Harriet Wolman has experienced irreconcilable grief in the past two years.
In August 2019, the Toronto resident’s husband died after a short illness at age 93. Two years later, after a life of ill health, her son Michael died at age 64.
Wolman, a devout Jew, found it difficult to grieve in the midst of a pandemic, with her local synagogue shuttered and group settings being off-limits. But logging on to Zoom for weekly services at Holy Blossom Temple, where she has been a member since she was a child, has brought her a surprising amount of comfort.
“These two great losses have led me to try to find solace for my grief,” Wolman says.
“It has given me a sense of connection as part of my isolation and loneliness, and has really made a difference in helping me cope.”
Some places of worship staying virtual despite chance to increase capacity
Even after the synagogue’s doors reopened, Wolman remains a solely virtual member of the congregation. She says she’s not ready to rejoin the world and is hesitant to be around large crowds.
Wolman’s outlook is common for many nervous to return to religious services across Canada. Questions about the post-pandemic religious landscape are now being posed by religious leaders across the country: do we stay virtual, offer a hybrid model, or go completely offline again to try and get people back through the door?
They’re tough questions in the face of a Canadian religious landscape struggling to maintain relevance.
Recently released data from Statistics Canada shows only 68 per cent of Canadians 15 or older have a religious affiliation. It’s the first time religiosity in Canada has dipped below 70 per cent since StatCan began tracking the data in 1985.
In response, Global News has spent the past two months speaking to members of religious communities across the country and looking at historical data to determine why this is happening. This is part three of that series.
- Part One: Why some religions are declining in Canada faster than ever
- Part Two: Islam, Sikhism and why immigration drives religion in Canada: ‘It’s the curriculum of our life’
The decline is predominantly seen in Christian denominations — as opposed to minority religions such as Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism which are experiencing strong growth, fuelled by immigration.
But some denominations wonder if COVID-19 could provide a desperately needed Hail Mary.
Membership ‘spurt’ due to pandemic
In Judaism, some synagogues are reporting COVID-induced growth. At Beth Sholom, in Toronto, Stan Grossman, chair of the ritual committee, says the pandemic has provided a “spurt” in memberships that meant their roll was now holding steady. The members they had lost had largely been due to deaths.
For Jews, in-person services are important. If a minyan isn’t achieved (a minimum of 10 people present), then certain prayers can’t be said. When the synagogue reopened in mid-2021 after its closure due to COVID-19, Beth Sholom struggled to achieve a minyan on numerous occasions. This was particularly difficult for mourners, Grossman says, who must recite the Kaddish prayer daily during the shiva (the seven-day mourning ritual).
It means that while virtual services were necessary during the synagogue’s closure, with a $16,000 camera system donated by a non-Jew, Beth Sholom’s leadership are grappling with how to get people back through the doors, safely.
Holy Blossom Temple, another of Toronto’s largest Jewish congregations, on the other hand, is embracing its new virtual offering. On a Tuesday night in early December, its menorah is lit for Hanukkah with just two young men in the room and 15 people connecting on Zoom.
Rabbi Yael Splansky says online services have increased attendance numbers. Some have even joined from further afield.
Jennifer Malvin, who lives in Los Angeles, joined Holy Blossom in 2020 and attends services regularly.
“I was looking for an online service in the morning and I found this wonderful community,” she says.
“And I never looked back.”
‘A paradigm shift has happened’
The outlook is looking similarly rosy for the Anglican Church of Canada, according to Neil Elliot, its statistics and research officer.
While Elliot had produced a somewhat bleak report in 2019, predicting the church’s membership would die out completely by 2040, Elliot now says “the state of Anglicanism is probably the healthiest its been in a long time.”
Up to 90 per cent of Anglican churches were now doing online services, Elliot says, which provides opportunities for the future.
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“They’re not using the services that they used to, the one people probably grew up with — turn to this page in the book, and you know exactly what’s going to be said — that’s gone out the window for a lot of people. And I mean, my church, we’ve been using a whole range of different songs from YouTube, and putting them into a bulletin,” he says.
People who have moved away from their local parish can now continue ties over Zoom or report being part of several congregations, he says, which was never considered a possibility before now.
This has led to a significant rise in membership in some churches and a decline in others, but a large proportion of that is likely overlap as people join multiple congregations, Elliot says.
How COVID-19 has changed the Anglican church in Canada
“COVID has been a catalyst or a trigger for a pent-up change that was ready to emerge,” he wrote in a report in February 2021.
“A paradigm shift has happened; there is no going back to pre-pandemic patterns of church life.”
Church services could change forever
Elliot conducted a survey of clergy and laypeople in 2021 to gauge their outlook on a return to in-person services and how the pandemic had influenced their faith.
It showed that 74 per cent of lay people want a return to pre-pandemic levels of worship but only 37 per cent expect it to return to how it was. One-third of all respondents wanted to keep virtual church in some capacity. Over the course of the pandemic, motivation to serve God had increased in 38 per cent of people and decreased in 23 per cent.
One point of contention was the practice of communion, the Christian rite performed during mass involving the eating of bread and drinking of wine, reenacting the Last Supper. Traditionally, this could only be performed by an ordained priest.
However, during the pandemic, some churches had begun to offer communion at home. But, three-quarters of Elliot’s respondents did not think lay people should be allowed to administer the rite in their own homes going forward.
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Another problem arose in the fact that communion involves the sharing of one cup.
Thirty seven per cent of respondents said they would no longer share the cup at a church service and 40 per cent would share it.
This was a “substantial shift” from the communion movement which has “dominated [Christianity] for almost a century,” Elliot wrote.
But Elliot said he had been impressed with the variety of online service offerings and the way it had forced clergy to get creative and thus, attract new membership.
“Over the last year, I have been convinced, that through COVID, God is giving us an unprecedented opportunity for change,” Eliot wrote, in a report on his findings.
“For the past 16 years I have been living with church decline in one of the most secular regions of Canada. In the last year I have seen the church in my area show unprecedented new life and creativity.”
People are ‘searching for hope’
Members of the United Church, which has experienced similar rates of decline as the Anglican Church, are also cautiously optimistic.
Reverend Jason Meyers, of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church, says the pandemic has actually strengthened some people’s faith, as they search for “hope and healing.”
The church had responded by committing to virtual services, a concept that had been resisted for a long time.
“A traditional mantra that you hear in churches is, ‘We’ve never done it that way before — we can’t do it,’ and so that has been completely thrown out the window. And the church has certainly had to pivot and adapt and evolve,” he says.
Metropolitan had installed a state-of-the art camera system to keep services going. Each church service now consists of about 200 people: 50 in-person, 50 watching online and 100 watching it later, some time during the week.
Lynn Patterson, a longtime Metropolitan member, says while logging on virtually to begin with was “exciting,” mostly due to the ease and lack of travel time, many people were now craving the person-to-person connections and community that church services provide.
“As time drifted on and months drifted on, I remember dialing in and weeping through services about how I missed this place,” Patterson says.
Jehovah’s Witnesses change tack
For some more evangelical religions, membership was noticeably up during the pandemic.
A spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada, James Dumeignil, says the denomination grew to 117,788 in 2021 from 114,573 members in 2020. The average number of attendees at meetings was 113,379 from September 2019 to February 2020, and from September 2020 to August 2021, it was now 132,034.
It was a quantum leap for a religion that relies on door-knocking, in-person services and outreach — all of which were outlawed during the pandemic — to accrue members.
So, for the past two years, Dumeignil says they’ve focused on letter writing and phone calls to reach people, instead. He admits it’s had mixed success.
“The one-on-one approach is better — over the phone we don’t know what the circumstances people are in,” Dumeignil says.
Church says virtual services protect entire community
However, not everyone holds optimistic views over a rejuvenated connection with religion due to the pandemic.
Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches sociology at the University of Waterloo, believes the decline could actually have been accelerated, due to the older demographics of churchgoers being disproportionately being affected, or killed, by COVID.
“The question was, was COVID going to drive back a whole bunch of people to the churches, with all the insecurity and potential of death and disease? And in the end, the first numbers are coming out now, it’s kind of the opposite. Obviously, the church buildings had to shut down. And so everything went virtual, and some of those people are going to go back to in-person, but now the question is, are some of them just not going to bother anymore?”
Religion not considered ‘essential’
Wilkins-Laflamme says religious congregations had also been adversely affected by not being considered an “essential service.” This had caused debate between religious leaders around what “essential” actually meant.
“They’re seen as a choice now and the real services are the ones provided by the government, or the professional bodies. That’s the change that’s happened over the last 100, 150 years about what we value.”
This had been especially difficult for minority religions, where places of worship are a central hub for the community.
Ontario Sikhs and Gudwara Council (OSGC) secretary Manjit Parmar said the organization had repeatedly appealed to the province to be allowed to stay open in the early days of the pandemic, predominantly for other services the temple provides.
For example, Parmar says Sikhs tend not to see therapists. “If they have a problem they come to the gurdwara. It’s so much more than just a place of worship.”
It had also meant that the gurus, who are usually flown over from India for a period of six months to perform at Sikh services, became stranded.
At the Gursikh Sabha Canada in the eastern part of Toronto, three gurus from India, who were supposed to stay for six months, have now been stuck here for close to 18 months.
But the congregation had managed to weather the storm in other ways. The community banded together in the early days of the pandemic, Parmar says, organizing food parcels to be sent around the area as the gurdwara’s kitchen remained shuttered.
Members young and old also continued to give money so donations remained stable. Gursikh Sabha Canada also had a close to 100 per cent vaccination rate, Parmar says, as people knew the importance of getting things back up and running again.
Non-Christian religions to double by 2036
By 2036, StatCan predicts that the number of people affiliated with non-Christian religions could almost double — particularly the Muslim, Sikh and Hindhu faiths.
Rania Lawendy, national director of the Muslim Association of Canada, says that projection is true for Islam. The pandemic had also brought people closer to their faith.
“People have spent a lot more time with the Qur’an [over the pandemic]. It brought us closer to God. It didn’t take us further away.”
Being a religion that revolves around the mosque, the pandemic meant Islamic congregations had to get creative. Lawendy says special care was taken to ensure virtual services were as authentic as possible. The online Eid celebration (which commemorates the end of Ramadan) had 40,000 viewers across the country.
Abide Kazemipur, a University of Calgary sociologist and the chair in ethnic studies, says the pandemic could have accelerated changes in some religions, particular in minority groups.
For that reason, he believes the state of religion, heading into 2022, is healthy.
“People think that the contents of religion, and the way that people relate to religion is very static. And there is this body of instructions and rules or regulations that are there. And people just attach to it, and it’s accepted or rejected. But the reality is much more complex than that,” he says.
“In a lot of cases, people develop their own customized version of religion, they go and pick the elements that work better for them, which help them make sense of the world that they’re living in. So it is a very dynamic process.”