Sounding Board: Faith leaders discuss options for worship
Faith communities and their leaders have spent much time in recent months first deciding not to gather for worship in their buildings, "not out of fear, but out of our deepest respect for life and health," as the Catholic bishops of Washington said in a recent statement.
Leaders and pastors also spent time developing alternative means of gathering through live streaming and Zoom. They have not only used those tools to gather for worship, but also to gather for meetings, workshops, Bible study, prayer groups, social gatherings and even, in the case of the Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ, to gather for its Annual Meeting worship and each week to share reports of leaders and ministries.
The Inland Northwest Presbytery announced that its office will now be a virtual office, something that was projected for the future but became reality in recent months.
"As COVID-19 emerged and 'stay at home' orders were announced in March 2020, the presbytery office closed and staff members began working remotely. This pandemic time has given us a test run at working as a virtual office. With this unplanned launch into working virtually, we've expedited our plan to make the office a virtual office," said the Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, Presbytery executive minister. "Committee meetings will continue on Zoom for the time being, but eventually will be at church buildings."
The Catholic bishops also wrote: "As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be instruments of God's protection for the vulnerable and the public common good. Our love of God and neighbor is always personal. While we share the desire to bring people back to Mass as quickly as possible, we will wait to schedule our public worship when it is safe and we are prepared to do so," they said, also reporting that they were engaging with the Governor's office on a plan and schedule for safe gathering."
They were consulting with Governor Jay Inslee along with leaders of other denominations and faiths.
On May 27, the Governor announced plans to revise limits on the size of gatherings for religious services indoors. For Phase 2, which includes Spokane and most of Eastern Washington, faith groups may hold indoor services with 50 or fewer people or 25 percent of the building's capacity, whichever is less, and as many as five people for in-home services. Rules apply to study groups, weddings and funerals. There is no limit to the number of services that can be held in a day.
Staff must have personal protective equipment. Employees must be trained to self-screen for symptoms. Facilities must be cleaned and disinfected. Participants must follow social distancing and wear masks, even when singing. There is to be no sharing of food, beverages or hymnals. Congregations are to log attendance for contact tracing if needed.
In parts of the state in Phase 1, there can be outdoor services for up to 100 on the faith's property.
The guidelines encourage remote services to continue for people in high risk groups and preferring not to go out.
With the Governor's announcement, Bishop Thomas Daly of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane said Spokane parishes could offer Mass beginning Pentecost weekend May 30.
He said: Face masks will be worn. There will be no singing. Homilies will be short. There will be no exchanging of a "sign of peace." Parishes will keep a log of those who attend. There is a suspension of the obligation to attend Mass for anyone who is ill or anxious about attending.
In the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, several congregations in Washington and Idaho had submitted plans for moving toward coming together for public worship and Bishop Gretchen Rehberg had emphasized several points in her notices to the congregations.
The Governor's announcement came earlier than she expected. In communications with congregations she said that for her to approve plans, they must follow state and local restrictions about the number who can gather, and approval of a plan does not mean a congregation should "immediately start together."
In late May, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of the Greater Northwest Area of the United Methodist Church—including, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and parts of Montana and Canada—had issued a notice extending in-person worship suspension and building closures to all but essential services through June 15.
"This early in the phased reopening process, data on the spread of the virus is inconsistent and inconclusive. This date allows two more 14-day periods during which to assess whether COVID-19 cases are declining or increasing. Our churches will be on the leading edge of protecting public health, but not be on the leading edge of reopening at the risk of increasing exposures, infections and deaths," she said.
The Rev. Mike Denton, conference minister of the Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ, suggested not gathering until a congregation has a plan to follow the mandates and guidelines, until staff is ready, until they have a plan for those who cannot attend and until they are ready to accept potential risks of gathering in the midst of a pandemic.
Bishop Kristen Kuempel of the Northwest Intermountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America posted recently on Facebook: "Gathering for in-person worship is still high-risk. We never closed. We're still here. Let's make good choices to stay that way."
The decisions are still in flux for each faith community and congregation.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2020