Message From Bishop Russell: Extension of Suspension of Worship
One Body, One Faith Dear people of the Episcopal Church in the Central Gulf Coast, “Alleluia. Christ is risen!” Due to the furious and fast way that the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed our country, shifting from in-person public worship required very quick decisions. I am deeply grateful for the creative and compassionate ways your clergy and vestries responded and thank you for the remarkable ways in which you have adapted. Even now, one of the positive consequences that has emerged is the use of daily prayer, and so much of what is being offered is being led by folks who are usually in the pews. And too, I have heard so many stories of our congregations providing food, making face coverings, organizing pastoral care teams, offering online Bible studies, writing thank you cards to health care workers. You are proclaiming your baptismal ministry in powerful ways. Thank you. In last Sunday’s sermon, I focused my thoughts on the verse from the Gospel when the two defeated disciples on their way to Emmaus say to the yet unrecognized Jesus, “We had hoped.” Indeed, I had hoped we would be ready to reopen our buildings and return for worship in a grand and glorious Easter manner. Such is not the case. However, knowing what we know today, we do have the opportunity to reopen and return in a far more proactive and careful manner. To that end, a little over a week ago, I met via ZOOM with some 25 clergy in three different meetings to listen to their thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns about returning to in-person worship. They were very helpful conversations, and in all three meetings there was a strong consensus that now is not the time to reopen our buildings. There was also a lot of energy and creativity discussing ideas for how such worship might happen when we do return. From those conversations, last week I appointed a group of clergy to take the ideas from those meetings and recommend a path forward. The group is comprised of The Revs. David Knight [chair], Greg Hein, Michael Hoffman, Cindy Howard, Will Lowry, Mary Alice Mathison, and John Riggin. My charge to them was two-fold. I asked them to recommend to me a new date for a return to in-person worship, and to offer guidelines for that worship. At the bottom of this letter are the notes from their first meeting. This is NOT a finished product, but I wanted you to see and recognize the concern, wisdom, and care of their deliberations. Their most important recommendation is that the current suspension for in-person worship and gatherings be extended until Sunday, May 31, the Feast of Pentecost. They go on to say that date may need to be extended even further. The group is clear that we wait, watch, and utilize data from reliable health and medical sources to guide our decisions. I am grateful that Dr. Bert Eichold, a member of Christ Church Cathedral and the Mobile County Health Officer, has agreed to be such a resource to us. I have accepted the group’s recommendation. All in-person, public worship in our diocese is suspended until at least May 31, 2020. Secondly, I asked the group to design a resource for congregations to use when designing and developing in-person worship that is appropriate to local contexts, while also holding to the following shared concerns:
Safety: To provide parameters that will convey to our people that we have taken reasonable precautions for personal safety. i.e. Face coverings, distancing, limited interaction, sanitization.
Staged: To set a gradual, phased process for worship that returns to our usual rhythm and practices as conditions improve, per recommendations made by the medical/public health community.
Standard: Worship that allows flexibility while honoring our common theology of worship.
I want to underline one further point made to me by the group. There was strong consensus that our way forward be done so as one body. In other words, all congregations will wait until we can all reopen in some manner concurrently and in unity. I cannot fully express in a few words my gratitude for their thorough and quick response to my charge, and I commend their initial report to you. Please remember this is a work in progress. They will continue to meet and help us chart a way forward. In the meantime, let us continue to walk this way together, knowing that one day soon we will gather together at the table in Emmaus. It is my prayer that just as it was for those weary followers, we too will be able at that table, to reflect on our journey and find that even then, “were not our hearts burning within us.” Stay safe. Love your neighbor. And God’s Peace be with you.
The Rt. Rev. Russell Kendrick
Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast
The Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
Returning Home Task Force
Notes from our 1st meeting, April 21, 2020
We all recognize we are dealing with a moving target. With some of our neighbors opening up their states very quickly, we have an opportunity (perhaps unfortunately) to assess the impact of such decisions. We know we can do the best we can to mitigate risk while remembering we cannot remove all risk. We know every church has its own unique characteristics that play into these decisions. And we agree there are a few things that would be helpful for the Bishop to decide for us.
With the “until May 3rd” suspension of in-house worship coming to an end soon, we have the following recommendation. Our suggestion is to not attempt public worship until Pentecost, May 31st. But even that date cannot be concrete, as more information comes to us. To that end, we think it would be important to adhere to the CDC guidelines for Phase II of the reopen, which includes allowing gatherings of 50 or less. The CDC criteria is based on evidence and gives us a way to mitigate risk the best we can. Should Phase II not be obtainable by Pentecost, we would need to push the date down the road. Most of us feel we need a date to shoot for, and the people would appreciate that, even if it is a longer wait. Saying that, most of us have heard from our people they are not interested in doing this too soon.
This waiting period will give us time to come up with guidelines for churches to use in how they can offer in-house worship. These will include outdoor services, spacing of participants and altar / choir parties, use of face masks, etc. The concern over singing is valid and if we allow the congregants to sing, we need to adjust the space between each (from 6 feet to 15 feet). Certainly, the same for any choir members present.
This is one area where the Bishop may need to step in. We may need to have pre-recorded music for a time, and it could be a long time.
We also need the Bishop’s guidance on what the services should look like. No cup? No communion at all? Specific decisions regarding worship certainly should come from the Bishop, but the committee is happy to help with the decision process if need be.
The entire committee was opposed to the idea of staggering the re-opening - either across state lines or based on size of the congregation.
The committee discussed some practical ideas around outdoor services, especially the challenge of streaming them (one idea being you record an indoor service for those who cannot make it). And we tossed around some ideas on how to divide our congregations amongst several worship service times, if needed. We can save those ideas for the prep work to come.
The committee expressed concern for clergy and lay leaders in the long haul. We all believe this new normal will be with us for quite a long time. What is sustainable? How do we care for the clergy and lay leadership?
We also encourage the diocesan office to continue (while paying attention to the same questions above) a resource role (like the excellent Holy Week at Home materials), but not so much a “replacement” role, other than where clergy sharing may be offered.
We have committed to examining and working on some sort of guidelines churches should use in preparation for public worship, something similar to the 24 questions material, but also something that may need to be geared towards church size. Sharing these guidelines and check lists with vestries would be important as collaborative partners with the clergy in making this all happen.