes a moving account of his time in prison and the impact he was able to make on the inmates in his short time there). He says he has no desire to be glib about COVID deaths. But taking all the data into account, he has made his considered choice. He is also careful not to encourage reckless protests. While he does express hope that the fencing around the church building will come down, he doesn’t wish for it to come down in an uncontrolled and violent way. Meanwhile, GraceLife Baptist continues to orient itself towards its primary goal: the peaceable, unfettered assembly of believers to worship the Lord Jesus Christ and share incarnate fellowship, in spirit and in truth.
Something is broken deep inside a church that cannot with one voice stand behind them in that goal, and cannot recognize the creeping totalitarianism of a state that has hindered that goal the way it has. And if the best counter-argument is that soft totalitarianism has come for the restaurateur too, then let the pastor and the restaurateur be friends. Together, like Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer, let them find the courage of their convictions not to hang the sign in the window, not to live by lies. If not now, when?