Transcript of Bishop Goff's Remarks for Clergy Call December 8

Quick links: Q & A, summary and resources.  

After an opening prayer led by Bishop Porter Taylor, Bishop Goff opened the clergy webinar by announcing the topics for the day:

  1. Response to the surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
  2. A repeat of a presentation about how to do annual parish meetings and vestry elections electronically, this time including the experiences of a church that did it well.

Reminder that we will gather again next Tuesday. My hope is that we will have a mini-Advent retreat time together, a time to pray and be silent, to share poetry or music and to listen deeply.  I invite you bring a song or poem or other offering to share in our time. If a specific topic emerges today, we can make space for that next week as well, if it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us. 

We will have some time for Q and A after each of our topics for today.  Please write your questions in Q and A at the bottom of your screen. 

This moment of surging COVID-19 cases:

The current surge of illness and death from COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our Advent and Christmas hopes - and on every dimension of our common life.  Epidemiologists have warned of a possible cold-weather surge for months, and now it is upon us.  To date, at least 284,000 people in the United States alone have died of the virus, and there are more than 15 million confirmed infections.  People are now dying in the US at the equivalent rate of 2 per minute.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle projected last Thursday that the U.S. will have over 320,000 deaths by January 1 and 439,000 by March 1.

We are already exhausted, already overwhelmed.  We are ready to be done with this pain.  So this comes as terrible news.  In the darkness of this time, the light of Christ shines.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  It is for such dark times as this that the light first came to the world.  We are exhausted and overwhelmed and so done with this - and we are vessels of Christ’s light.  We are, as Jesus told us, the light of the world.  Right here.  Right now. 

How can we be the light and share the light in these seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany?  We do it, in part, in our continued life of worship. We will continue to worship and to gather in community, though in ways that are different from what we did before March.  According to our diocesan guidelines which have been in place for many months now, no congregation in the Diocese of Virginia is currently eligible to gather for worship indoors.  As of this morning, 27 areas of our Diocese are in the Red Zone for coronavirus infections, 17 are in the Orange Zone with 11 of those nearing Red.  One is in the Yellow zone, none are in the Green Zone.

According to our guidelines, we must continue our fast from indoor, in-person worship.  As light to the world, we refrain from regathering in our church buildings as a sacrifice and gift to ourselves and to other people, particularly the most vulnerable. Because we agree that worship is necessary to our individual and common good, we worship in other ways that do not present a health risk in this crisis moment.  Live-streaming from or recording worship in our church buildings may continue, with the smallest possible number of people present.  Regathering in our church buildings for worship cannot yet occur. 

Some of our parishioners argue that since the Supreme Court issued recent decisions, all should be allowed to worship in any way they choose, including indoors.  There are two important responses to that argument:

First, the Supreme Court reiterated what has long been a hallmark of our US Constitution.  We have a separation of Church and State such that Congress cannot establish a religion and it cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion.  We maintain and hold that separation, noting that our decisions to change how we worship in this diocese were not imposed by the state.  Our guidelines are from another authority - the leadership this diocese elected - and from a higher authority still who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Second, our freedom of religion has not be abrogated.  We continue to worship as we have been doing throughout this pandemic.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, himself a person of faith and a church-goer, said this at the end of last week:  "The virus is having a wonderful time right now, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down. Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super spreading has happened and could happen again."

In a Zoom conversation last Thursday with Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Collins said,

"Most churches really ought to be advised to go to remote services, if they're not already doing so."

“The vast majority of churches around the country — as well as synagogues, mosques and temples — have followed public health guidelines and limited in-person worship or ended it all together . . .”

With that advice and other advice we have received these past weeks, we hold to our guidelines and will not gather for worship in our church buildings or anywhere inside until the infection rate numbers move back from the Red and into the Green.

What about outdoor worship? The best advice shared with me and with other bishops in dioceses with increasing Red Zones is that the wisest and safest course is not to gather in person for worship at all, indoors or out.  Some of my colleague bishops in other dioceses and in other denominations have discontinued outdoor worship completely.  I believe that that is the right course of action, and ask that you suspend outdoor worship.  If you already have an outdoor service scheduled for this coming Sunday, December 13, you may at your discretion offer that service. 

Even as the best advice is clear that outdoor worship presents a high risk of spreading the virus, I offer you some breathing room for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, particularly if you are experiencing untenable pressure from your congregation to gather in person on those days. You may choose to worship outdoors on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and you must do so according to our diocesan guidelines and according to the plan you have submitted. Distancing of at least 6 feet in every direction must be maintained.  Masks must be worn.  There may be no congregational singing.  Communion may be shared in one kind only, if at all. Service length should be shortened. You know the requirements.  If you for any reason are not comfortable offering outdoor worship in person at Christmas, then you do not have to do so.  Worship on Christmas is all about honoring the incarnate One.  We may not in good conscience compromise the health and lives of anyone Christ was born to save.  So the wisest course is not to worship in person on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  If you do take the risk to do so outdoors, do it wisely. 

Some will experience these words from me as ambiguous.  I acknowledge and understand that.  Living a middle way of both/and is part of our Anglican ethos.  If you and your congregation are not comfortable in this ambiguity and prefer an absolute, one size fits all guideline, then read my statement as an expectation that there be no outdoor worship at all, including Christmas worship, until infection numbers move back down from Red and into the Green. 

The meeting continued with a Q & A on the guidelines, followed by a presentation on hosting annual meetings and vestry elections online. This discussion was led by the Rev. Fran Gardner Smith. A Tip Sheet for Hosting Online Congregational Meetings is also available.