The following pastoral letter with updated COVID-19 guidelines was sent to congregational and diocesan leadership on May 20, 2021. A Spanish translation is available here.
May 20, 2021
Dear People of the Diocese of Massachusetts,
Changing Realities: An In-Between Time
We write to you during Ascensiontide–that period after the departure of the risen Christ from the company of the faithful, but before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fulfill Jesus' promise of a renewed, different form of companionship. It was the ultimate in-between time–no longer the old, but not yet the new; headed for a changed reality, but as yet full of questions about what that new reality will look like. Together we are in just such an in-between time–one which will certainly last much longer than the 10 days of liturgical Ascensiontide.
Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as throughout the country, we are deeply encouraged by hopeful developments in the pandemic struggle. New cases and COVID-19 deaths are declining; vaccination rates are rising. Last week the CDC announced that fully vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in many settings. Governor Charlie Baker announced on May 17 that all restrictions on businesses will be lifted on May 29, and that the face covering order will be lifted except on public transportation and in healthcare facilities and other settings hosting vulnerable populations.
Local Decisions: Trusting One Another, Protecting One Another
For the past 14 months, clergy and lay leaders of our diocese have faithfully observed limitations on in-person gatherings, bringing together their communities through virtual worship, fellowship, and formation, while also finding concrete ways to serve neighbors in need. We thank you for your extraordinary devotion and leadership! As signs emerge rapidly that many restrictions are no longer needed for those who are fully vaccinated, we feel it is time to entrust local leaders with wider latitude to make most decisions about the pace and scope of regathering, knowing that you will monitor guidance from civic authorities in your own communities, and adjust your practices accordingly. WBUR provides a helpful site for monitoring conditions by town, available here.
At the same time, we also know that there are still in our congregations many vulnerable persons who have yet to be vaccinated. For some, including our youngest members, the vaccine is not yet available; for others, underlying medical conditions or history make vaccination inadvisable. We must still be vigilant to protect one another. A recent article in Sojourners presents this concern compellingly.
Directives provided by public health authorities and civic leaders do not always take into account the particular circumstances of our worshiping communities. While trusting you to stay attuned to directives issued by Governor Baker and local civic leaders, there remain certain guidelines for our common life that we expect you to observe.
In all instances, clergy and vestries who conclude that practices which are more restrictive than those that follow are best in their local context will have our fullest support.
- Effective immediately, and until June 30, indoor in-person worship should be limited to 60% of building capacity. This six-week phase allows for continued expansion of vaccination rates, and the observation of any consequences following swift re-openings in other contexts. Capacity restrictions will be fully lifted July 1, unless statistics warrant a revision to this plan.
- We urge you to continue to observe physical distancing between households in order to protect those who are not yet fully vaccinated. Per CDC guidelines, those who are not yet vaccinated should continue wearing a face convering and maintain physical distance. We encourage all worshipers to maintain these precautions in order to protect one another.
- Outdoor services are strongly encouraged; no attendance limits are prescribed for such worship.
- At the Passing of the Peace, physical contact is discouraged. A slight bow or a hand to the heart remains the safer option.
- In the sharing of Holy Eucharist, please use wafers for the distribution of Communion in one kind only. Refrain from using the common cup; individually pre-packaged wine may be used, if desired. While we hope for a future revision of these restrictions, they remain in effect until further notice.
- Indoor singing by fully vaccinated people wearing masks has been deemed by the CDC to be a safe activity. Accordingly, singing may be permitted by those fulfilling these conditions. Outdoor singing is permitted. Continued physical distancing, indoors and out, is important for anyone singing.
- We hope that congregations will continue to offer virtual opportunities to gather, even when in-person worship and formation resume. This is not only to protect those who are not yet fully vaccinated, but also to benefit from our experience of the past year in reaching a broader circle through online worship and fellowship.
- Churches no longer need to submit a plan for regathering; however, we count on vestries and regathering teams to strategize about how best to respond in your specific context. We want to support you in those conversations, so feel free to e-mail Canon Bill Parnell (email@example.com) to arrange a consultation with a regathering shepherd.
- We continue to urge vaccination against the coronavirus for all our members as soon as they are eligible.
- We reiterate, however, that our congregations must not require vaccination, nor documentation thereof, for attendance at worship services.
- It is within the authority of the rector or priest-in-charge, in consultation with the wardens, to require vaccination (or a medical exemption) of church staff, musicians/choristers, and volunteer leaders of Christian formation (especially with children) and other programs. For the protection of those most vulnerable, we strongly encourage you to do so.
Fellowship and Pastoral Care
- Coffee hour and other events with food and drinks may resume. We ask that you plan carefully about how food and drinks are served. Individually wrapped foods and designated servers, as opposed to potlucks or buffets, are a safer option.
- Continue to exercise caution when making in-person pastoral visits. Brief visits with minimal physical proximity are safer, especially for those who are most vulnerable due to illness or age.
Christian Formation and Childcare
- Christian formation classes and events for all ages may resume, though we ask that you carefully consider ways to reduce the potential for spread of the virus among young children, since they are not yet eligible for vaccination. You may wish to consult with your local schools or daycare providers about the practices they are observing.
- Nurseries and childcare may resume provided the standards established by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care are observed.
We recognize that these latest guidelines will not address every situation in your congregation. Here we reiterate our wish at this time to entrust increased discretion to local leaders to make decisions about the pace, scope, and details of regathering that are suited to your local context. You should continue to direct your questions or need of support, as well as your shared wisdom and experiences, to diocesan staff and other colleagues. Please address such communications to Canon Bill Parnell (firstname.lastname@example.org), who will be hosting a drop-in informational session by Zoom on Wednesday, May 26, when he will be available to answer questions between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. (The Zoom link has been e-mailed to clergy and congregational leaders; there is no obligation to stay for the entire session.)
As we continue to live through this in-between time together, we are enormously proud and grateful for your own adaptive, creative, and committed ministry during these challenging months. May the Spirit descend upon you and your congregations anew to fill you with God's grace and strength!
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop Diocesan
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan