Faith Presbyterian Church’s pastor Steve Richardson decided it was time to make a stand in Tillsonburg.
When the Ontario government announced its province-wide shutdown measures, which went into effect Dec. 26 to minimize transmission of the COVID-19 virus, it included restrictions on organized public indoor events. For church services, the mandatory capacity was 10 people or less, including parishioners, officiants and staff.
Early in January Richardson was ticketed by the OPP for a service that exceeded the indoor limit.
“We did continue indoor services and I was issued a ticket,” Richardson confirmed Monday morning.
“At a certain point we decided to no longer meet in that location, and then after some discussion we decided that we would meet back at the Bidwell location (101 Bidwell St. Tillsonburg).”
On Feb. 7, OPP attended the church, and met Richardson after the service where he was issued a court summons. Richardson was charged with Fail to Comply with a continued section 7.0.2, contrary to Reopening of Ontario Act Section 10(1)(a). The matter is now before the courts.
“Our encounters with the police have been very positive,” said Richardson. “We are very grateful for the way they’ve dealt with us. They have been courteous, they have been polite, and it’s clear they’re just doing the job that they’ve been given. The police have been fantastic and we have no complaints.”
Wearing masks during indoor services are required by Southwestern Public Health.
“We have the signs up and it is made very clear that this is a requirement of Southwestern Public Health,” said Richardson, “and people are free to wear them or not wear them. We can’t – and we won’t – enforce that. But that is up to each individual conscience. In our church we basically just said, ‘here’s what the requirement is and we leave it to you to decide what to do.’
“To me there’s a very significant difference between whether or not we are required to wear masks and whether or not we’re allowed to gather for worship. As far as I’m concerned, if I don’t gather for worship, I’m sinning against God, so I have to gather. But with masks, I don’t like it – I have reasons why I don’t like it – but I’m pretty confident that I can wear it without sinning against God.”
Faith Presbyterian Church decided not to go the route of some churches that conduct virtual services. Seeing people shopping at large retail chains, and kids going back to school, pushed them in the direction of indoor services.
“We hear a lot of people say that the church isn’t about the building and we completely agree. But the Bible defines the church as a gathering. In fact, there is no such thing as a church without a gathering. And in order for us to keep God’s day holy, bound up in that is the gathering of God’s people for preaching, singing, prayer, fellowship. So without those things we can’t keep the Sabbath… the Lord’s Day. We can’t actually keep any of the first four Commandments. I know a lot of churches have tried to adapt and they’ve given reasons to justify it, but I believe that they have gone quite far astray from the Bible and that they’ve compromised.”
Faith Presbyterian Church has no affiliation with Church of God, nor has Richardson closely followed the situation in Aylmer. But the Tillsonburg pastor said he does share Rev. Henry Hildebrandt’s concern with government intrusion into the affairs of the church.
“We have deliberately taken a different approach,” said Richardson. “We haven’t sought the attention of either the media or the authorities, we just decided to quietly go ahead and do our thing.”