Dear Companions on the Journey of Faith,
“Instead of each person watching out for their own good,
watch out for what is better for others.” Philippians 2:4
This week, guidelines for indoor worship and gatherings have been published for the use of all the churches of our diocese. We can all be grateful for the Journey Forward Team’s hard work. Co-chaired by the Rev. Vicki McGrath, All Saints’, Millington and Ms. Pat McKenzie, Church of the Saviour, Denville, this group researched and reflected on the challenges and needs of our congregations at worship.
The guidelines and planning forms they created are important tools for helping every congregation to decide when and how to begin in-person worship. I expect discussions and planning about in-person worship to take time on the parish level. Parish leadership will have the ongoing support of my office to answer questions and discern next steps.
We all wish COVID-19 had gone forever from our midst, but it has not. While the stay at home order was successful in its intended goal, lowering hospitalizations, it did not bring a cure or vaccine for this virus. Though distancing protocols are relaxed, safety is not guaranteed. The assumption of risk has fallen squarely on each individual, therefore also on each individual congregation in our diocese.
In the last few months, our ability to be the church has grown stronger. Our relationships with God and each other have become more vital and meaningful. Care for the communities surrounding us expanded to include the needs of the most vulnerable. We have been shocked by the murders of young black people in the last few weeks and registered our protest, grief, and great desire for change. We have watched out for each other and we became aware of ways in which essential workers watched out for us.
We have seen the sacrifice of people supporting our safety by delivering groceries and goods, staffing health care facilities, and maintaining services like electricity, garbage removal, and public transit. For many reasons, including needing to take care of their own families, they do work that ensures others can stay safely at home. In doing so, they prioritize our needs over their own.
Their example is a strong model for us to remember. In-person worship will require all of us, clergy and laity alike, to prioritize the needs of others over our own. It is not simply our own safety we watch over, is it the safety of all those we interact with at home, church, work, and school.
Some questions to consider:
- Have you been tested for COVID-19 or antibodies?
- How much exposure to other people have you had before worship? How much will you have after worship?
- Are you in a high-risk group due to age, underlying medical conditions, or ethnic group?
- While parishes will follow guidelines and do what they can to lower risks, gathering in groups, especially while sitting still, carries a risk of infection. Are you ready to take that risk? Is your family?
I have strongly encouraged all churches to continue online worship even when providing in-person worship. I have also encouraged clergy who are in high risk groups to take their own health seriously, and I have indicated some congregations may be nowhere near being ready to resume in-person worship. Some members of our congregations already know that they cannot join in-person gatherings of any kind, including worship. Others may find that at times they have had enough exposure for the week or month and need to worship at home for a period of time.
While it is thought that outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings, all public gatherings put one at risk of infection. Each of us will have to assess the risk we can tolerate each week. Most importantly, all of us have learned how to love our neighbors in new and lasting ways in the last few months. How we respond to the lack of a treatment and vaccine remind us that we are Christians, known for our love of God and all God’s people.
I trust that God who has seen us through challenge, grief, loss, frustration, joy, hope, and a renewed sense of faith will guide us to take care of each other as we continue the journey forward into the church God needs us to be.
Grace and peace,