April 7 and 8, 2020
We begin our time together in the midst of Holy Week resting for a little while in prayer together. Some of our deans will lead us.
On Palm Sunday, I clicked into three different worship services and was blessed by powerful sermons and strong liturgy. On weekdays, I’ve taken part in morning prayer or compline services on a variety of platforms with a number of congregations. I am struck again and again by the creativity and resilience of the clergy of this Diocese in these times. I thank God for you, and I thank you for the ways you are loving your communities now. Well done, good and faithful servants of God.
This is our fourth webinar together. It feels like we are beginning to settle into a rhythm for this unprecedented time. Even though we still don’t have many concrete answers to our most compelling questions, it seems that not everything feels like a crisis all the time any more. We’re breathing. And I hope sleeping, resting, exercising, praying and playing. We’re still in our first month, and we have at least two more to go, so settling into this time of change and sacrifice is healthy.
Part of the settling in is continued adjustment to new realities. Since I and other bishops in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC, sent a letter permitting live-streaming of services from our churches, much has changed. Governor Northam issued a stay-at-home order. We have been urged to wear masks when away from home, and we are hearing news that the virus has not yet peaked in this part of the country. In the midst of all this, our efforts to flatten the curve are more vital than ever.
Therefore, I call on us all to model and normalize the behavior that is needed from everyone now. That means that we ourselves should wear masks when we are out of our homes. Most importantly, we ourselves should stay home. It is time for us all to take the lead and model the behaviors that are required in our wider communities.
To that end, in consultation with the Standing Committee, I have determined that after Easter Day, clergy and lay leaders may no longer live-stream or record services from their church buildings. In this time when we want others to stay at home for the sake of the most vulnerable among us, we send the wrong message when we ourselves go to our churches. Our messages need to be consistent and strong. We care about others. We care about our communities, both local and global, and so we make sacrifices for their well being.
We also care for ourselves. We clergy in this Diocese are in it for the long haul. Each one of us, each one of you, must take good and gentle care of yourself so that you can remain creative and resilient and healthy as you lead and support others. Obeying the Governor’s stay-at-home order will be a gift of health and safety for you.
Finally, by not leading worship in our church buildings for this time of fasting from public worship, we say something strong and clear about our understanding of what it means to be Church. Our sister and colleague Torrence Harmon stated it beautifully in an e-mail on which I was copied. She wrote, “This is a time when we are called to creativity in our worship and prayer life. If we come out of this with a sense that worship is not confined to one building for one hour on Sunday, by one priest, but is rather a liturgy of the people in connection with the Holy, then this time of fast will become an ongoing feast.”
We are an Easter people. We have seen how, in God’s economy, fasts are turned into feasts. We can depend on that!
I do understand that living into this directive will be hard for some of you. Please be assured that many clergy and congregations have already made this decision and they are leading strong and effective worship from home. We do this for others. Because we do it for others, it is an act of love, and our acts of love draw us close to the heart of God.
Some questions that are surely already arising as you hear this news are:
What about working in our church buildings?
What about vestry meetings, prayer gatherings and other meetings?
What about weddings?
And what about funerals?
First, the workplace.
Beginning Easter Monday, April 13, please work from home and stop going to the church office on a regular basis. Your diocesan staff is now working from home, with staff members going by the physical building only briefly a few times a week to check security, pick up mail and do the few tasks that can only be done from that space. With all of the electronic means we have at our disposal, there are few tasks that require physical presence in the building. Only staff members who are not particularly vulnerable are going to the physical office for these limited times and purposes.
If you absolutely must go to the physical church building to continue vital outreach ministries, please exercise every precaution and protocol to protect yourself and especially to protect others. Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet away from anyone else. Wash hands. Disinfect surfaces.
To be absolutely clear about this, I am not requiring our church buildings to close down completely, but urging all clergy to exercise restraint and great care in making decisions about which staff members absolutely must go to the church building, for what purposes and when. If you have questions or want to talk this through, please be in touch with one of our diocesan leadership team - Ted Smith, Mark Eastham, Mary Thorpe, Bishop Brooke-Davidson or me.
Vestry meetings and gatherings of other committees may not take place in the church building or in homes. These meetings must be done virtually for the foreseeable future. Vestry meetings done via Zoom or on another electronic platform are valid. Gatherings of any groups for any purpose, whether inside or outside the church building, must be discontinued.
Our best practice now and for the time being is to postpone weddings until we are released from physical distancing requirements. If there is an urgent pastoral reason why a couple must be married sooner, permission for an exception can be requested. Please call Bishop Brooke-Davidson or me to talk it through.
The death of a parishioner or other member of our community brings a full set of pastoral needs and, in this time of coronavirus, additional complexities. As we heard last week, funeral homes are facing the difficult challenge of lack of space for holding bodies before burial. Because of this, burials or cremation must occur within two weeks of a death.
In light of these pastoral and practical realities, our best practices for the time being are these:
If a family chooses cremation for their loved one, cremains may be placed in the worship space until a funeral service can happen.
If the family chooses a casket, a graveside burial service may take place within two weeks of the death. No more than ten people may attend the service, including clergy and funeral home staff, and they must remain six feet apart. The burial may be live-streamed or recorded so that other family members and friends may participate remotely. Only clergy who are not vulnerable should go out to conduct a graveside service. If you have any vulnerability or discomfort for any reason regarding going out to do a service, ask a colleague to do the burial service on your behalf. A number of you have already done this, and it has worked well. A Celebration of Life may happen in the church at a later date.
Only under unusual and extraordinary circumstances may a funeral service take place in a church building for the time being. Please be in touch with one of your bishops if there are circumstances because of which you request an exception.
I know that these additional restrictions will cause grief for some of you and your congregations. I know that for some of you, they will be a relief because they take some pressure off of your shoulders. I also know that you are resilient; you are strong. Together, we are the Church, the living, breathing body of Christ. That body, one slain and raised to new life, cannot die again. So although we are being challenged, although we are being changed, we are being given amazing and unexpected gifts as we do the work God has given us to do.
Two notes from Mark Eastham, diocesan Chief of Staff:
Scammers are on the prowl in these extraordinary times. If you receive a request for money from a bishop or from someone on the diocesan staff, look at it carefully. If it does not include the diocesan letterhead, it is probably not legitimate. Look carefully at the address of the sender. If is it not from thediocese.net, it is not legitimate.
Please share a warning about scams with your congregations telling them what they can expect from you and when a request might be a scam.
Be attentive to the security of your church buildings while they are not being used regularly. Ensure that your security protocols are in place and active. Be in touch with the local police about how they can help with this.