On Monday, May 18, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker included churches among the first organizations allowed to resume activities in the state’s phased pandemic re-opening plan. On Friday, May 22, President Donald Trump urged congregations nationwide to begin gathering for worship immediately.
Nevertheless, the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, in conjunction with the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, have continued to prohibit in-person worship until July 1. They have also issued a stringent set of standards that must be met before we can open our doors or return to our traditional practices of worship, including sharing Holy Communion. These standards make it entirely possible that virtual worship will continue past July 1, and that we will not share a service of Holy Eucharist for some time beyond the resumption of in-person worship.
This is distressing news, made all the more so by the permission afforded by the secular authorities to resume in-person worship. But as St. Paul writes, “ ‘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.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24) There is significant evidence that the governmental green light to churches comes from political pressure rather than an accurate assessment of what is best for worshipping communities. Our bishops, on the other hand, answer to a different authority, one who makes it clear that our first concern must always be the most vulnerable among us and that we must always place love for our neighbor above our own desires. It is that concern that has led the bishops to instruct us to keep our doors closed and our hearts open.
I agree wholeheartedly with the president that churches are essential and that our nation is in more need of prayer than it has ever been in my lifetime. I just don’t agree that we have to risk the health and lives of the people we love in order to do that essential work.
Jesus started his ministry with just 12 followers and no permanent headquarters, and drew thousands despite moving from place to place and teaching, healing, and feeding outdoors. The scattered communities of Christians of the early church, constantly under threat of persecution, produced a robust witness that still inspires the faithful today. Paul’s most fruitful ministry came in the form of letter-writing to small gatherings in cities across the Roman empire, a ministry that continues to enrich our faith almost 2,000 years later.
All of this is to say that while gathering for worship is a great joy, it is not the only thing that marks us as Christian. In this moment, when opening our doors for worship could pose a life-and-death risk to the most vulnerable among us, the decision of what we should do is clear: we should continue to worship God and follow Jesus by gathering online to sing our praises and offer our prayers. We should concentrate our efforts on finding new ways to safely continue the ministry of teaching, feeding and healing that Jesus passed on to us.
I wish I could share the president’s confidence that the worst is over and nothing bad would come of throwing open our doors and inviting everyone back in. But the news is full of stories of churches that have tried this and have quickly had to shut down again as many in the congregation and among the clergy have tested positive for Covid-19. Sunday worship is an almost perfect environment for spreading the virus, and even with careful social distancing, masks, and a ban on congregational singing, a single infected person could cause widespread sickness and death without even knowing they were infected. As our bishops have said, clearly and forcefully, loving our neighbors as Christ first loved us precludes taking such a risk.
But the most essential thing about being Christian has never been the way we come together, but the way we are sent out. In the Gospel of Matthew, the last words Jesus speaks to the disciples after his resurrection, on a mountaintop in Galilee, are: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
We are not being locked out of our churches; we are being invited to go forth from our sanctuaries bearing witness to the power of Resurrection and carrying good news to those who would never have come to us. And Christ is going with us, even to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.
Your sister in Christ,
If you would like to read the Bishop's announcement and guidelines for re-opening, you can find them here: https://www.diomass.org/news/diocesan-news/bishops-extend-virtual-worship-timeframe-until-july-1
and here: https://www.diomass.org/sites/diomass/files/documents/A%20JOURNEY%20BY%20STAGES%202020_05_18.pdf