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So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.

*** Guidelines and public health orders for opening up churches are sometimes hard to follow as the long lists can make your mind go numb. The following is a way of trying to put the guidelines in narrative context, to help picture what “going back to church” might look like in these COVID-19 days. ***

Sample Guidelines

It’s been months of isolation, months of mostly staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But active cases are going down (or maybe not), and politicians and business leaders are worried about the economic impact of social distancing. And so, for a few weeks now, things have been opening up. Playgrounds and hair salons, dentists and restaurant patios are letting people come back. 

And things seem to be going well enough, so the government announces the next phase of opening, which includes increased gathering sizes. And one of the places you have been missing the most, your church, sends out an email telling you that they are going to re-open for an in-person service on Sunday. 

You heard from a friend that your Pastor was against it, but enough folks were pressuring the council because of freedom of religion, people are getting tired of staying home and surely church should be a safe place right? Plus you are missing your friends, the folks you love to see on Sunday mornings, the other couples that you often go for brunch with following worship. 

Finally, the big day comes, you wake up excited to get back to this important part of your life, to something that feels little bit like normal, seeing familiar faces, hearing  familiar music, being in familiar community. 

You hop in the car with your spouse and make the well worn drive to church. You notice that the streets are even deader than usual for a Sunday morning. 

When you arrive at church there are few cars parked around building. You go to your normal parking spot, just down a side street, half a block from the church. 

You start walking up to the building, but before you get too close, a masked volunteer stops you. They are standing on the side walk. 

“Please stay there.” they stop you about 6 feet away from where they are standing. 

Okay… you think you know who this is, but they have a mask on their face and you aren’t totally sure. 

“Have you had any of the following symptoms recently: Cough, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing?”

“No, not that I know of,” you say.

“Are you over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions?”

“No,” you say.

Technically, you and your spouse are 67 and you take blood pressure meds. But it’s no big deal.

“Have you been travelling recently, or spent any time with someone who has travelled recently?”

“No,” you answer again.

You don’t mention the socially distanced backyard BBQ you had with your neighbours the other night, including one neighbour who is a long haul trucker. 

“Have you been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers?” 

“I don’t think so,” you murmur.

The babysitting you do for your son and daughter-in-law, who is a care-home nurse, doesn’t count. Family doesn’t count, right? 

“Please maintain social distance while you wait in line here.”

The volunteer gestures ahead, where you see a few dozen folks lined up – all space out according to markers along the side walk.  

Usually when you arrive at church, you come early to visit with folks before the service, but as you stand in line, people just whisper amongst households. Even though you can see many familiar faces ahead, you cannot help but feel suspicion and fear when you look at the others. You try to shake the feeling, but this pandemic world has affected you more than you want to admit.

Another couple lines up behind you and then you hear the masked volunteer turn another family away. 

“Sorry, we are at the max group size we are allowed. Maybe try again next week.”

The church stays closed right up until the time of the service. Then finally with 5 minutes to go, the door opens and households begin entering, one at a time. Another masked volunteer is letting people in. 

Slowly, you shuffle up to the door. When it gets to your turn, the volunteer waves you in. There are two surgical masks and some hand sanitizer laid out on a table.

“Please clean your hands and then put these masks on.”

You comply.

“Please follow the taped line to pew number 23 and take your seat. Please don’t stop to talk to anyone, and please remain seated for the duration of the service.”

You follow the taped line into the sanctuary, everyone is sitting down in space-out pews by household. The church is eerily quiet, kind of a like a funeral with a masked pianist playing quietly. 

Finally when everyone is inside, the doors to the church are closed. 

Instead of processing in from the back, where the pastor is usually visiting with people before church, the pastor slips in from the front of the church through a side door. The pastor then greets you from behind a mask… which makes them hard to understand. The pastor then explains that there will be no singing in worship, and no praying together or communal responses to the liturgy. You then notice there are no hymnbooks, offering envelopes or welcome cards in the pews. They are just empty. You also didn’t get a bulletin on the way in. 

Listening to the pastor, they don’t sound like their normal self… forced, stressed, tense? You can’t quite put your finger on it. 

The pastor then goes and stands in front of a phone on a tripod at the front of church and starts talking to it, welcoming all the people worshipping online. The pastor explains where the bulletin can be found on the Facebook page, how to share the peace and greet others also watching online. Then the pastor picks up the tripod turns it around and asks you to wave at the phone… which feels pretty silly and weird. 

Worship begins.

The pianist plays the hymns, but no one can sing. So you just sit and listen. It felt awkward to sing along with the hymns at home, but this feels even more strange. 

The pastor then begins worship, and every time you want to say “And also with you” or “Amen” you have to stop yourself. Instead, there is just silence while the pastor imagines how long it would take the folks watching online to give the responses. 

The first masked volunteer goes to a mic and music stand on the other side of chancel to read the lessons. You can’t say join in the psalm responsively, so again you just sit quietly and listen. 

Finally it comes time for the sermon. The pastor preaches about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, encouraging you (but mostly the folks at home) to keep the faith. The pastor says that the time will come when the spirit will send us out into the world – but that time isn’t quite yet. And that even though we are apart, the spirit ties us together into one.

It doesn’t really feel like the pastor is preaching to you, but mostly to the those still at home.  

After listening to the hymn of the day, the creed and the prayers, it comes time for the peace.

The pastor offers the peace, but tells you that today it has to be virtual sharing only. The pastor uses their iPad to share with the folks online, and talks a bit to the phone again saying hello to people watching at home and commenting. 

Then it comes time for communion. Something you have missed for months now.  

The pastor puts on a face shield and changes their mask before the Thanksgiving at the Table. You notice that they don’t lift the bread or the wine. After the Lord’s prayer, which you say along with the pastor in your head, one of the masked volunteers steps up to the mic to instruct you on how to receive communion. 

And household by household you go forward. There is only bread to receive today. You have to hand sanitize again at the front. The pastor is using a set of kitchen tongs to put the wafers in the hands of each person. 

“The bread of Christ given for you.” you hear from behind mask and shield. 

This is not like communion you have ever received before. You aren’t allowed to eat until the pastor has moved away, and then after you put the wafer in your mouth, you have to hand sanitize again (also knowing that pulling off your mask has compromised it, because your daughter-in-law gave you a lecture in mask wearing). 

The service concludes with another hymn that you listen to, a blessing and some announcements. 

And then just like you came in, you have to follow the tape straight out of the building, one household at a time. The pastor isn’t greeting people on the way out, in fact there is no one. Just the the voice of the masked volunteer in the PA system announcing pew numbers. There are signs that tell you to leave the church straight away, no lingering. 

You walk back to your car with your spouse. 

You get in for the drive home. 

You have no idea what you just experienced. You were at church, there were other people there, there were hymns and prayers, the pastor preached, you received communion (kind of)… but that wasn’t church, and it certainly wasn’t what you imagined when you thought of things opening back up again….

You drive home in silence… realizing that just maybe the world has changed more than you figured before now. 

It might take some time to get used to this. 

+++

Three days later you get a text from your neighbour, one of the ones you have had a few socially distant BBQs with. 

“You are going to get a call from the public health nurse,” it reads.

“I am so sorry.”

A few minutes later the phone rings. 

“Hi, I am calling from your local public health agency. I am calling you today as a part of COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Your heart drops and the nurse’s voice starts to sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. You make out something about a testing appointment, the nurses gives you a time, date and address. 

Then the nurse says, “I am going to need to you to tell me all the people you might have come into contact with in the past two weeks. Especially, any groups in indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, like doctor’s offices or someone else’s home, or maybe a church…”

Fasting from the Body of Christ and Fasting from the Eucharist

I don’t know if I remember the last time I went this long without communion. Maybe I never have. 

Public gatherings in the church that I serve have been suspended since the middle of March. On March 15th we last gathered for in-person worship with a Service of the Word. We last shared the Eucharist together March the 8th, over 3 weeks ago. And to be sure, those three weeks have felt like 3 years with the daily, hourly even, updates about the state of the COVID-19 Pandemic across the globe and in our respective nations and in our local communities. 

My congregation is far from alone, all churches in the city I live in can only have up to 10 people in attendance if they are still holding public worship. Most cancelled in-person gatherings weeks ago and have moved to streaming worship online or finding other means to maintain relationship and connections like phone calls, emails, recorded messages, letters, zoom meetings etc…

The need to practice physical distancing measures have been taken up for the sake of each other. A sacrifice of community for the sake of community. 

And it hasn’t been easy to cease our in-person gatherings. 

Many people are working from home, often with kids who are schooling at home. Others are health-care workers putting in long, stress filled hours. Still others are elderly or immunocompromised and self-isolating, not even venturing out for the basics but relying on others.

We all have been making do the best we can. We have been worshipping on Facebook live. I have been writing regular pastoral letters to our email list, on the phone with others, sending lots of texts. We are physically apart, but socializing and relationship maintaining as best we all can. 

But it is hard. 

There was a death in our church community, and the funeral was a small, private and brief grave-side service in the cold tundra of Manitoba. Not how we would usually gather to worship and pray in the face of death.

Still others have had surgeries cancelled,  and others laid off or losing business and income. 

Things aren’t normal, our community isn’t as it should be. There is something fundamentally changed and different about us in this time. 

We are fasting from each other. Not by choice, but by circumstance. 

I am starved for community. 

Even with the zoom meetings, Facebook live worship, and FaceTime calls. Even with the emails, social media, text messages and phone calls. 

We are fasting from community and it sucks.  

And for many Christians, this first fast is necessitating a secondary fast. 

The first fast is from the Body of Christ that is the gathered assembly: the people that you usually see in the pew next to yours, hear the voice of behind you during the hymns, hug during the sharing of the peace, pass the offering plate to, sidle up shoulder to shoulder with at the communion rail, shake hands with on the way to coffee and a cookie. The people that have attended to your baptism, and children’s baptism, and grand-children’s baptism, who have marked decades of Christmases and Easters with you, who have served egg-salad sandwiches with you at many funerals, flipped burgers with you at church picnics, called when your dad was in the hospital, baked a casserole when your grandma died, sent a card for your birthday. 

And not being able to gather for in person worship has meant not being able to share in the Lord’s Supper.

Fasting from one Body, means fasting from the other. 

In a world where so much feels like it is being ripped away, to have to sacrifice the Lord’s Supper can feel cruel. 

If you have been anywhere near clergy on social media in the past few weeks, you will have seen the prominent debate around this issue. In particular, a strong division over whether or not it is possible to have communion “online.” For a pastor or priest to preside on one end of the camera and for a parishioner to receive the Eucharist on the other end of the computer. 

Already several pastors and congregations have begun offering “virtual” communion. And this is being done so as to offer comfort and familiarity, connection and relationship. Which I completely understand as someone charged with the care of a congregation. I get it. 

And yet, I simply cannot deny that this time is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It is disconnected and isolating. 

And trying to find a loophole through which to keep on as if nothing can change our worship life and the way we are connected as a community seems disingenuous. 

In fact, I wonder what it says to the world beyond our church communities about how this pandemic is affecting us. Even in the midst of this crisis that impacts nearly every arena of society, the only real impact on our worship life is watching church from the comfort of my couch or kitchen table rather than our favourite pew?

While I often try to name and promote the incredible power of social media and digital technology to create real honest community, I don’t pretend that it is no different than the in body, in flesh experience of in person community. The power of digital media is to create community despite being separated by distance or circumstance. To stay connected to family living far away, friends across the nation and across borders. And also create new connections. To meet new people across the world who share the same interests, passions and faith. Some of the people I most regularly talk to in my day to day life are people I have never met in person, yet people who hold an important place in my life.

But the power of in person community is to connect in an incarnational way. To recognize that my in flesh experience of my siblings in Christ imparts a sense of the incarnate Christ. To hear, see, touch, smell and taste the body of the assembly and the sacrament in person is to hear, see, touch, smell and taste Christ. And to do so very particularly in the Eucharist that we boldly claim is an embodied reality of the divine.

An embodied reality of salvation, forgiveness and life. 

This essential quality of the Lord’s supper cannot be communicated digitally, no matter our desire for it. When I order something from Amazon it doesn’t come flying out of my computer screen at my face. It still needs to be picked up off a shelf, mailed, transported, and delivered to me. 

The limitation isn’t the Holy Spirit’s, but the medium’s.

Yet!

And yet!

We still have the Word. 

The Word which has always been mediated outside of the body, in language, time and space. 

The church has from the beginning used the technology available to transmit the Word. Whether it was Paul’s writings and the writings of the early church, or the art and music of the Middle Ages, or the printing press of the Reformation or the telegraph, telephone, radio and television of the modern era. (None of which became means for transmitting the Eucharist remotely). 

The proclamation of the Word has always transcended bodies and mediums even as the Lord’s Supper has been deeply rooted in our bodies and flesh.  Our assembled body in worship – the local congregation or ministry community –  is transformed into the very Body of Christ that we partake in when we gather to hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper together. 

And so in this time of imposed fasting from the gathered Body of Christ found in local assemblies, we must also fast from the Eucharist. Not because church leaders, theologians and bishops have reminded us that it can be good for us… but because we have no other choice. Because we are staying home and staying away in order to love our neighbour.

Our fast from the Body of Christ has been imposed upon us by circumstance. No matter how much we, as clergy, desire to care for and love our people in the midst of crisis, we cannot continue to deny that we are not deeply affected and changed by the physical distancing measures of this time, even as they may last months. We cannot pretend that our worship life isn’t deeply altered by having to #StayHome. We cannot portray to the world that we are little enclaves of ritual unimpacted by the suffering of the world around us. We cannot find loopholes through this imposed fast, we are separated in a real and life-changing way. 

And most importantly we cannot continue to act as though the Word of God is insufficient. 

Because it is more than enough. 

The Word alone in this moment of crisis is all that we need. It is enough to offer the care and love that our people need. 

And it is the vital thing that we need to share with an imminently suffering world.

Sunday morning zoom communion seems empty and callous in the face of those dying alone in quarantine, to those unable to get a ventilator to fill their lungs with life saving oxygen, those unable to receive a hospital bed because there is a waiting list already, those suffering at home and unable to breathe enough to find some bread and wine to serve themselves, or too sick to keep down any food. Let alone all those who cannot be online. 

Virtual communion rings too true to the Eucharistic controversy in 1 Corinthians 11, where some would feast while others starved. It rings too true to one of the primary objections of the Reformers that priests were saying mass by themselves in dark corners of churches to earn merit remotely for paying customers.

We cannot try to tend to our own fears in our own little bubbles while the world suffers. We cannot try to pretend that our gathering in person, in physical bodies together as the local assembly is not an essential part of the Eucharist. We cannot give into the fear that God’s Word is not all that we need, even as we feel helpless to do much of anything meaningful.

God’s promise to us from the beginning of creation is that the Word alone in this or any moment of crisis is all that we need.

The Word’s promise of mercy, life and salvation might be the only hope that will bring any comfort to so many who are about to land in our laps as clergy and as communities of the faithful. Words that have to be spoke through phones and tablets held up to the dying in quarantine,  streamed to the scared and isolated suffering at home, to the overburdened front-line workers who may have no other source of strength left to care.

The Word of God is not only what we as the scattered Body needs, but the world needs right now. As governments strain and crack under the pressure, as people struggle pay rent and buy food, as we hope that a treatment or vaccine is around corner but will take some time, the Good News of Christ the Word meets us here and now. If there is an emergency that the church is about to face, it is not how to get communion to the faithful stuck at home, but how to speak God’s promise of grace, mercy and life to the sick, scared, grieving and dying among us.

And the Word of God will meet our needs, despite our fears.

The Word of God who brings life to the dying, mercy to the suffering, and comfort to the lonely is enough. 

The Word of God who has endured this passion journey before us is sufficient. 

The Word of God who promises that COVID-19 will not define us. That social distancing and isolation will not be all the we are. That death will not be our end. 

Even as Good Friday may loom larger than we ever imagined possible, the Word of God who walks with us out of the tomb at Easter is all the grace we need… God would not allow it to be any other way. 

And so we fast. 

Not because we want to or because it is good for us. 

But because it is simply reality. We fast for the sake of our neighbour, for the sake of the world. 

We fast from community, from the gathered Body of Christ. We fast from the Body and Blood of Christ, because we are fasting from community, from each other in flesh that reveals the incarnate Christ. 

And yet in us, God still proclaims the Good News that the world needs to hear, that we need to hear. 

And it will be enough. 

HOW TO CLOSE YOUR DOORS AND STILL BE CHURCH: COVID-19 Pastoral Letter

Here is a Pastoral Letter that I shared with my congregation, which you are welcome to adapt and use in your congregation in the face of suspending public gatherings.

Dear friends,

Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus who is the Christ.

I am sure you have been listening to and reading the news. Each day brings more restrictions on our daily lives. School classes suspended, more workers working from home, the closing of public places like libraries and recreation centres, and now restaurants and bars in some jurisdictions. 

I am sure you feel anxious and nervous as I do. We don’t know what is coming next for us and we don’t know how long we will be here. 

Here at the church, we are not immune to the changes either. Our leaders have been offering guidance over the past number of days, as the Bishops distributed pastoral letters that encouraged us to change our behaviour and worship to limit the spread of COVID-19, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. 

As this Pandemic situation progresses, we are learning that this is not enough. That the best way to combat the spread of the coronavirus, is to practice social distancing. And the best way to social distance, is to stay home as much as possible.

Following the recommendations of our Bishops, with the care of one another first and foremost in mind,

The time has come for us to enact a suspension of all our public, in-person gatherings. 

Beginning immediately, there will be no public events at the church, no committee meetings, or other types of gatherings with many people in attendance. Our worship services will be moved entirely to an online streaming format. Our meetings as they are needed, will be done over zoom. 

We do not know for how long these measures will be enacted, but at a minimum we will not be worshipping until Holy Week and anticipate the suspension lasting longer. 

It is a hard decision to make. Gathering as a community is so central to our identity as people of faith. I already am missing seeing you and it is only been 48 hours since we last met. And yet, suspending our in person gatherings does not mean we are closed, does not mean we are no longer a community, does not mean that we stop being the church, the body of Christ. 

So what can we do?

Streaming 

Well, as has already begun last week, worship services will be streamed on our Facebook Page. Anyone can access our Facebook Page, even if you don’t have a Facebook account. www.facebook.com/sherparkwpg.

Our Sunday morning, services will continue to begin at 10:30am. 

Mid-week Lenten services will continue on Thursday evenings. 

All streamed services are available afterwards, so if you are late there is no worry, you can still start from the beginning. 

Giving

As I mentioned in my last Pastoral letter, this will be a time when so many will have affected incomes, including the congregation. 

I encourage you to continue to give to support the church. 

I will do my best to maintain a presence in the office, and to make the church available for drop-offs. 

Additionally, the mailbox will be monitored daily. So offering can be mailed or dropped of (Remember no cash, just cheques). 

You can also consider donating through our PayPal account, which is found at www.sherpark.ca/donate

There you can make one-time donations, or set up a recurring donation. 

Finally, many of you already give through Pre-Authorized remittance. Consider increasing if you are able. Get in touch with the church office and our treasurer team if you would like to begin. 

In this weeks and months in particular, those with fixed incomes will be an asset to the congregation,  beyond.  

But giving offering isn’t going to be the only way to give. 

Caring

There are many in our community who will be affected by this time of social distancing and isolation. 

Those who use the services of the food banks and shelters that we support will need extra support. So Consider dropping off extra food a supplies if you are able. Call head or make an appointment to come at a time when someone can be here to receive the items. 

Others will be without transportation, many will be self-isolating because of age or compromised immune systems. Consider helping by picking groceries, perscriptions and supplies. Get in touch with the church if you need help in this way or can help in this way. 

Checking-In

Finally, we are community. We are connected and belong to each other, even if we aren’t gathering. Phone, text, email, Skype, FaceTime, write letters. Being at home doesn’t mean we cannot connect. 

If anyone would like a regular phone call or check-in, let me know and we can make arrangements!

We are living in strange and unprecedented times. No one knows where will be next week, next month, next year. But we do know that this is going to change us. Our part is to let that be a change for the worse or the better. 

Thankfully, we also have a God who has something to say about this time of hardship and suffering. The isolation and distance will not define, we will remain children of God. The possibility of sickness will not change to whom we belong. The One who names we bear will always be the one who brings us from death into life, from seemingly hopeless graves to rolled away stones and upper rooms. 

We are Christ’s. No virus, or enforced time alone will change that. 

And so Almighty God

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Bless, preserve and keep us

This day and forevermore 

Pastor Erik+