This week, Gov. Baker announced that Massachusetts will move into Phase 3 of the state’s re-opening plan, thanks to an ongoing decline in Covid-19 cases. I am grateful for answered prayers in the form of wise leaders and the actions of neighbors who care for one another, which has allowed the state to make significant inroads in controlling the spread of the virus.
But as can be seen from the news in the rest of the country, the pandemic is not over. We must remain vigilant and careful in order to keep the spread of the disease under control. As much as we may long to return to normal, we cannot simply go back to our usual activities without undoing all the good work and sacrifices that have been made so far.
For that reason, while our bishop has given churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts permission to begin regathering for worship, he is also encouraging us to take things slowly. Our Diocesan Journey by Stages plan imposes serious restrictions on how worship is conducted, which are intended to mitigate the significant risks posed by our traditional practices. Occupancy is limited to one household in every third pew in order to allow for social distancing; there is to be no congregational singing or responsive reading; everyone must wear a mask, including worship leaders; we are not allowed to greet one another before or after worship; and there is to be no Holy Communion, coffee hour, or Sunday School. There are new requirements for cleaning and disinfection before and after worship, as well as instructions to collect contact information for everyone who attends each service, just in case someone is diagnosed with Covid19 after attending worship. Finally, parishioners in high risk categories, including age and underlying health conditions, are strongly advised to avoid in person worship services.
These restrictions are for the safety of all and were established in consultation with public health experts, but they do mean that even if we return to public worship, it will not be the experience we have been missing. When I dream about being with you all on Sunday morning, I imagine full pews, joyful singing, warm greetings at the peace, and the opportunity to share the sacrament of Eucharist. Our current configuration would only allow 8 families to attend. In addition, many of those we love will be absent: around half of the parishioners of St. Mark’s fall into high risk categories
Rather than settle for worship that is a pale shadow of the joyful gatherings we usually experience at St. Mark’s and that excludes many of those we love and miss seeing, we will continue to make our primary Sunday service an online worship experience for the foreseeable future. Online, we can continue to sing joyously, to read the psalms and the prayers together, to listen and reflect on the words of Scripture. We can continue to gather via Zoom afterwards for a chance to talk about what is going on in our lives and share reflections about our faith. We can continue to invite people near and far to join us, including those who do not currently have a church home and who are longing to hear a word of Good News. We can continue to hear the stories of God’s mighty acts of salvation in the past and remind one another that we can trust God to lead us through to the other side of the current crisis. It isn’t the same as doing it in person, but right now, being together in person won’t be the same, either.
As we prepare for fall, we have also formed a joint committee with Trinity Chapel to explore additional opportunities to gather in small groups for prayer, connection, and service in ways that are less risky. These may include outdoor worship, small group prayer gatherings, or socially distanced work parties in support of our food and other ministries; your suggestions for other possibilities are most welcome!
We will also seek to continue to improve our online offerings. We have received a small grant from our Diocese to purchase equipment to improve our video capabilities, and are exploring ways to improve the online worship experience and our online formation programs. We are also brainstorming ways to connect with newcomers and invite people in the wider community who are seeking to understand God better to join us in prayer, discussion, and learning.
I realize this is not what many were hoping to hear. When we shut down in March, we all thought it would be a matter of weeks before we could worship together again. Now, it appears we will have to love one another at a distance for many months to come. I know this will cause distress for many of you, and I am available for conversation and prayer via telephone and Zoom at any time. I also encourage you to reach out to one another to support each other, as well. If you know of anyone who would benefit from a phone call from me or our pastoral care team, please let me or Herb Elliott, our pastoral care team leader, know.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)