Ever since our last in-person worship service on March 15th we’ve all had the same question: When will we be allowed to worship in church again? I certainly never dreamed in mid-March that in mid-June we would be heading into our fourth month of online worship. And yet, here we are doing just that.
Yesterday in a Zoom meeting with clergy, Bishop Wright released guidelines for what he calls “Phase One of Regathering” the church. It allows churches to begin in-person worship on Sunday, July 5 under very strict guidelines.
Here are a few of the restrictions: no Eucharist; no singing by choir, congregation or soloists; no wind instruments; no passing of the peace; no printed materials (prayer books, hymnals, bulletins); no use of restrooms except in emergencies; no coffee hour; no nursery; no Sunday School; no more than 50 attendees, who must make reservations; seating must be six feet apart, with every other pew empty; masks required.
In other words, we would not be coming back to worship as we have known and loved it. Or as one vestry member said today, “It wouldn’t even feel like church.”
The bishop also made clear that this date and guidelines were “an invitation, not a mandate.” It is the decision of each rector, in consultation with the vestry, to decide when or if to participate in this Phase One.
In a special vestry meeting (by Zoom) today the vestry unanimously agreed with me that it is best for us to keep things as they are now — with online Compline on Monday-Friday evening and online Eucharist on Sunday mornings, all live-streamed from our dining room.
I have no doubt that is the right decision, but it gives me no joy. No one wants to be back in a full church, singing, and gathering around the altar to share in Christ’s body and blood more than I do. Our decision not to take this first step was not so much because of the restrictions, but because it is not yet safe for us to gather. Given our demographics and the best information and warnings from public health officials, I believe to open the doors for in-person worship now would be reckless and show a disregard for your safety.
But we are beginning to prepare for the return to the building. The vestry decided today to start looking into issues including the building (the ventilation system, changing filters, cleaning protocols), logistics (seating arrangements, having masks available, having sign up sheets for reservations if necessary), and for continuing streaming online when we do return. When the day comes that it is safe to worship together in person we will be ready!
But for now and the foreseeable future we will continue to gather online. The one bright spot for me is that live-streamed worship seems to be going much better than I would have ever imagined. I can feel the community gathered. I hear that from you, too, It does feel like church. And we are reaching people from around here and around the country who have never set foot in our building, but now regularly worship with us. That is one reason we will continue an online presence after our return to the building.
Remember, we are the church. Scattered, yet always together.