Transcript of Bishop Goff's Remarks on Calls with Clergy - Week 9

Clergy Webinar Week #9   
May 12 and 13, 2020

Bishop Goff provided an opening prayer.

Bishop Goff’s remarks:

I extend an invitation.  All of the guidelines and protocols we have seen talk about vulnerable populations, including people over 65.  The majority of covid-19 deaths are of people 55 and over.  People with certain health conditions of any age are at higher risk.  And those who live with someone who is vulnerable must take extra precautions. 

I am in a vulnerable population myself at age 66 and, even though I am in good health and cancer free, I remain in cancer treatment, which makes me doubly vulnerable. I’ve had to work through many personal feelings and questions about this. I know that others of you balk at the idea of thinking of yourself as vulnerable, just as I do.  Others of you are all too aware of your vulnerability and balk at the pressure some of your people put on you to make things the way they were before the pandemic began. And some of you are deeply concerned for your spouse or other family members.

So - I’ll be on Zoom at 11 a.m. Thursday morning for a conversation about being in a vulnerable population now.  Anyone who would like may join me.  I offer it as a time to name the issues and our concerns, and to listen to and support one another.  A link to the gathering will be sent out with the notes from the webinars by the end of the work day tomorrow.  Thursday at 11. 

[Stewardship presentation from diocesan staff Julie Simonton and Stephanie Gurnsey Higgins]

Bishop Goff continues with remarks on Phased Regathering

I share with you now our work toward phased regathering for worship in our church buildings.  These words are being recorded and will be made available so that you can share them with your vestries should you desire.

Last Friday, Governor Northam issued Executive Order #61 which outlines phase 1 easing of temporary restrictions due to the novel coronavirus.  It goes into effect on Friday, May 15 for much of Virginia.  Yesterday the Governor said that it will not go into effect in the northern counties, cities and towns of Virginia until May 29.  The order allows that beginning on Friday in some parts of Virginia and two weeks from now in the most populous regions of our diocese, individuals may attend religious services, subject to requirements that are clearly outlined.

We in the Diocese of Virginia will not begin our next phase of regathering in our church buildings on Sunday, or in two weeks. Like dioceses across The Episcopal Church, as well as many church denominations and faith traditions across the country, we will continue the fast from in-person worship that we began in March. Let me tell you the reasons for this, and then offer one change we will allow in our practice.

Our continued fast from in-person worship is rooted in scripture.  In I Corinthians 10:23-24 we read, “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”

Regathering under very specific guidelines is now lawful according to our governor, but it is not beneficial to the whole of our population, not when nearly 2,000 people died of coronavirus in the United States just yesterday.  Our responsibility as Christians is serving Christ in other people.  As we’ve said to one another before, we are bound by Jesus’ law of love, Jesus’ commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves.  We make sacrifices, including the sacrifice of worshipping in our church buildings, for the sake of the people we love in our congregations and for the sake of people around the world whom we will never meet. 

An ecumenical and interfaith group of clergy in Fort Worth, Texas, have determined that they will not soon regather in their church buildings, even though it is now lawful in Texas.  In a letter outlining their reasons, they make an important distinction that many in the medical community are making.  It is the distinction between “accepting the risk” and “producing the risk.”  When we go to the grocery store or to a pick up window to take out a meal, we accept the risk.  When we gather in groups at church, we produce the risk because worship services, studies and experience have shown, are superspreaders of the virus.  When we gather for worship, we produce the risk. 

Because we are morally bound as people of faith to live the way of love, we choose not to produce the risk.  We choose to protect others and ourselves in concrete ways.  We choose to continue to walk the way of sacrifice until the day when our people can gather together as one, safely.

As you know from communications last week, we in the Diocese of Virginia are developing strategies, guidelines, checklists, support and review processes for phased regathering. 

These task groups are at work this week developing our diocesan plans and strategies for phased regathering, with biblical, theological and moral principles at the heart of their work.  This is decentralized work that will come not out of the Office of the Bishop in Richmond, but from your peers and colleagues across the Diocese.  I am working with them to honor our tradition as Anglicans, our intentional balancing of centralized and local authority.  The Rev. Randy Alexander, rector of Immanuel Church on the Hill, said it well in last week’s meeting of team leaders.  He said,

“An element of genius in our Anglican system, and part of that system’s durability, is the rich dance and balance between centralized authority and local authority.  In this process of re-gathering we do not mean to subvert that balance, but to respect it and, in fact, to lead from it.  We as a Diocese are called to consider the good of the whole body, . . . remembering especially those among us who are most vulnerable to this disease.  Yet we are also called to recognize your own local authority and wisdom.  This balance, this dance, may not be achieved flawlessly in this effort, but it is our goal.”

So our work toward Phased Regathering is rooted in Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and in our life as a diocese, as a community. 

There are four pieces of this work and therefore four task groups.

  • To developing guidelines and checklists
  • To organize Area Teams who will support congregations who seek support in developing their plans
  • To train and support the Area Teams
  • To review the work of congregations and make a recommendation to the bishop about regathering

Let me introduce to you the team leaders for this work who will describe very briefly what their team is doing.

The Rev. Canon Mary Thorpe of the Task Group for Guidelines and Checklists
Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson of the Task Group on Area Teams
The Rev. Fran Gardner Smith of the Task Group on Training and Support
The Rev. Randy Alexander of the Task Group on Petitions and Reviews

Now the one immediate change to our practice:
Effective on Sunday, May 24 (not this weekend, but the next), clergy or lay leaders may live-stream or record services from their worship spaces - following careful protocols that I will outline quickly and then send to you and your congregations in writing.

Safety protocols that must be in place while live-streaming or recording worship from the church building are:

  • Only the fewest number of people possible may be part of live-streaming or recording worship. Optimum is two people - the officiant and the videographer.  A musician may be added.  Under no circumstances may there be more than 10 people present.  Fewer is safer.
  • Six feet of distance must be keep between persons in every direction at all times
  • Worship leaders should wear masks when they are not speaking
  • The Eucharist may be celebrated, but the elements may not be shared among the people present. The practice of spiritual communion may continue.
  • This one breaks my heart as a singer, but no singing may happen when a groups is gathered. Singing may be recorded by a soloist in another place, or by a family who share a residence.  Sadly, we won’t be singing in groups for a while.
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Sanitize all surfaces before and after worship

Clergy, talk with your vestry before you make a decision.  If you want to exercise this option, please write me an e-mail in which you briefly outline your plan and how you will follow the guidelines.  I ask you to write this letter not to make you jump through hoops, but

  • So that we will know which congregation are doing this kind of worship as we network and offer mutual support
  • So that I can have your back should there be challenges
  • So that I can be in touch with you quickly should we need to shift plans in the future

Send the letter to bishopsoffice@thediocese.net before you live-stream or record from your worship space for the first time.  bishopsoffice@thediocese.net

We’ve seen so much beautiful creativity in our worship over the past month, let’s not lose that in a rush to go back to something that worked earlier in this pandemic time.  Many congregations have learned new technologies and skills that have enhanced worship.  Many of you have moved outside of your church walls to engage with people who never come to church.  I have worshipped with a good number of congregations over the past weeks.  The most vibrant worship I experienced was not filmed in a near empty church, but in homes and backyards, neighborhoods and pastures. Continue the new best practices you have learned, even if you do record or livestream from the church building, so that worship may continue to reach far beyond our walls with the saving, healing, loving grace of Christ Jesus.  Let’s avoid the language of “going back.”  Let’s keep going forward into the future, into all that God is revealing to us.   We’ll explore these themes more fully in next week’s webinars. 

One final note that brings me full circle to the announcement I made at the beginning of this webinar.  COVID-19 is especially dangerous for people over the age of 65 and for those with health issues.  So Clergy over the age of 65 and those who have health issues should continue to lead worship from home and not go to the church building until a later phase of regathering.  (I know, friends. I’m over 65 and I chafe at this, too.)   An exception to this could be if the clergy person is the only person in the church for live-streaming or recording, or if the only other person present is a household member of the clergy person. 

Clergy who have family members who are vulnerable due to age or health should continue to lead worship from home.  Those who have young children at home may choose to continue to lead worship from home. 

Lay persons, including musicians, altar guild members or lay ministers of any kind must follow the same guidelines set for clergy. 

I trust fully that congregations love their clergy and their lay leaders, and therefore will not want to jeopardize them in any way. I trust that congregations will respect the choices of their clergy and refrain from coercing them to lead worship from the church building.  Clergy salaries will not be affected by the decisions clergy persons make about where to lead worship.

Q and A follows