Dear Sisters, Brothers, Siblings,
We know our world, our lives, and our church have changed drastically since the emergence of COVID-19. The past few weeks have been filled with sorrows and blessings, challenges and opportunities, losses and celebrations. There is much to grieve and to celebrate. I am reminded of the words of a song that is a source of hope and solace for me and many others.
“If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown.
If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed.
If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side,
Know that I am with you through it all.
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come follow Me, and I will give you rest.”
— Footnote1 by Bob Dufford © Oregon Catholic Press
On Friday, May 1, Indiana Governor Holcomb released a five staged plan entitled “Back on Track” Indiana. The plan identifies “four guiding principles that will determine if stages to reopen various sectors of the economy will move forward.” I believe we need to move forward more prudently, which is why Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and I issued our Joint Statement last Friday.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in his Word to the Church wrote, “As our seasons of life in the COVID-19 world continue to turn, we are called to continue to be creative, to risk, to love. We are called to ask, what would unselfish, sacrificial love do?”
I believe unselfish, sacrificial love requires abstaining a while longer from in-person worship in our church buildings. We will continue to offer virtual worship throughout the month of May as our faith communities develop a plan for in – person worship to be implemented, hopefully in June. In order for in-person worship to occur, the following Four Criteria need to be met:
- The number of COVID-19 cases has to have decreased in your county for 14 days.
- Your county retains the ability to test all Hoosiers who are COVID-19 symptomatic.
- Health officials in your county have systems in place to contact all individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and complete contact tracing.
- A plan to safely re-gather for in-person worship has been developed and received approval from the Bishop.
A link to the Indiana State Department of Health COVID-19 website, where your county’s information can be found, is available here. When these criteria have been met, the Bishop’s office may give permission to return to in-person worship, following appropriate guidelines as outlined in this document and in recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the local Department of Health and Public Safety. That being said, even when in-person worship resumes, we will not “get back to normal” for some time.
Just to be clear, May 24 is the earliest date at which we may begin a slow, deliberate, step-by-step return to opening buildings in the diocese. In concert with the Indiana Stage 1 restrictions, the person count will be capped at ten, with masks, hand sanitizing and physical distancing in effect.
Because state guidelines urge those who are 65 and older, and those who have compromising health concerns to stay home during Phases 1-3, those who gather are encouraged to provide live-streamed worship for those not physically present.
For faith communities where substantial portions of the clergy and laity are 65 and older or have compromising health concerns, more creative approaches may be in order so as to protect the health and well-being of all concerned.
The Missioners and I support you in the decision to approach re-gathering at a more cautious pace and are happy to help you work through any challenges.
While the last eight weeks have been complicated, confusing and challenging, they have also provided an opportunity to deepen our relationships with one another, to pray for each other and to support one another in new and different ways. I am so grateful for the many gifts you have offered to move us into a new way of praying, gathering, worshiping, studying the scriptures, being formed in faith and offering pastoral care. It is a new way of living out the 5 Marks of Mission…to tell, teach, tend, transform and treasure!
The general guidance that follows is intended to address this new reality in which we find ourselves and the practical reality of continuing the work of Christ in the world. It is intended to be a resource for clergy and vestries to consider in advance of offering in-person worship. Setting clear expectations, and sharing plans with our communities in advance, will help tremendously in making the return to in-person worship joyful, meaningful, and above all safe.
There is so much we do not know about the COVID-19 virus. But we do know that our faith communities are unique. It will be up to each faith community, and indeed each individual, to accept responsibility for their own health and safety and to consider the safety of others. Each person participating in in-person worship will do so at their own risk.
Public Health Guidelines
As any plans are being developed, familiarize your Vestry with federal, state, and local orders and guidelines that apply to your faith community. In the Diocese of Northern Indiana, we are committed to revising these policies as necessary. These policies will change in the months to come. What seems appropriate today or next week may be revised or may no longer apply in a month or in six months.
This comes with a brother’s love,
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Sparks
VIII Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana