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Reopening Churches? Not So Fast

Reopening Churches? Not So Fast

Faith leaders, Episcopal and otherwise, have been far less enthusiastic this week about the prospects of returning to business as usual. That has been especially true in Georgia, following the governor’s announcement that businesses would be allowed to open over the course of the next several days. From our friends at ENS:

The prospect of physically gathering in church for a worship service would have been unthinkable for most Episcopal congregations just a month ago, after the escalating coronavirus pandemic set off a wave of suspensions, cancelations, postponements and closures across The Episcopal Church. Dioceses and many congregations have compensated by stepping up their online liturgical offerings, so parishioners still can practice their faith together while abiding by social-distancing guidelines.

Even now, the idea of reversing such precautions is unsettling to some Episcopalians. On April 20, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp held a news conference to announce his decision to begin reopening the state on April 24, including its churches, the Rev. Galen Mirate knew immediately how members of her congregation in Albany felt. They weren’t ready to return to normal.

“I don’t think he was finished speaking before I had parishioners emailing me saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m not willing to stop sheltering in place,’” Mirate, priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of St. John and St. Mark, told Episcopal News Service. Albany and nearby communities in southwest Georgia are dealing with a particularly severe outbreak, and with hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 confirmed each day across Georgia, worship isn’t expected to resume anytime soon inside the state’s Episcopal churches.

Georgia Bishop Scott Benhase, reinforcing Rev. Mirate’s sense of caution, writes:

The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia will not move to in-person worship for the foreseeable future in spite of Governor Kemp’s new orders. The CDC and other infectious disease experts agree that before that can happen responsibly, the number of new COVID-19 cases must have declined for at least 14 straight days and rapid diagnostic testing must be readily available in a particular area. We have not yet experienced that decline in new cases within the Diocese’s boundaries and Georgia ranks in the bottom fifth of all states in the availability of rapid diagnostic testing. Until we see such a steady decline and until such testing is readily available, it would be irresponsible for me as your Bishop to allow for the reopening of our churches for in-person worship. I know this will come as a disappointment to some, but I took vows when I was consecrated as a Bishop of the Church to “defend those who have no helper” and, as always, I must keep those vows.

Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright, writing via the diocese’s COVID-19 resource page, also says churches will remain closed:

In due course and only when I am advised by health and safety professionals that it is reasonably safe, will I offer the possibility of in-person worship for our Diocese. Until then let us bring imagination to how we care for one another, new power to our proclamation of God’s good news, and new effectiveness to how we support those who are oppressed by fear and lack.

Even when there is some resumption of public worship, there will be a number of serious issues to be considered – for example, how to practice social distancing in the pews, administer sacraments safely, and whether or if to hold social time are but a small handful of the things which must be considered. The Rev. Tom Ferguson, A.K.A. Crusty Old Dean, addressed several of these in a lengthy blog posting earlier this week. As starting points, he offers these two observations:

I think it is essential to say that this will not be flipping a switch, and we will not be able to go back to the way things were, until there is a vaccine and/or some kind of approved, recognized, effective treatment.  When there will be a vaccine and/or treatment is anyone’s guess, but likely 12-18 months before there is a vaccine and/or a recognized, effective treatment.  I’ve had parishioners tell me they can’t wait to have a big, huge celebration back in the church the first Sunday we are worshipping there again.  I’ve said to say, gently and kindly but clearly, “If you think we’re going back to have 200 people packed into the church the first Sunday we’re back, we are not.  It’s likely we will not be able to do that for Christmas in 8 months, let alone the Sunday in a few weeks when we can resume worship.

… It is important to point out that churches have been hotspots.  This is why we have to take this seriously and address what changes we may need to make.  In South Korea, France, California, New York, and other places we have epidemiological evidence through tracing of contacts from infected people that churches were significant spreaders of the virus.  In South Korea, a single infected person attending her church infected 37 other people.  Congregations often have larger numbers of persons in high risk categories and thus the potential for more complications.  I have been particularly shaken by seeing on social media how funerals have led to illness and death for those who attended either just before, or in spite of, stay-at-home orders.  One of the nation’s largest African American congregations, the Church of God in Christ, has seen its leadership devastated, with literally dozens of bishops and senior clergy succumbing to the virus.

As we move forward over the next 12-18 months, churches will need to be ready to respond to a situation that may change several times, sometimes rapidly.  This will likely not be a linear, smooth trajectory from pre- to post- pandemic church life.  We may need to make decisions again and again based on subsequent flareups or changing situations. 

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Jon White

Steven and Eric, I understand your concerns, but I think the evidence so far suggests they aren’t being realized. In conversations with my clergy friends we’re finding that more people are participating in online worship than when we did it in person, including people who weren’t part of church before. Personal invitation to an online worship apparently feels less onerous than an invite to church, so paradoxically evangelism seems to be increasing. As far as bishops, many (at least those around me) have been very engaged and decisive in ensuring that our parishes take proper precautions to remain safe, providing support for moving online, and taking steps to ameliorate the financial impact of the related economic stress.

mike geibel

Agree, Jon. I have discovered that the advent of “on line church” allowed my wife and I to watch/attend services at two different churches with two different styles last Sunday morning. Although I have left the EC over its politics, I do miss the “high church” liturgical service of my youth which when performed authentically, is very compelling. After attending the service by my current non-denominational church, I enjoyed watching an Episcopal service on line and seeing my prior Reverend and Assistant Reverend doing well. There are opportunities to spread the Word for all churches which I hope continues after the COVID-19 restrictions are in my rear-view mirror.

Steven Wilson

And yet, even though this is going to sound contrarian and luddite and cruel: the Church has voluntarily become irrelevant to anyone who isn’t already a member while liquor stores are deemed essential in 49 of 50 states. There is no one who’s not already a member or a former member who’s googling “online Eucharist Friday morning Rite I in a middle-high church idiom, 10:30 this Sunday livestream.” We can spend all day talking about how it’s the way of love to confine ourselves to our locked upper rooms, but if we take a month longer than the tattoo parlors and vape shops to open for business and simply accept that we’re going to repeat this all again in Oct, the world will learn clearly that we’re afraid of death. The very thing we claim to have a spectacularly special message about, that it doesn’t win.

Eric Bonetti

I think my concern is more around clergy who talk about these days as a storm to be weathered. The reality is that this is the new normal for the forseeable future, and the aging demographics of the mainline churches make them uniquely vulnerable. Given the perceived authority that clergy enjoy, it’s in the best interest of all involved to be accurate and truthful.

In the meantime, I reiterate my previous point, which is the painful irony of bishops who fairly foam at the mouth over the Dennis Canon and their claims to an equitable interest in parish realty and personalty, who came into the crisis lamenting that all they could is offer “guidance.”

If bishops can control disposition of parish assets, they sure as heck can control issues involving health and safety.

Tom Downs

Eric, the bishops in the state of Michigan closed all the congregations: no in person services, no in person meetings. It wasn’t “guidance”. As far as I know there was no refusal to obey.

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