updated March 18:
Bishop Sean has announced that the suspension of in-person worship will extend through Holy Week and Easter. Read more.
updated March 13:
Bishop Sean has suspended in-person worship, meetings and gatherings until further notice. Read his letter.
updated March 11:
Dear People of God:
As I am sure you know, the coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19 is spreading quickly in our country. As I write this letter, there are no confirmed cases in our dioceses, but that may have changed by the time you read it. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and it is almost certainly coming our way. As people called to care for the vulnerable in our midst, it is incumbent on us to do what we can to slow the spread of the virus so that health systems do not become overwhelmed.
For that reason, I want to update and add to the guidance my staff provided (below) at the end of February. I have based this guidance on the best public health information available to me and offer it in the interest of safety for our clergy, lay people and the communities in which we live and minister.
First, if you are sick, please stay home. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. If clergy absence means your congregation cannot celebrate the Eucharist, please offer Morning Prayer. If you cannot offer Morning Prayer or some other opportunity for common worship, you have my permission to cancel services. I understand this may seem a drastic step, but it may be a necessary one.
Public health officials have provided particular guidance for vulnerable populations. Individuals over the age of 60 are advised to avoid large gatherings. If you feel you should absent yourself from church for this reason, you do so with my blessing. In some hard-hit areas, the government is requesting that gatherings with more than 50 people be canceled. I am not directing cancelations at this time, but I offer this information for your consideration as we work to mitigate the spread of this disease. If you find that you need to cancel services, I urge you to keep in touch with vulnerable parishioners who may rely on their church community for companionship and other needs.
If your congregation cannot meet in person, I hope you explore online worship. We have provided helpful guidelines on the partnership website. Not every worshipping community is able to offer worship in this way, but we hope soon to offer a list of online worship opportunity across our dioceses. If you are holding online services or prayer gatherings, please send the details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few other precautions are necessary. Please drain your baptismal fonts if you have not already done so in observance of Lent. Please position your offering plate at a fixed location, rather than passing it from hand-to-hand. If you have yet to explore online giving, now would be a good time to do so.
One of the best ways to protect vulnerable people in our congregations is to limit the number of people who see them. For that reason, I am asking that all pastoral and Eucharistic visits to a given individual be made by the same person. In practical terms, this may lead to the suspension of the Eucharistic visitations, unless the Eucharistic visitor is also involved in an ongoing pastoral ministry.
I know that many of you will want to be of service in your communities during these difficult times. Episcopal Relief & Development is offering a webinar on how to conduct public ministries safely on Friday, March 13 at 3 p. m. I urge you to participate if you are providing direct assistance to vulnerable individuals and populations.
Please continue to pray for one another, for those who are most vulnerable to this disease, and for those whose wellbeing may be affected due to the social and economic dislocation the pandemic may create. As always, you are in my prayers.
For Social Service
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 260)
On Tuesday, federal health officials urged Americans to begin preparing for the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. There are currently no known cases of the virus in Pennsylvania and only one possible case in New York, so right now, the risk to our congregations and communities is low. However, we can prepare to help slow the progress of the virus if it should spread to our region.
Episcopal Relief & Development is a reliable source of information about the symptoms of the virus, how it spreads, and what you can do to prevent it. Find information online.
To help limit the spread of coronavirus:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, including after coughing, sneezing, handling diapers, preparing food or using the bathroom.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Stay home when you feel sick.
Congregations can take several modest steps to limit the spread of illness if the virus makes its way to our region:
- When celebrating the Eucharist or distributing the elements, use hand sanitizer visibly and have hand sanitizer available for worshippers to use.
- Avoid dipping the host or bread into the chalice (intinction).
- Pass the peace with a nod and a smile, a fist bump, an elbow tap, or another sign that avoids close physical contact.
- Encourage people who are ill to stay home and include them in prayers.
- Remind coffee hour and feeding program volunteers to wash their hands and handle food with plastic gloves or utensils.
If there are confirmed coronavirus cases in our region, the bishop’s staff will be in touch quickly with additional guidelines and recommendations. Please monitor news from your local school system; if your local public school closes to limit the spread of illness, we will likely advise cancelling your congregation’s in-person meetings and worship and replacing them with online gatherings.
If you have questions or concerns, please call Canon Cathy Dempesy-Sims at 716-881-0660 or email her.