Why aren’t we gathering in person?

As a Communications Coordinator both at St. Paul’s Church, and in Bishop Rob’s diocesan office, I have been immersed in pandemic related communications since Friday, March 13th.  Since that time, clergy around the country have wrestled with balancing their deep yearning to gather in-person against their responsibility to keep parishioners and local communities safe.  While St. Paul’s Emergency Preparedness committee is studying protocols to prepare for reopening at some point in the future, leaders do not expect it to be safe or feasible to gather in person during the immediate future. Answering the heartbreaking question, “Why aren’t we gathering in person?” involves several key concerns: 

There have been many tragic examples of the rapid transmission of COVID-19 occurring at church services, indoors and outdoors. Just two examples you may have seen in the news recently:

a) At a June 14th worship service in Wisconsin, where a church had reopened with safety measures in place, such as masks, hand sanitizer and a 25% capacity, 23 parishioners still contracted the virus. 

b) At a June 18th outdoor worship service in Oregon, 2/3 of the 356 parishioners present contracted the virus. 

An in-person worship service during the pandemic would be drastically different than the church services we are used to: 

1) Contact tracing – We would need to collect the contact information of everyone who attends, so that if someone at the service tests positive for the virus, we can notify everyone present. Each time that happened,  those who attended church that day, including clergy, would need to be under strict quarantine at home for two weeks.

2) Mandated reduced capacity – we might have to turn people away or take reservations for worship.

3) Singing would not be allowed, as it is a highly dangerous way to spread the virus.

4) Speaking in unison, including The Lord’s Prayer, would not be allowed, as it is a highly dangerous way to spread the virus. 

5) Clergy would need to wear masks while preaching (because their every breath is propelled towards the congregation.)

6) We would not be able to gather at the communion rail for the Eucharist. 

7) We would not be able to use hymnals, BCPs, or collection plates. 

8) We would not be able to pass The Peace or greet each other with any physical contact. 

9) We would need to stay a minimum of six feet apart, even in our pews.

10) Lastly, those most vulnerable to the virus – whether due to their age or pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or autoimmune disorders – would not be able to attend. Our worship time would become an exclusive privilege available to only a select few. 

The country is experiencing a massive uptick in the amount of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and we simply are not willing to put our beloved parishioners at risk.  NH is not immune from this, it is expected to have its own surge following this week’s full reopening of businesses. As of July 2nd, NH had 212 new cases and 30 deaths in the last seven days.

In conclusion, as Bishop Rob Hirschfeld reminds us in the document, “Following the Good Shepherd on the Path Ahead 3.0” that as the people of God, “We will prioritize the well-being of our neighbors, especially those most at risk of contracting this virus, over our desire to gather in our church buildings.” 

The clergy I work with at both of my jobs miss serving their congregations in person  deeply, and it weighs on their hearts that they are not able to provide the Eucharist and the physical community so many of us long for. They are working harder than ever, providing pastoral care around the clock and creating innovative new ways to talk with us about God’s love. God continues to strengthen them, and us, every time we make the decision to choose love of neighbor over ourselves.