Manitoba

Church of God appears to gather again, despite group size limits

A southeastern Manitoba church — which repeatedly flouted public health orders banning worship services last year — appears to have held an illegal in-person service on Sunday.

'I think it's time to celebrate our gathering,' speaker says in livestreamed service showing multiple people

More than 40 kids are grouped closely together without masks as the Church of God in the RM of Hanover appears to resume in-person services. (Facebook/Church of God Steinbach)

A southeastern Manitoba church — which repeatedly flouted public health orders banning worship services last year — appears to have held an illegal in-person service on Sunday.

Under Manitoba's public health orders, places of worship can hold virtual or drive-in services, but no gatherings indoors.

However, a livestream on the Facebook page of Church of God located near Sarto, Man., showed well over the five people legally permitted to run a virtual religious service, including more than 40 kids at one point, none of whom were wearing a mask or physical distancing. 

The video is directed at the stage and never shows the audience, but viewers can hear people clapping and shouting.

At the start of the service, the applause from parishioners nearly drowned out the voice of the speaker for a moment.

"What a beautiful sight we have before us here this morning," said the man, who didn't identify himself.

Time to gather again: church speaker

"The scriptures talk a lot about how we should be gathering together and it seems like a lot of us haven't been gathering for some time, and this morning I think it's time to celebrate our gathering," the speaker said in the livestreamed video. 

Pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt said his church, which is located some 15 kilometres south of Steinbach, has become fed up with Manitoba outlawing in-person worship services. The ban has lasted for almost three months.

"They keep pushing it up, keep pushing it up [without] enough data to back it up," he said in an interview. "And we feel a great need to get together" as a church.

An RCMP spokesperson said officers were not present during the service, but the force is investigating the matter. The limit on indoor gatherings was instituted by public health officials to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Members of the Church of God, near Sarto, Man., lead the congregation in song. Manitoba is so far banning indoor church services in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. (Facebook/Church of God Steinbach)

Late last year, multiple fines were levelled against the RM of Hanover church and its ministers for running an indoor service and later drive-in services when both were prohibited.

The church argued that banning their gatherings was an infringement on their right to practise their faith.

By December, the province began permitting churches to worship in their parking lots if people stayed in their vehicles. The Church of God was doing that every week — until Sunday.

An aerial view of vehicles in the parking lot while Church of God held a church service last November. The church was subsequently fined for holding a service when it was illegal. (Submitted)

Hildebrandt said his church changed its mind after seeing more news stories across Canada of parishioners being ticketed for trying to worship in community. 

"It just kind of pushes me over the edge," he said. 

Hildebrandt charged that other religious leaders were also tiring of these restrictions.

"There's other Christian communities that are beginning to see what's happening and that are starting to … take chances and speak out against some of these things that are happening."

Last year, the Church of God was joined in its defiance of the provincial rules by Springs Church in Winnipeg, which sought a court injunction to continue holding drive-in services. A judge ruled against the church's plea, but Manitoba eventually changed its public health order anyway to permit drive-in services.

Some religious leaders have denounced the churches for disregarding the rules.

Back in November, fines were handed out for an in-person service at Church of God that drew roughly 100 people.

The controversy boiled over the following week when RCMP blocked the entrance to the church's parking lot, while more than 100 vehicles waited along the highway. A confrontation ensued between police and some of the church's supporters.

In late November, RCMP blocked people from entering the Church of God located near Sarto to prevent the church from going ahead with its planned indoor service. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

On Sunday, Hildebrandt refused to state how many people were watching that morning's service indoors, if any. 

In addition to the more than 40 youth singing, the video also shows six to eight adults leading the congregation in song. 

The province will reveal an update on COVID-19 enforcement penalties on Tuesday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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