Last night I told the Vestry that I think we should reopen the 10:30 service, and the majority of them voted to do so, no doubt with vast reservations in their hearts, as there are in mine. This has been the hardest ethical decision of my career, and I have continually examined my motivations. In this letter, I will lay them out for you, and then give you the details of our planned reopening as they currently stand.
I have been reading this week about the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which I’ll be preaching on this Sunday. It’s a bewildering text. God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac up a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham follows these instructions, but God intervenes at the last moment, and provides a ram for the sacrifice to replace Isaac. For thousands of years, Rabbis and Christian theologians have struggled with this story and provided different explanations that might justify the actions of God or Abraham. One explanation is that child sacrifice was rife in the Ancient Near East, that Abraham was bowing to cultural pressure to do something that everyone seemed to think was normal and maybe even good, and that God’s intervention and provision of the ram presented an emphatic prohibition against religious child-murder.
As I’ve thought about this, corollaries to our current situation have come to mind. Am I being swayed towards an action that will endanger the lives of people I love, simply because the churches, the restaurants, the schools, and so many other institutions are taking that action? Am I giving in to all the attendant anxieties within myself? If another Episcopal church opens and we do not, will our people go there, and will I lose my beloved church? Will St. Stephen’s be financially damaged if we remain closed? Will I, who am called to bless people, to sit with them in their pain and their joy, to visit the sick and suffering, to bring the good news of God’s love for us into the world, continue to feel like only half a priest? I’m not done struggling with these questions, but I’ve gained some clarity. We are in a good financial position, and don’t need to meet physically in order to be fiscally stable. There is a deep love for one another at the core of our community that makes it unlikely that our members will drift away to other churches. And maybe I just need to get over myself and continue to seek other ways of being a priest at this moment in time. This decision does not need to be governed by peer pressure or anxiety.
I’m fairly certain that my recommendation to the vestry was not driven by anxious considerations. Instead, I am influenced by the Reopening Survey, and the conversations I’ve had with some of you about it. We had an excellent response to the survey. Sixty-eight percent of you expressed that you are eager to reopen, and I was not surprised by this, because many of you have talked to me about your deep yearning to be together again in person. I hear in this an expression of intense spiritual need, and as Christians we are called to try to meet each other’s spiritual needs by gathering the wisdom and life experience of all who seek God. The majority of us seem to feel that this cannot be adequately done online, and after three months of offering Christian Formation opportunities and worship online, I find that I agree with the majority’s assessment.
So we will reopen – cautiously, with some real ethical qualms, and in the expectation that we might need to change plans quickly, or even reverse this decision, if the pandemic continues to worsen. The date for reopening will be set by the Reopening Taskforce, and will probably fall in mid-July. Below I will outline what the safety regulations for the 10:30 AM Sunday service will look like, but first I want to answer some more basic questions about Sunday mornings in general.
- Bishop Breidenthal has prohibited the Rite of Holy Eucharist and the distribution of bread and wine for the time being, so we will continue to worship without Communion.
- There will be instrumental music only. Singing spreads the virus much more quickly than other activities, and is prohibited by the Diocese.
- We will continue to livestream the service.
- We will continue to hold the 8:30 AM service on Zoom.
- There will be no nursery or childcare during the 10:30 AM service. Children are welcome to sit with their families.
- We will continue to hold the 9:30 AM Children’s Church service on Zoom.
- There will be no coffee hour following the service.
- Offering plates will be available at the entrance to the service, but will not be passed.
- The Peace will be exchanged with waves and bows, but not with handshakes or hugs.
The fact that this will be a somewhat denuded service may lead some of you to decide that it’s not worth attending in person. I want to emphasize that this is a valid choice, and that, depending on the circumstances, it might be the most ethical choice as well. When deciding whether to attend, ask yourself these questions:
- are you going to be visiting an elderly relative sometime during the next three weeks?
- have you been in close physical contact with someone you haven’t seen for awhile, who might represent an unknown exposure?
- are you willing to use all of the tools available to help suppress the virus in your day to day life?
For each of us, our prime ethical responsibility is to protect each other, and we do this not only when we’re at church, but throughout the course of the week. Our behaviors as we go about our day to day lives will have an impact on Sunday morning, just as Sunday morning, hopefully, has an impact on our day to day behaviors. If you are committed to mask-wearing and social distancing in your everyday life, you are welcome to attend this service. If you have not made that commitment, please stay home.
Given this prime directive to take care of each other through vigilant safety measures, the Reopening Taskforce has articulated, and the Vestry has approved, the following measures:
- We will meet for worship outside in the courtyard.
- In the event of inclement weather, we will either cancel in-person services (while still worshipping together online) or move them into Hobson Hall, which has better ventilation than the sanctuary.
- If we decide to move worship inside, we will send out a message to that effect the night before, so that you can decide whether you still feel that it’s safe to attend under those circumstances.
- We will have space for no more than fifty people. You will be asked to reserve a space by either calling the church office or making a reservation online. We will set aside five spaces for newcomers.
- You will be required to sign a covenant (attached to this letter) every week, in which you agree to follow our safety procedures, and to contact the church immediately if you become ill or find that you’ve been in contact with someone who is ill.
- We will take your temperature before admitting you to the service.
- You will be required to wear a mask or face shield while in the worship space.
- You will be required to maintain social distance while in the worship space.
- You will be required to follow the traffic flow patterns laid out in the worship space.
- You will be supplied with cleaning wipes and asked to wipe down your own chair after the service.
- You will be required to follow any procedures posted on signs or electronic kiosks while in the worship space.
- You will be required to follow verbal instructions from the worship leader during the course of the service.
Fifteen people have agreed to be trained as ushers and greeters, who will help to implement and enforce these policies. It is attendant on all of us to help each other follow these procedures. Many of them will feel unnatural and awkward, and they will only become social norms if we are intentional about asking each other to follow them. Modeling safe behavior, and gently correcting the behavior of others, is vital.
This has been a long letter, with many parts and pieces to consider. I hope that you will read it carefully, reread it if necessary, pray over it, respond with any concerns and criticisms, examine your conscience, and decide whether to come to an in-person 10:30 AM service only after a period of deep-discernment. I love you and want to be with you again, but my love for you also leads me to prioritize your safety and the safety of our community. As we regather in person, may we do so with a sense of needful caution and careful consideration.
Cautiously, Faithfully, and Lovingly,