Dear People of God in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania,
On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is now permitting New Yorkers to gather for worship in groups of ten people or fewer, as long as people wear masks and practice social distancing. Similarly, earlier today Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf moved ten counties in our partnership into the state’s “green phase” of reopening, effective May 29. That phase permits gatherings of more than 25 people with appropriate social distancing. President Trump has also expressed the opinion that houses of worship should reopen immediately.
While I am glad for these indications in both of our states that we are making progress against the COVID-19 pandemic, and while I too think that faith communities are essential, this does not alter my request that our congregations refrain from in-person worship until at least July 1.
As Christians, our first responsibility during this pandemic is to ensure that we care for the most vulnerable people in our congregations and communities. The Centers for Disease Control has made it abundantly clear that people over the age of 65, and those with complicating medical conditions, should take special precautions to keep themselves safe from infection. This includes avoiding crowds. I do not want to re-open our church buildings at a time when it is dangerous for many of our clergy and members to join us. Nor do I want it to become our practice that we hold an in-person service for young, healthy people and an online service for those who are older or have pre-existing conditions.
Our partnership may be proceeding more cautiously than other churches and institutions, but wherever possible, we will move forward together and with an abundance of care for the communities we serve. Our ability to place the common good over our own very real desires for the Eucharist and in-person fellowship is borne of our Christian faith and charity. I encourage you to take heart from this powerful witness we are making in the face of uncertainty and fear.
As I wrote to you on May 6, the mission strategy group, which includes lay and clergy leaders from both dioceses, is developing a plan for returning to in-person worship as part of its larger exploration of how we will respond to the needs of our communities in the wake of the pandemic. In June, I expect to provide congregational leaders with detailed guidelines for re-opening buildings along with an update on possibilities for our shared mission in the months and years to come. These re-opening guidelines will take into account, but may not follow exactly, the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for faith communities released earlier today.
As Pentecost approaches, may the Holy Spirit renew in us a capacity for patience and perseverance and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good.