Dear Companions on the Journey,
As I’m sure you well recall, I put emergency measures into place for this pandemic in March of this year, with in-person worship being suspended in most churches on March 15 and in all churches by March 22. This emergency approach stayed in place into the summer, even as Journey Forward guidelines were issued in June. These guidelines permitted a return to in-person worship for congregations interested and able to do so. Staying completely online or remote continues to be an absolutely acceptable way to worship.
In August, my own perspective on this began to shift, and I started to see this pandemic in different terms. We needed to shift from emergency footing to learning how to live in pandemic for the next year or more. Living with COVID is different than just trying to hang on or get through an immediate crisis. Long-term crisis requires a different approach, especially when we are facing multiple other crises at the same time: political tension, civil unrest, natural disaster, and racial injustice. Ongoing life and ministry look different in a long-term approach. We have different questions now than when we started – and the shape that the answers take may be different as well.
I have been particularly thinking about three areas of questions: Communion, Convention, and Confirmation. Other questions will come up as we make our way through this time of living with COVID. Here is the starting information on these three areas; more details will be forthcoming.
While many of our churches are returning to in-person worship, not all are doing so or can do so. Not all churches gathering in-person are celebrating Holy Eucharist. In any case, every congregation has people who cannot and should not go to a public gathering during pandemic, even if a portion of the congregation is attending in-person Communion services. It has been very clear to me that there is a great desire for people to receive Communion. I have continued to refrain from receiving Communion myself throughout this time, keeping in mind that many people across the diocese are unable to receive. I also recognize the responsibility that I and our clergy have to administer the sacraments to the people.
I want to ensure that everyone in the Diocese of Newark has the opportunity to receive Communion at least three times in this program year, on three particular Sundays. The first proposed Sunday for this Diocesan Communion is All Saints’ Day, November 1*; the other two dates are TBD. I have asked Canon Wright to gather a small group to make plans for November 1 and you will hear more about that soon. My intention and hope is that every congregation will be involved and that every member in the diocese will be given an opportunity to receive on these three days.
* Since publication, this date has been changed to Sunday, November 8.
Part of the challenge to our institutional life is the apparent NJ requirement that all annual meetings, including Diocesan Convention, be held with voting members physically present. Gathering as we usually would do at the end of January, as wonderful as that has been in other years, would be reckless and unsafe at present. The Rules of Order Committee has reminded me that our diocesan Constitution and Canons allow me to determine a different date for Convention, if needed. It’s needed. I am delaying Diocesan Convention 2021 until July 2021. This will be a one-day Convention, held outdoors following all of the safety protocols that we know so well (distancing, face coverings, etc.). In-person attendance will need to be a quorum for Convention, at least, and keeping those gathered in-person to a smaller group than we normally would see. The proceedings will be live-streamed for all those not gathered in person.
Confirmation in pandemic, as we usually conduct it, creates the risk of multiple super-spreader events, since I have to be in close proximity to every confirmand, laying on hands. Confirmation services have been large gatherings in the past as well, which creates greater risk for us. It was simply unsafe to hold those services during Eastertide this year, so they were postponed.
Postponing the Confirmation services has created an opportunity for an additional time of reflection and formation for our 2020 confirmands. This extended Confirmation Year allows a deeper engagement with our faith, much like the catechumenal model used for centuries for formation of new Christians or those renewing their faith. Three online gatherings will be offered to our 2020 confirmands to go deeper in their faith formation, along with other resources that we can explore together. The first of these gatherings will be in early December, as Advent begins.
Confirmation services will hopefully resume in July 2021. These services will be conducted outdoors and will be smaller-sized gatherings than is usual for us. We will schedule as many services as necessary until all of our 2020 participants have been Confirmed, Received, or have Reaffirmed their faith, followed by those being prepared currently for 2021.
Changing how we ask the questions we face is an important shift for our diocese at this time. We will likely be challenged by this pandemic, one way or another, all the way through 2021. Perhaps we will see relief sooner than that, but we should prepare to go through 2021 with measures that allow us to do our ministry, to work on our mission, and to continue to grow in our faith.
Grace and peace,