August 18, 2020

 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

 

For almost six months we have been living in response to the coronavirus, changing the patterns and practices of our work, worship, and social interactions. While we are becoming more accustomed to frequent handwashing, masks, and distancing, we continue to face unfamiliar fears and frustrations in our everyday lives. In spite of the efforts of many to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, we continue to watch both COVID-19 cases and death counts increase nationally at a distressing rate. Most of us are experiencing some degree of “pandemic fatigue,” the emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from the stress of uncertainty, anxiety, and change to daily routines.

 

All of this is doubtless compounded by the modifications we have had to make to numerous reliable support structures in our lives. For us as Christians, that is particularly true of the worship, fellowship, formation, and outreach gatherings that frame the spiritual disciplines of our faith. We yearn to be together, to worship as a community, to share fully in the Eucharistic celebration, to be fed by word and sacrament, and to lift our voices in sacred song. The adjustments parishes have made to stay connected and provide spiritual nurture through in-person and online services continue to be inspiring. They are not what we were used to and may not be what we desire, but they are coping with the realities of this difficult time in creative and faithful ways.

 

The two most frequently expressed longings are for personal contact and reception of the Eucharistic elements. I know how difficult it is not to have available to us the regular companionship of others and the sacramental communion of Christ’s body and blood. Social connection is being accommodated for those who feel able to risk in-person gathering by practicing cautious distancing and sanitizing. Even in those cases, the precautions and restrictions necessary to keep one another safe are for some discouraging and for others inadequate, given their susceptibility to contagion. The continuation of rich online worship offerings remains essential for countless communicants who cannot risk public gatherings.

 

Reception of the sacrament

 

The fast from receiving the consecrated elements has been difficult for all and has been a source of deep frustration for some. While reception of the sacrament will continue to present an increased risk of exposure, especially for those with particular vulnerability, we will allow the sacrament to be distributed in one kind (bread only) at public worship beginning on Sunday, September 6. This will provide congregations time to consider thoughtfully whether to do so, and to make the necessary adjustments for providing as much safety as possible. Please understand that permission to distribute the sacrament does not imply any assumption that this is appropriate for every congregation and communicant. No clergy or communicants are required or expected to participate in the celebration or reception of Eucharist unless they so choose. Parishes may well determine it is best to wait until all parishioners are able safely to participate before resuming any of these practices, including in-person worship.

 

In choosing to provide for reception by communicants, the clergy and vestry are taking on an increased responsibility for the health of each person committed to their spiritual care. To that end, a number of precautions and practices in preparation for and celebration of Holy Eucharist will be required. These include:

 

1) All involved in any aspect of preparation and celebration will wear masks and thoroughly wash hands before handling elements and vessels.

2) The Celebrant alone will set the table and be the only person to stand at it for the Great Thanksgiving.

3) The Celebrant alone will handle the elements, and only after thoroughly cleansing the hands with sanitizer.

4) The Celebrant alone will consume the “Priest Host” and the wine.

5) The bread for all other communicants will be in the form of wafers and brought to the table for consecration in a covered ciborium, breadbox, or similar container, and remain covered through consecration and until distribution. Pre-packaged bread and wine, or bread brought individually by communicants from home for personal consumption, are not permitted.

6) Distribution will be at a station at the front of the chancel. The altar rail will not be used.

7) Communicants will come forward individually, wearing masks, and practicing safe distancing of at least 6 feet.

8) The Celebrant will drop the consecrated wafer into the open hands of the communicant without touching them.

9) The communicant will lift the mask, consume the sacrament, replace the mask, and return to the pew, providing as much safe distancing as possible.

10) Following the service, Altar Guild members will wear gloves when cleaning vessels and divesting the altar of linens and other articles.

11) These requirements apply equally to outdoor services. While the weather permits, it is encouraged to worship outdoors whenever possible, as it immeasurably increases safety.

 

A video is being prepared to assist in planning and will be sent to clergy and congregations shortly.

 

The distribution of consecrated hosts to the hospitalized, homebound, and those in hospice care may be done by priests only, taking extreme caution. Please use only hosts that have been previously consecrated, and practice safe distancing in every way possible. It is up to the priest to determine the pastoral need for Eucharistic visitation, and should not put herself or any communicant at risk. It is not permissible to use this pastoral accommodation as a vehicle for providing “private” communion services for individual parishioners or families to receive the sacrament outside of regularly scheduled services.

 

While this change in our protocols may come as welcome news to some, it may also cause increased anxiety and potential division for others. There are countless reasons why returning to reception of the elements might not be appropriate in any given context. If we focus on what is best for the other, and not on getting our own way, we will surely build community rather than risk dividing it. If there is disagreement among vestry and clergy leaders on how to proceed, the Bishop’s Office is available to assist in making the decision.

 

We receive sacramental communion as a precious, spiritual gift that is intended to inspire and challenge us to achieve the communion for which Jesus prayed in John 17, that we “all might be one.” Whether or not we choose as a congregation to offer the sacrament, or as an individual to receive it, the experience of yearning for it over these months is profound and formative in and of itself. I pray that the deep longing we share to receive communion in this pandemic time will serve to deepen our longing to achieve the ecclesial and societal communion that is modeled in the holy meal and for which Jesus gave his life, that “beloved community” which all of us are striving for in this time of political and social division.

 

 

Use of parish property for non-religious nursery and preschool programs

 

There is one clarification regarding the use of parish property for non-religious educational programs like weekday child-care and nursery schools that has been added to the regathering protocols. Those parishes that provide space for such programs should note the following two paragraphs:

 

Childcare and educational programs like preschool that operate in a parish owned facility and are not religious education programs (e.g. Sunday School, Christian formation, etc.), must follow or exceed all current State of Ohio coronavirus safety regulations and mandates which apply to their business. Prior to opening, they must sign a diocesan provided statement to that effect which the parish will hold on file. No parish is required to allow such an organization to reopen in their building and the parish may require additional safety measures as the vestry desires.

 

As of this writing, Governor DeWine has mandated a ten-person limit to public gatherings in the State of Ohio. While religious institutions are currently exempted from this restriction, the religious purpose does not minimize the risk, nor the importance of caution. This should be kept in mind when planning worship and other church gatherings.

 

 

Know that you may continue to direct questions about regathering protocols to the Rev. Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations, or any other member of the Bishop’s Staff.

 

As we continue to make our way forward with the ambiguities and ever-changing landscape of this virus, Bishop Williams and I are considering when episcopal visitations might be resumed and how services of Confirmation and Reception can safely be provided. It is very likely that we will create a new schedule in order to accommodate both the visitations that have been cancelled since April and the likelihood that, at first, I will be the only bishop making visits. In the meantime, I have been joining Zoom calls with Confirmation and Inquirers classes whenever invited, providing an opportunity to get to know and support those intending to make a public affirmation of their faith, regardless of when that might be accomplished in a worship service.

 

Last Monday, in the weekly, half-hour Zoom check-in for bishops and their designees with Episcopal Relief and Development and the Presiding Bishop’s Office, the guest presenter was Dr. Anthony Fauci. In both his opening remarks and the question-and-answer dialogue that made up the majority of the call, he reiterated the critical importance of these three things: the universal wearing of masks, the avoidance of crowds, and keeping a distance of at least six feet from one another. As well, he urged all of us in the church to provide hope. Any resignation that this virus is here for good or that we can do nothing to combat it leads only to reduced vigilance and irresponsible behaviors that the virus will capitalize on, and that will inevitably thwart our critical effort to arrest the outbreak. He assured us that we will develop effective vaccines and treatments that will allow us to return to more familiar behaviors, but right now we must take advantage of the window we have with warm, dry weather to be out of doors and to take essential precautions in order to slow the pandemic’s progress.

 

In closing, please know of my continued prayers for you, the congregations in which you worship, and the communities in which you live and serve. By grace and your continued fidelity to God’s mission, we will come through this time stronger and more connected to one another and to God.

 

With every blessings,

The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.

Bishop of Ohio