Bishop’s Pastoral Directive
Suspension of In-Person Worship Indoors
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me’”
Mother Teresa was famously admired as someone who translated these words of Jesus into practical action. She and her Sisters of Mercy ministered among the poorest of the poor who lived and suffered under extreme dehumanizing conditions in the ‘slums’ of Calcutta, India. During her ministry she employed “the five-fingered Gospel,” holding up her hand and counting off each word with a finger: “You. Did. It. To. Me.”
As I committed to do in my previous Pastoral Directive, the Diocese of Easton continues to daily monitor the progress of the virus in our respective jurisdictions, and the potential harmful effects it poses on the health and safety of our parishioners. The exponential and precipitous increase in cases continues unabated and should be disconcerting to everyone as it is to your friend and bishop. All twenty-four jurisdictions in the State of Maryland, including the nine within our Diocese, remain in the RED ZONE.
Beloved, our global and national communities continue to be besieged by the invisible enemy among us – COVID-19. The virus has taken the lives of over 300,000 innocent sisters and brothers in this country and over one million globally. It has been significantly hostile and unfriendly to the elderly population and individuals with underlying illnesses. AARP has described the COVID-19 Pandemic as an ‘American Tragedy’. I am conscientiously aware that a high percentage of our venerable parishioners fall into those two categories including your bishop and most of our clergy.
The Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and our diocesan medical and scientific advisors are counseling extreme caution coupled with extreme measures to combat the virus’ devastating advance in our area. The percentage of positive tests has surged – both with people showing symptoms and with those who are asymptomatic. Some of our churches have reported cases of infection in their congregations that necessitated the quarantining of other individuals with whom they gathered for in-person worship. This action is then compounded by the potential loss of income for any quarantining members who may be hourly or without sick leave.
Additionally, we continue to hear the pleas from health care professionals, first responders and local authorities who are calling on us to act responsibly and take personal and corporate precautions – to stay at home as much as possible, to avoid or restrict gatherings, and to wear masks, sanitize, and observe all health and safety protocols – to show care and concern for the well-being and welfare of friends and neighbors.
The collective plea from these voices across the world resonates the ‘Advent Cry’ of the prophet John the Baptizer, “prepare the way of the Lord.” Many of the people in the prophet’s day did not have the benefit of the gospels to understand or pay attention to his cry. But we in our day are guided by our core Christian values as proclaimed by Jesus – love for neighbor, compassion, mercy, justice, do unto others, empathy, taking responsibility for our behavior, humility, selflessness or self-emptying and the fundamental co-responsibility for actions as enshrined in our baptismal covenant in preserving the dignity of every human being. Our Christian core values commit us to act judiciously and responsibly in order to mitigate the virus’ rampant progress. Responsible behavior from our diocese and by extension our diocesan family will contribute our part toward curtailing its devastating effects on humanity. We hold to the hope and steadfast belief that our actions coincide with God’s ‘larger game plan’ to respond to the prayers of the people – to curtail and/or eliminate this virus.
It is unfortunate that this surge has come as we prepare to enter one of the holiest and joy-filled seasons in the Christian Liturgical Calendar – Christmas. It is difficult to imagine not being able to sing loftily all the beautiful Christmas carols in church and witness the glow and joy emanating from the faces of fellow worshippers as we offer each other greeting. However, this pandemic doesn’t discriminate against season or time of year. If we want to have other Christmases to look forward to with our loved ones, friends and church family we must protect those loved ones, friends and church family this Christmas.
My beloved, as your friend and bishop, I feel it is my God-given obligation to ensure as many of us are around as possible to see the new year. We share in the excitement and optimism regarding the good news of a viable and efficacious vaccine to combat the lethal effects of this ‘global silent enemy.’ And we commit to collaborate with the good news on the positive effects of the vaccine to be a life-giving ‘game changer.’
To this end, I am directing the suspension of in-person worship and gathering in our church buildings from Sunday, December 20, 2020 – Fourth Sunday of Advent to Sunday, January 3, 2021, Second Sunday of Christmas inclusive. Hopefully and prayerfully, we will witness a drastic reduction in infection rates in our diocesan jurisdictions, so that we may be in a healthier position to resume in-person worship in our respective sanctuaries for the Season of Epiphany.
I have allowed in-person gatherings and worship for as long as possible given our rural demographic and strict adherence by our churches to the Diocesan guidelines. However, at the current rate increase and risk level and for all the reasons aforementioned in this directive, it is time to make the official call. All other episcopal dioceses along the eastern seaboard have also closed their church buildings for in-person worship.
This directive does not include our social and outreach ministries that serve the critical needs of the under privileged through food ministry and ministries deemed essential, life-giving and life-transforming. These ministries should continue to function under the strict observance of the Diocesan Protocols/Guidelines developed and approved by the diocese. Clergy and lay leadership have the authorization to determine in their local parish the ministries deemed critical and life-giving.
I would also like to reiterate that, over the past nine months, I have been blessed and awed by your level of ingenuity, creativity, and adaptability in your ministries and by the global and national audience that has been reached. Ordinarily, our ministry focus would not have allowed us to even begin to imagine the potential for this reach. And yet many of us have discovered that our virtual presence far exceeds our physical presence. That is something to note and celebrate. This global and national worship audience is pivoting some of our churches into semblances of mega-church stature while other churches are celebrating new members through a community-driven refocus. In all cases, we are being spirit-led into new, exciting territory.
Let me continue to strongly urge virtual worship, outdoor worship, drive-in worship, and drive through/parking lot worship, observing the protocol/guidelines as set forth by the diocese. Keep in mind, my beloved, the church isn’t closed; the church of Christ lives on in perpetuity in our hearts and homes. It is simply the building that is closed to in-person worship gathering. Consider this period our sabbath from the building and our deeper engagement with the interior life where Christ abides more intimately in the ‘desert of our souls,’ what St. John of the Cross calls the ‘dark night of the soul.’
Furthermore, churches are encouraged to conduct their Christmas services and programs as planned either virtually or outdoors. You are permitted in-person those who would comprise your teams dedicated to the production of the Christmas program – technical team, clergy, music teams, and altar guild (up to 15 persons).
I love my clergy and their families very much. This pandemic ended our precious monthly time in-person together. I look forward to having all our clergy with me for Clericus, around the altar of Christ, as soon as we are safely able to regather. Part of my pastoral obligation is to be their caregiver, and this decision is my pastoral gift to them as much as it is to you, my beloved sisters and brothers in the lay order. Everyone, clergy and lay, is an important part of our family and each is special to me. As your friend, I yearn with an aching heart for the day when I can resume, without fear or apprehension, my pastoral visitations.
I realize that this directive will be met with mixed emotions by many people. I am also aware that there will be some who will be upset by this news, and I sincerely regret the pain that this decision may cause. Please know that this decision is made in the spirit of this Advent and Christmas Season, and with a heavy and contrite heart. It is our joyful hope and expectation that we all will celebrate the birthday of Jesus, who comes among us as Lord, Savior and Light, safely and in good health. Our faith teaches us that this miracle happens every year, whether we are celebrating it in our churches, homes or on some form of electronic media. For the past nine months, we have loved, prayed for, and leaned into one another. Please continue to do that for each other now and in the months ahead. As your bishop, I ask that you pray for me and my wife Lynn and our children, to be the Faithful of Christ, for the Body of Christ. Once again, consider Mother Teresa’s five-fingered Gospel – “You. Did. It. To. Me.”
My beloved, I pray for and with you this prayer from Celtic Daily Prayer Book:
“May Jesus be Lord in all your ways,
may He shepherd you the length of all your days,
and in your heart may He receive the praise
May the road rise to meet you; may the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall
softly on your fields. Until we meet again may
God hold you in the hallow of His hand” Amen!
Together in Christ’s service,
Advent Season 2020