Bishop Hughes wrote this article at the invitation of The Church of England Newspaper, where it will be published on Friday, September 25.
What a relief the late summer was in my diocese. The intensity of the COVID-19 emergency response was behind us. We had mourned, lamented, protested, and beseeched God for mercy. For the first time in August it seemed we could catch our breath.
In the relative quiet of late summer, we recognized that our journey with pandemic had taken a turn. We were no longer trying to get though an emergency. Instead we began to see that we will live with this pandemic for many months and perhaps years. It was a sobering time as we let go of the hope that disruption and death would end soon, and normal life would return.
With this new awareness came acceptance of our current situation. We have no idea when the pandemic will end. It is a relief to face that fact. And because we have accepted the ongoing nature of this virus, we have begun asking new questions about our lives and ministries.
How are we to live with COVID-19 and worship? Online worship started in mid-March as an emergency response, and over time our parishes have developed video production skills and become wildly creative. We are grateful for the many people who make online worship happen and the connection it provides.
Still, many have remarked that is not the same as being in church. There is a need to see each other face to face.
As restrictions eased, we stayed online and began experimenting with gathering in person. While there are guidelines for all parishes to follow, each parish determines what works best in their circumstances. Some parishes will remain online for the duration of the pandemic due to members and/or clergy with increased risk factors. Some parishes gather for Sunday worship while streaming the service for those that cannot gather. Several have opted to keep Sunday morning online and meet for Evening Prayer or Bible study on a different day of the week.
Most in-person services have taken place outside. This past Sunday dawned with an unseasonable cold, which made planning winter worship more pressing.
For churches with no ventilation, indoor worship is limited to the warmer months. Those churches have already prepared to return to online worship only. Summer has given them time to upgrade audio visual equipment for live streaming services.
Several parishes are considering the church version of a pandemic bubble or pod -- the house church. This will take careful planning and a covenant within the group to observe the same health protocols. The members of these house churches will care for each other’s health and spiritual lives. Not everyone will be able to do this in person. Some will be online. These smaller groups will give parishioners the place to be in relationship with each other that so many miss.
How are we to live with COVID-19 and ministry in our neighborhoods? Last spring, much of our ministry was put on hold temporarily due to safety protocols. As it resumes, we are asking "how do we live with COVID-19?" at every meeting and gathering, during prayers and Bible studies. That question is changing everything about our ministry.
The 16.9% unemployment rate in New Jersey is significantly higher than the rest of the United States. New Jersey had an early and difficult experience with the pandemic. Lives and jobs were lost swiftly in late March through May. In July, the phased reopening of businesses began, but many could not reopen, and others reopened with reduced service.
The growing food insecurity issue was underestimated by public, private, and religious sectors. All our parish food ministries have experienced increased need. Based on reductions to unemployment benefits, it is reasonable to expect food needs to multiply. While it makes sense to respond to the food crisis with fundraisers and food drives, we feel compelled to explore other options.
Could all members of the food community work together to end hunger in New Jersey? Can farmers, grocers, restaurant owners, churches, food banks, and caterers draw upon their collective experience to find alternatives to food pantries? Is it possible to create jobs while providing low or no cost food? How can we work together with other faith traditions, non-profit organizations, businesses, and government organizations to meet the current emergency? We hope the answers will lead to a united force in our communities that feeds the physical body and nourishes the weariness of spirit experienced with prolonged lack of work.
How are we to live with COVID-19 and the trouble besetting our nation? We are a nation divided and not solely by extremists. These divides reach into our churches and many find it hard to agree to disagree about politics. Even more pressing is the killing of black people due to excessive policing. Alongside these deaths stand the twin challenges of systemic racism and white supremacy. Months of political upheaval and protests have demanded our prayers, attention, and action.
We are convinced that changing the world starts in our own community. Our question is simple: how do we end systemic racism and white supremacy in Northern New Jersey? The Diocese of Newark has engaged in anti-racism training for many years, yet we have not evaluated the systemic racism in our own policies, procedures, and processes.
We have no record of our racial history. From time to time anecdotal stories of church division by race will surface, but nothing in our archives documents this. And we have not ever broached the complicated issue of white supremacy. Pandemic has given us impetus, space, and time to pursue a more just community, society, nation, and church. We have much work to do.
The challenges of pandemic, both the known and the yet to be discovered, will continue. There are no absolute answers to our questions. The deep prayers of the first six months of pandemic have strengthen our ability to rely on God’s guidance, the love of Jesus, and the leading of the Spirit. How do we live with COVID-19? With God’s help.