By Darren Lum
Churches in Haliburton County have been meeting the demands of worshippers in the area and beyond through virtual services, which since the pandemic began earlier this year have provided a connection no matter how near or far one lives from the physical church itself.
Lindsay Thring of Prestatyn, North Wales, U.K., has been attending the Haliburton Pastoral Charge’s services led by Reverend Harry Morgan online since Easter.
“Harry’s approach to the services he conducts is so refreshing and uplifting and very relaxed and ‘unstuffy,’” she wrote. “I found his enthusiasm so contagious and his obvious deep belief and knowledge very moving. Basically, I was hooked having previously not attended church services for years finding them rather aloof and stuffy. He sometimes added guitar playing to the odd service which enhanced the congeniality even more. Harry has also managed to include Communion services which I found amazingly ingenious of him and of great succour in these trying times, especially for people like myself living alone in lockdown.”
The warmer personal style she experienced online has inspired her to worship, which wasn’t the case with what she describes as “more traditional form of church oratory.”
The idea to attend the virtual services in Haliburton came from a recommendation made by her good friend and first cousin John Cooper’s widow Joy Cooper of Peterborough, who she FaceTimes with every other week. The two have been friends for close to 50 years and have visited each other’s countries. The women, both widows, remain close and have their relationship bolstered through hearing Morgan deliver his weekly Sunday service. Cooper’s childhood friend Nancy Cornish of Haliburton told her about the opportunity. Cornish had been virtually attending with her husband Paul since the restrictions had closed their church.
Thring said the online services have “literally been a ‘God send’ for all these people searching for spiritual support.” The pandemic has raised the spiritual need among people looking for support with churches physically closing to the public.
Reverend Morgan said having non-residents such as Thring participate in the online service is motivation to keep it going, as is the need to ensure the safety for local followers.
“We are committed to continue streaming even though we have returned to a restricted in-person service. There are, of course, many local congregants who do not feel safe coming to church yet and they will continue to benefit from the stream. In our case, we are streaming the Haliburton service live. It’s kind of a hybrid between the pre-pandemic service and the streamed ‘camera-only’ service. Lots of technology!” he wrote in an email.
Other regular viewers of the online service tune in from Collingwood, Barrie, Victoria, B.C., and Toronto, he added.
Reverend Max Ward of the Unified Board of Highland Hills Pastoral Charge, including the Maple Lake United Church and the Highland Hills United Church of Minden, said there are advantages and disadvantages to virtual services.
“Our Zoom service on Sunday mornings at 9:30 has been working consistently well and [is] well-attended. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everyone, especially those with hearing issues but it is pretty accessible to nearly everyone because a person can connect with a regular telephone like a conference call without needing any computer equipment or experience. Our Zoom services are drawing people from a wider area, which is great. A number of our own people who couldn’t attend before due to physical limitations with health are now attending regularly so that is a bonus,” he wrote.
There have been worshippers from Stouffville, Ajax and the London area.
Maple Lake and the Highland Hills churches decided at this time to stay closed to in-person worship services.
Ward said the churches will continue to offer virtual services even when in-person services resume, and outlined some of the benefits.
“No need to get fully dressed! No need to prepare the car to get to church or drive through bad weather. No need to find a parking space. No need to worry about disturbing anyone if you need a break, bathroom or otherwise, or have to arrive late or leave early. You can enjoy your own beverage and the comfort of your favourite chair. Travel time saved there and back for those who needed to drive a bit of a distance. No risk of infection of any kind: COVID-19, colds or flus. Connecting to Zoom is free. So for now, our Zoom services are a good alternative while we restrict in-person services for the safety of all and especially our members who are most vulnerable,” he wrote.
Up the long set of concrete stairs from Highland Street in Haliburton, Reverend Ken McClure at St. George’s Anglican Church was happy about being able to fulfill the religious needs of people here and from out of the county. McClure is the priest-in-charge for the Anglican Parish of Haliburton, which includes St. George’s and St. Margaret’s, in Wilberforce, which is currently closed for Covid-19 safety precautions.
On one Sunday, a man from Newmarket who never visited the church before, came for the second in-person service since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed for indoor gatherings. All he knew was the pre-recorded virtual service (posted on YouTube Sunday) by McClure, which he had attended since April, but it was enough to be intrigued to see the church in person.
The Anglican Diocese had directed followers intent to either following the cathedral or churches such as St. George’s for virtual services while COVID-19 restrictions were in place.
“During the period of time when we weren’t in person it definitely helped … different communities essentially share the load, right? To be able to utilize each other’s ministry in the event that that was not a possibility in the local context,” he said.
In Newmarket, the church was in-between priests and did not have a “full service” like in Haliburton.
“It’s the prayers they know. It’s the tunes they know and that gives them a sense of being able to be part of the church community, in particular the church worship life even when they’re unable to physically go,” he said.
There were and are still local worshippers who use the virtual option for health reasons.
Like Ward, McClure recognized how past worshippers were given the opportunity to continue their attendance with the virtual option. He’s lost count of how many members.
When the pandemic hit this side of the world, faith provided some certainty during an uncertain time, McClure said. Its importance will only increase as the season changes, bringing colder temperatures, adding to the challenge of social distancing and other measures to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
“It was really the lifeblood at the beginning of this [pandemic] when we were on full lockdown and it’s been able to provide and maintain a continuity of not only worship, but a continuity of church life,” McClure said. “The progression through each week and be able to face each week and be able to share with the people who tune into it each week. The hope that we find in God through this. The light of the gospel that leads us through times like this and to help maintain a sense of not only hope, but perspective, commitment. It helps to empower us. To be good to each other as possible. To take our responsibilities towards one another seriously. It’s given us the opportunity to be present in a way that … even before this we didn’t have the online stuff that we have going on now so we didn’t have the opportunity to worship at any point. The person can attend the Sunday service in person, but, you know, may need a dose a church sometime during the week, or an opportunity to have a little bit more prayer life in their week.”