When Will We Worship Together Again?
To rectors and clergy,
Greetings in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I know that this season of coronavirus exile is very hard. I am reminded of Psalm 137, the song of the exiles: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion…How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?”
Many of you have asked when will we be able to worship together again as usual. For the moment, the only marker I can give you is whether public schools are back in session. Once the children return to school, many of the current and very necessary efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus will be essentially ending, for better or worse. But of course each state or locality can still limit public gatherings.
As of yesterday, Florida schools will not reopen before April 15. As far as I can see online, Alabama schools are closed at least until April 6, and Georgia schools at least until April 1, but those closures will almost certainly be extended. Atlanta for example has already extended the date until April 13 for its school system.
What does this mean for our churches?
I think I can say at least this for now (but of course anything could change at any point):
- We should not hold public worship until after schools are back in session. We must trust our local governments in their discernment. Of course, if schools decide that they have reached a time when there is no point in reopening this spring, we will need to look for other signs that our state and local governments have essentially declared an “all clear.” One marker may be the reopening of colleges, which have summer sessions. In any case, any “all clear” will only mean that the threat of coronavirus has diminished, not that it has been eradicated. The Federal government seems to be sending mixed signals at the moment, but it will be local decisions that must be determinative. Pray for those in authority to have wisdom facing this crisis.
- Holding regular public Easter Day services will not be possible or at least wise anywhere in our diocese. At the moment, outdoor as well as indoor gatherings of more than ten people are not permitted, so planning to worship outdoors is not an option. The College of Bishops and your deans are working on alternatives, thinking through various ways for people to receive communion on Easter or the days following. But to reiterate what I wrote before, it is not acceptable to try to somehow consecrate elements online.
- Do not try to guess ahead about what your local or state officials will do and when. As we learned with the school closures, they made decisions at what seemed like the last minute, late on a Friday afternoon. It is certainly possible that the probable announcements to extend the school closures will come at inconvenient times. Wait until a clear announcement is given to reopen schools or colleges before you make a similar announcement to your congregation. And try to give your people at least five days notice.
- When you reopen, the earlier protocols to protect congregants’ health should stay in place. Some people will want everything to be “normal” as soon as you reconvene. But others will be extremely nervous to be returning. Some will not return out of caution, and will want online streaming to continue. Please be sensitive to all groups. Communion in one kind should therefore still be offered along with a pastorally sensitive means of intinction. It would be pastorally inappropriate to use a cup for intinction that others are drinking from. Passing the Peace should still be without physical contact for at least a season. (I would not recommend the serving of food for the first several weeks.)
- People who are ill or recovering should still be told not to attend until they are fully well for a significant period of time. I would assume that those who have had the coronavirus should wait two weeks at a minimum, but I hope we will know more about that as we move ahead. It will still be wise to tell elderly or vulnerable members to wait to return as well. The threat will not disappear overnight.
I have recommended that you consider having a duplicate Easter morning service as your first public service together, regardless of the date you reconvene after Easter. The people may have heard the hymns and the “Christ is Risen” declarations in an online service, but there is no substitute for singing and saying them as a body of Christ back together. In any case, start planning your reunion Sunday now.
I will keep you updated as best as I can. Many of our rectors and ministry leaders are participating in a voluntary, weekly Zoom call to discuss ministry planning during COVID-19. This week (Thursday morning at 11:00 EDT) we will discuss connecting with the elderly, Communion guidelines, and planning for Holy Week. I look forward to being with those on the call. You can also see a list of past and upcoming Zoom calls here.
Please text or call me if you have any questions.
May the Lord bless you all richly!
The Rt. Rev. Neil G. Lebhar