The following pastoral letter with COVID-19 guidelines was sent to congregational and diocesan leadership on April 15, 2021. Spanish translation available here.
Dear People of the Diocese of Massachusetts,
Alleluia! Christ is risen! We greet you in the resurrection hope which is ours in these Great Fifty Days of Easter.
Renewed Hope, Continuing Vigilance
Since we last wrote to you with renewed guidelines on March 4, there have been signs of continuing hope in the pandemic battle as vaccinations continue. Here in Massachusetts, as of mid-April, some 25 percent of residents are fully vaccinated; well over 40 percent have received their first dose. Nevertheless, other significant statistics have shown negative progress, especially in connection with rapidly spreading variants of the coronavirus which are highly prevalent in the Commonwealth.
Given that combination of hopefulness and the need for continued caution, we re-affirm the message and guidelines we extended on March 4: Effective April 19 leaders in local congregations are invited to consider what level of in-person worship is now appropriate for their local context, while continuing to adhere to the diocesan guidelines and capacity limits which are more restrictive than current Commonwealth protocols. The "Guidelines for Churches after April 19, 2021" and "Summary of COVID-19 Safety Protocols," as issued on March 4, are repeated below.
Our regathering shepherds continue to be available to support congregations and church-related organizations. After consultation with a regathering shepherd, churches are expected to submit a Stage Two regathering checklist (available in English or Spanish) and have the vestry endorse a request for permission to regather. To request a consultation with a regathering shepherd, contact the Rev. Canon Bill Parnell (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Vaccination: A Gift for Restored Unity, not Division
To our earlier pastoral and theological reflections, we want to add a word about vaccinations.
We urge vaccination against the coronavirus for all our members as soon as they are eligible. In a resolution adopted even prior to the current pandemic, the Episcopal Church's Executive Council stated that "the proper and responsible use of vaccines is a duty not only to our own selves and families but to our communities. Choosing to not vaccinate when it is medically safe, threatens the lives of others." The Executive Council further noted that "Episcopalians should seek the counsel of experienced medical professionals, scientific research, and epidemiological evidence" with regard to vaccines. We urge that all our churches encourage vaccination and collaborate with their local Board of Health.
We recognize that there are some persons who cannot be vaccinated at this time. This includes all of our youngest members (those under the age of 16, who are not currently eligible), as well as those for whom vaccination may not be wise due to medical conditions. In addition, public health officials are not yet of one mind regarding the possibility that vaccinated persons could spread the virus even if asymptomatic.
We cannot permit our churches to require vaccination, nor documentation thereof, for participation in worship services or events. Rather, any in-person gatherings should continue to reflect precautions that will protect all persons, vaccinated or not, and remote access to worship should continue as an available option. Vaccines are not yet universally available, and, as noted above, there may be some persons for whom vaccination is not advised.
"Wait for one another!" (I Corinthians 11:33) In the earliest Christian community at Corinth, Saint Paul discovered that members were gathering and consuming their own food without regard to other members' ability to be part of that meal. Reflecting on the fully communal nature of the Lord's Supper--and by extension, the whole life of the Christian community--Paul urges forbearance and the avoidance of gatherings which would highlight inequities between its members. (I Cor. 11:18-22, 33-34) Our Christian gatherings must not be structured or restricted by distinctions that divide us. While there may be some contexts in which vaccination documentation will be altogether appropriate, we believe strongly that Christian community is not one of them!
As we traverse the Easter season, we rejoice at continuing signs of renewal and rebirth, and we look forward to all the renewed beginnings in church and world which will be enabled best by our continued care. This comes with our continued gratitude for each of you--individually and collectively--and for your faithful ministries in service of God and all the people of God.
Faithfully and gratefully,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop Diocesan
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have offered encouraging public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people with regard to travel and small private gatherings. We observe, however, that this guidance is accompanied by ongoing precautions in public settings. Worship services and other church events are not to be viewed as private gatherings, and safety protocols are still mandatory. Churches should continue to follow the safety protocols described in our March 4 communication.
- Breaking Down Coronavirus Here In Charts: WBUR provides a website for tracking the progress of vaccinations in Massachusetts, as well as coronavirus risk assessment by community. It is an excellent resource for keeping track of the latest information about the pandemic on a town-by-town basis.
- COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Initiative Communities provides resources for each of the Commonwealth's 20 hardest-hit communities to increase equity in COVID-19 vaccine awareness and access. Fifteen of the communities are in our diocese: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Framingham, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, and Revere.
- The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations has produced a vaccine toolkit which provides valuable information about vaccine availability and vaccine hesitation, as well as actions for congregations to take in order to get as many as possible vaccinated.
- A funeral assistance program is offered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), reimbursing people for costs associated with COVID-19 deaths in the United States since Jan. 20, 2020. The program covers all U.S. COVID-19 deaths regardless of citizenship status. Church leaders are encouraged to share information among members and others who might need such assistance. A program description is here. Additional information and FAQs are here.
- "Hybrid Church - A Way Forward for Church Leaders," written by the Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, is an article in the Episcopal Church Foundation's Vital Practices newsletter which offers "a framework for working through the challenges and opportunities in front of us" for a post-pandemic church. While every congregation's context is different, this article points us to some good questions to be asking in churches of all sizes.
"Guidelines for Churches after April 19, 2021" and the "Summary of COVID-19 Safety Protocols" as issued on March 4, 2021, follow below.
GUIDELINES for CHURCHES after APRIL 19, 2021
Follow public health best practices. We must continue to follow practices that will help sustain the progress that has been made so far. We strongly urge all persons to follow the counsel of public health leaders by wearing two masks, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands frequently, and avoiding unnecessary visits to public places. We especially urge caution for those who have yet to be vaccinated and those who are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19.
Observe capacity limits for in-person gatherings. Our expectation is that gatherings in our churches will not exceed 75 persons maximum or 35% capacity/6-foot distancing between immediate households for indoor events, whichever is lower. Outdoor events should not exceed 150 persons maximum. We recognize that these limits are somewhat more restrictive than the Commonwealth guidelines taking effect in March, reflecting our attention to health officials’ response to those guidelines.
Continue virtual gatherings. Many churches have shown wonderful creativity by providing online Sunday worship and the Daily Office in a variety of formats, virtual coffee hours and Bible studies, and many other expressions of community. It is our expectation that virtual offerings will continue even when in-person gatherings resume so that as many as possible will be included in our life together.
Serve your neighbors. The economic toll of the pandemic continues to unfold. Congregations have given sacrificially to care for the hungry, unhoused, and unemployed, following best practices for safety. The need is still great. We trust every congregation will be seeking ways to help bear the burden of neighbors in need.
Continue to follow safety protocols. During the early stages of the pandemic, A Journey By Stages provided detailed guidance for various phases of regathering. Last summer we published Expanded Guidelines for Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, and pastoral visits. While these protocols are still in effect, we recognize that changing capacity limits and modifications to safety protocols over the past year have been confusing. At the end of this communication is a summary which combines the guidance from these two documents as they pertain to the current phase of regathering.
Be prepared to return to more restrictive practices. As we have seen with multiple surges in cases of COVID-19, the trajectory of the pandemic is not one of linear progress. Depending on resurgence or mutation of the virus, or the rise of a new threat to public health, a return to restrictive practices may be necessary.
Stay hopeful. We bear hope that widespread vaccination will happen in the coming weeks and that better treatments for the coronavirus will emerge. Life will not return to normal because we and our society have been changed by this pandemic. As we move forward into this next phase, we urge you to stay focused on what God is teaching us through this time. The church has much to learn and much to offer.
SUMMARY OF COVID-19 SAFETY PROTOCOLS
The following is a summary of protocols from A Journey By Stages and the Expanded Guidelines. Please consult these documents for more detailed guidance and resources.
- Practice safety. Stay home if you are sick or feeling unwell. Consider participating in events virtually, especially if you have not yet been vaccinated or are at higher risk. Wear masks, even if you have been vaccinated, to protect yourself and those around you.
- Capacity limits effective April 19, 2021: 75 persons indoors, 150 persons outdoors OR 35% occupancy with 6-foot distance between households, whichever is lower. Capacity limits are to be observed for weddings and funerals as well.
- Registration for services and events is strongly encouraged.
- Ventilate buildings: Open windows or set HVAC systems to introduce fresh air wherever possible. Consider outdoor gatherings where indoor spaces cannot be well-ventilated.
- Follow the latest CDC guidance for faith-based facilities and cleaning and disinfecting instructions.
- Have a safety plan. Implement a detailed plan for physical distancing, signage, and traffic patterns. Require and provide masks. Make hand sanitizer available. Limit the numbers of persons in bathrooms at any one time.
- Remove all prayer books, Bibles, and hymnals. Fonts and holy water stoups are to remain empty.
- Congregational singing is not yet permitted. A cantor or choristers may sing provided they wear masks and keep substantial distance from one another and the congregation. Twenty foot distance is the best practice.
- The Peace is to be exchanged without physical touch. Offer a reverent bow, wave, or greeting while maintaining physical distance.
- Holy Communion is distributed as bread only. Pay careful attention to preparation and hygiene practices as described in the Expanded Guidelines.
- No communal gatherings pre- or post-service are yet permitted, e.g., coffee hours or other food services.
- Formation events for children are permitted only where parents or guardians tend their children, and households are kept at least 6 feet apart. Classes where children and teachers from multiple households are in close proximity to one another are not permitted. Nursery care is not permitted. Youth groups may meet according to the Guidelines for Youth Groups.
- Baptism may be administered following protocols in the Expanded Guidelines (page 9). Special care should be exercised when a young child or a person who is at higher risk is to be baptized or is among the parents and sponsors.
- Pastoral visits are to follow protocols as detailed in the Expanded Guidelines. Pastoral and eucharistic visits are to be kept brief. Observe the protocols of the hospital or care facility at all times.