|13 March 2020|
Dear Members of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania,
The fast-moving pace of the Coronavirus and resulting cases of COVID-19, Wednesday’s upgrade by the World Health Organization of the illness to a pandemic, the Governor’s press conference on Thursday, and President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency today have all come to bear on exercising a new level of decision making that will have ramifications on our common life together.
In consultation with my brother bishops in the other four Pennsylvania dioceses; several other bishop colleagues across the church; our diocesan Standing Committee (the elected body that serves as my Council of Advice); and Mr. Ed Robertson, our Disaster and Emergency Coordinator, I have decided to suspend worship in our churches on the Sundays of March 22 and 29, and to cancel all large gatherings in the diocese and parish meetings, effective immediately.
This is a change from what I offered to our clergy in a letter to them on Thursday, and, yet, I believe it to be the appropriate choice for our people and communities in the time of an international public health crisis. The recommendations for altered worship patterns from last week’s pastoral letter (e.g., no intinction, no touching at the Peace) remain in place for this Sunday. Those who are especially vulnerable should take care and avoid large public gatherings, including church on March 15.
In his press conference on Thursday, the Governor made three succinct points suggesting ways to “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease: participate in social distancing, avoid recreational activities, and, to religious leaders he issued a call to “use discretion to prevent the spread (of the disease.)”
Our diocese, though mostly composed of smaller congregations, does contain a great number of faithful, aged members. Those over the age of 60 and those with chronic health conditions are considered to be at-risk for contracting COVID-19. It is my desire- and the desire of the Standing Committee- to work to preserve the health and safety of our parishioners at all times. A cessation of gathering for worship will help to keep us- and our families and neighbors- safe.
Here is the plan for going forward:
* All churches will refrain from public worship on the Sundays of March 22 and March 29. This includes worship and other activities of the parish on Sundays. The public health situation will be reevaluated as we approach Holy Week, and the decision to resume services will be considered.
* All parish and diocesan gatherings (including committee meetings) during the weekdays will be suspended until Holy Week. Those meetings that can be conducted by Zoom conferencing or teleconferencing will be encouraged to take place. Our diocesan offices can assist with setting up Zoom meetings for various diocesan committees. Please be in touch with Canon Guzsick (firstname.lastname@example.org) for assistance with Zoom.
* All Shaped by Faith convocational meetings will be moved to a webinar format. Canon Streeter (email@example.com) will be in touch with participants with directions for this new protocol.
* All churches with feeding programs will be asked to come together to prepare the food and then serve it in To-Go containers to its guests, avoiding the gathering of groups.
* Food and Goods distribution programs (Meals on Wheels, Meals for Seals, Food pantries, Clothing distributions, Diaper Banks) will be able to conduct their usual distribution as long as there are adequate volunteers and the distribution takes place in an efficient manner, not inviting the gathering of groups.
* AA and other 12-step programs may still meet at parishes- with the permission of the Rector- with the added protocol that participants spray surfaces and wipe them down following use and participate in good hygiene practices, including the use of hand sanitizer and minimal physical contact. The work of these groups is lifesaving to people with the experience of addiction; it is up to the Rector to make the decision, in consultation with the Vestry, about the use of the parish space for these meetings.
* Pastoral offices (burials, memorial services, confirmations, baptisms, etc.) are to be postponed if possible. Please confer with me about conflicts.
* Congregations are encouraged to participate in the live streaming of services as we will provide them from St. James, Lancaster (https://livestream.com/saintjameslancaster, and St. Luke’s, Mechanicsburg (https://st-lukes-mechanicsburg.diocpa.org/digital_faith/live) and our two cathedrals as their capacity is developed. These services will not include a congregation. Some clergy may wish to conduct services of Morning Prayer on Facebook Live as they are able.
* We have created a free resource to allow your parishioners make secure gift and pledge payments online. The link provides a listing of all our congregations—so no matter what service you are watching, you can donate to your own parish. That page can be found here: www.diocesecpa.org/stewardship. For those congregations hoping to set up their own portal for giving on their own parish webpage, please contact Canon Alexis Guszick at firstname.lastname@example.org or Canon Chad Linder at email@example.com.
* The diocesan staff will be offered the opportunity to work from home during this period. Most of the staff have the capacity to work remotely. Please exercise patience in reaching them during this time; email is the preferred method for communication. I will be available by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and by cell phone (860 866 7412).
This new way of being together has been described by one of my bishop colleagues as a “fast.” Fasting is, indeed, a hallmark of our Lenten discipline; I had never imagined that it would extend to worship, or to our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is my fervent prayer that this two-week fast will allow us to participate in slowing the spread of the virus and that, come Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, we will be back together to journey through Holy Week to the Cross and beyond, to the Paschal Feast.
Please bear with me through these days, in faith, and with grace.
Take care of each other, and hold each other in prayer, as I do you.
Please use this time of fasting from corporate worship and meetings at church to try on new ways of relating to God: select a book of the Bible to read through quietly at home; go for a “prayer walk” in nature and find God in the beauty of the emerging spring; spend time in unhurried conversation with family members; use the phone to reach out to those whom you have missed; explore the Book of Common Prayer and its rich resources (for those without a BCP at home, you can find the full text online at www.bcponline.org ); sit in the quiet and welcome Christ; prepare and share a meal with your family, telling stories of faith and hope. All of these are ways that we can express devotion to the One who has created us, to Jesus who saves us, and to the Spirit who sustains us.
Take advantage of technological capacities that can allow for prayer chains in email, e-blasts with news and encouragement, phone trees to check in on our aged, and creative, compassionate expressions of our faith.
This is new territory for us that will call on our creativity, experimentation, collaboration, discovery, and change.
Our God is a good God who watches over us and will not forsake us.
God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart; bring
hope and courage to all
who wait or work in uncertainty.
Bring them courage to endure what cannot
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you.
This we pray in Christ our Lord. Amen.
from Episcopal Relief and Development website
I will write again during this time of hiatus to check in and keep our diocese informed of any developments. Please share this e-mail with your parish e-mail list.
In the Way of Love,
|The Rt. Rev. Audrey C. Scanlan|