June 15 bishops' guidance: Preparing for Stage Two regathering

The bishops issued the following guidance on June 15, 2020, to clergy and congregational and diocesan leadership, regarding preparations and the certification procedure required of Diocese of Massachusetts congregations before they transition to "Stage Two" in-person regathering after July 1.

June 15, 2020

Dear People of the Diocese of Massachusetts,

For the past three months we have been affected in previously unimagined ways by the coronavirus pandemic.  Every congregation has found new ways of being Church – in worship, fellowship and serving our neighbors.  We continue to be deeply impressed and profoundly grateful to you – the leaders and people of our churches – for your creativity, faithfulness, patience and commitment.

Since mid-May Episcopal congregations in Massachusetts have been operating under the bishops’ directive for no in-person public worship until July 1.  As we approach that date, we want to communicate our expectations of churches after that date.

At this time, based upon epidemiological recommendations, we strongly encourage congregations to refrain from in-person public worship, and to continue virtual opportunities for all aspects of church life until a move to less restrictive policies is indicated by public health considerations. However, congregations whose leaders upon careful consideration and planning believe that local conditions will allow for limited, safe in-person regathering may begin to move from Stage One to Stage Two, functioning within guidelines described in the May 18 document A Journey By Stages” (in English here and Spanish here).  Certification that conditions have been met for such in-person regathering will be required. The certification procedure is described below and in the online "A Journey By Stages: Stage Two Checklist" available here.

In moving towards more localized decision-making, a congregation’s leaders should observe prayerfully and scrupulously the following principles for consideration:

1. Local Context:  Consideration must be given to local coronavirus outbreak data; advisories by local community public health officials; architectural capacity and design of the church building; the ability of your staff and congregation to implement and maintain safety requirements; the prevalence of risk factors among your membership and your clergy and lay staff; and other factors particular to your situation.

2. Care for the Most Vulnerable:  Many congregants and staff members with various risk factors will be advised or required to remain at home in order to stay safe.  Others have unequal levels of access, both physically and technologically.  Congregations should make inclusion and support of these members a key factor in all decisions about the timing and implementation of regathering.

3. Mutual Support and Accountability:  As we work through this in our local contexts, we are not alone in this challenge.

A diocesan team of “regathering shepherds” will be available for consultation in working through an online Stage Two Checklist, enabling a congregation to implement the “Journey By Stages” guidelines.  Congregations with a completed plan for regathering should submit their checklist, endorsed by a regathering shepherd, to certify that all due care has been exercised.

Of course, in addition to being accountable to one another within our diocesan community, we remain accountable also to all state and local guidelines, and ultimately to honesty with ourselves!  Neither faithful prayer nor wishful thinking allow us to risk the well-being of self and neighbor.

4. Non-linear Trajectory:  Every congregation should be prepared to return to the restrictions of previous stages should public health conditions worsen with new spikes or surges during the continuing months of this pandemic.  In addition, houses of worship have been documented as places of virus transmission.  A local congregation must be ready to respond to information based on the positive test of a congregant or staff member, or contact tracing by a local board of health.

5. Being our Best Possible Church:  The limitations of Stage Two may simply be too challenging for some congregations.  No congregation or leaders should feel pressure to regather prematurely. Continuing with practices of Stage One may be a fuller expression of Church than attempting something which is “permissible” but not helpful or sustainable.  Give careful thought to what has worked well and what you have learned about being Church in Stage One before giving it up.

Leaders in congregations preparing to move to Stage Two should contact the canon to the ordinary, the Rev. Canon Bill Parnell, bparnell@diomass.org, who will in turn connect your clergy or local team leadership with a regathering shepherd. The Stage Two Checklist does not replace but rather complements the “Journey By Stages” document.  All such materials are intended to help us be sure that our plans are comprehensive and safe.

The work ahead is daunting, but we are certain that taking the time for careful planning is essential. It is rooted in the covenant we make with one another at baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”  Our deepest hope is that our efforts to support one another in these decisions and preparations will indeed be manifestations of our love of God and one another.

Finally, in times of anxiety, frustration and grief, may we live gently with ourselves and one another. Mistakes will be made.  Decision fatigue will be inevitable.  Disappointment will be around the corner, again and again. So too will there be grace and discovery, as we continue to claim our identity as a people of hope and new beginnings.  May we do so with patience, forgiveness and good will!

Faithfully and gratefully,

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris