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Tennessee leads nation in case rate, Episcopal churches permit in-person worship

Tennessee leads nation in case rate, Episcopal churches permit in-person worship

Tennessee has the highest average daily Covid-19 case rate for the last 7 days at 123.5 per 100,000. (California is second with 113.3 per 100,000, Oklahoma third at 85.3 per 100,000.) (Source: NYT) Across the state Covid-19 case rates have grown quickly over the last four weeks. In nearly all counties the chance of an infectious person in a random group of 10 is at least 4 in 10. In many counties, the chances exceed 5 in 10. This risk assessment tool calculates these risks for every U.S. county.

Have Episcopal dioceses in the state adjusted their advice on in-person worship?

From their websites it appears all three Episcopal dioceses in the state — East Tennessee, Tennessee, and West Tennessee —  allow in-person worship with precautions, although West Tennessee this week further limited in-person worship to 10 persons.

Diocese of East Tennessee: In a December 2nd blog post, Covid-19 Reminder, Bishop Brian Cole wrote,

In this Advent, we are also trusting there is much encouraging news regarding COVID vaccines and improved treatments. It is not foolish to believe that 2021 could be a time when we are able to gather safely in all the ways we have in the past. While we wait, we do so at the beginning of a very hard winter, when COVID numbers are increasing and more and more of us know people who have been impacted directly by the pandemic. It is as if we are climbing a hill in the Appalachian region together and before we ascend to a post-pandemic top, we still have some frustrating false peaks to pass over.

The Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force wants to remind all of you that their guidelines for gathering for in-person worship envisioned this very moment. The process they outlined acknowledged that steps moving forward for in-person worship could also take a pause and even go backwards (sic), as public health facts on the ground change. The Task Force continues to value that decision-making for gathering safely for in-person worship will remain at the parish level, in consultation with me, your bishop. While still endorsing that value, please know this is a critical time to re-examine your plans for gathering for in-person worship, if you are doing so, and make sure your process is consistent with current CDC guidelines.

Diocese of Tennessee: In an updated pastoral letter dated November 24, Bishop John Bauerschmidt wrote,

We have also been able, in many contexts since May, to find prudent ways forward for public, in person worship. The combined protocols of physical distancing, consistent masking, and hand washing, have been a blessing in preventing infection.

As the rate of infection from the Coronavirus increases throughout our state, and across our nation, this is a time for additional watchfulness and alertness on the part of our members. We must be on our guard. This is not a time to relax the protocols that have served us well. I ask you to continue to pay attention to the public health measures outlined in “The Wilderness Road: Acts 8. In this coming season, I ask you to continue to be alert; to be mindful and careful of others; above all, to practice faith, hope, and love.

Emphasis in the original; link added.

Experts emphasize adequate fresh air or filtered air in addition to physical distancing and masking to protect against the airborne virus.

Diocese of West Tennessee: In a Covid-19 Update dated December 21st, Bishop Phoebe Roaf writes,

A Message from the Bishop Regarding In-Person Worship from The Diocese of West Tennessee on Vimeo.

To our diocesan family,

I come before you today after reviewing the most recent directives from Governor Lee and the Shelby County Health Department as well as guidance from advisors.  We are all aware of the rapidly increasing stresses on our health care system given the rise in COVID-19 cases.  The protocols put in place by our respective faith communities beginning in June have served us very well.  To my knowledge, there has been no coronavirus transmission from church attendance thus far, and I want to thank our church leaders for their diligence in ensuring the safety of all persons involved.

However, the Christmas holiday season will put extra pressure on an already stressed system.  The diocesan leadership team has been paying close attention to health information from across the country and here in Tennessee since Thanksgiving.  We are concerned that because persons are engaging in more activities which increase the possibility of exposure to coronavirus, someone may inadvertently spread COVID-19.  The consequences of a failure in the system at this point would be significant.

Therefore, as part of our Christian witness and our responsibility for the health and safety of the larger community, I am asking all faith communities in the Diocese of West Tennessee to temporarily suspend in person worship and indoor activities with more than 10 persons for at least the next several weeks.

My heart is heavy as I share this decision during this most holy season of the year.  I know many of you were looking forward to gathering in community to celebrate the birth of our Lord later this week.  May God continue to give us a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit as we navigate these difficult days.


Bishop Phoebe Roaf


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Scott Arnold

So many of the West Tennessee parishes are tiny structures, like my family’s home church of St. Matthew’s in Covington. Ten persons sounds reasonable for them. St. Luke’s Jackson, and most of the Memphis churches are much larger, so not certain why only 10 for them. However, the point is to keep people safe so I’m all for any measures that do that. I’m in the Diocese of Alabama and we probably need a similar plan.

Eric Bonetti

In my former parish, in-person worship is suspended. So what did they do? Have a streaming service with several people in the choir, spread apart, wearing masks. Singing is risky, even with masks, and if there is any meaning to the message of Christmas, it’s to care for those around you.

People simply do not get it.

Emily Pratt

The diocese of West TN suspended in person worship this week.

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