Dear People and Friends of Saint Mary’s,
It is difficult to believe that more than three months have passed since we were last together in person for worship. St. Mary’s adapted quickly to remain active: Sunday worship online; Christian formation for all ages; virtual fellowship through Zoom coffee hours, BINGO, trivia, Circles of Care, online meetups, and phone calls; significant contributions to local nonprofits that support vulnerable populations in Massachusetts. Learning to be the church and to do the work of the church in a new way has been a challenge.
Governor Charlie Baker announced that houses of worship are permitted to gather for public worship under strict guidelines of occupancy, social distancing, and CDC outlined cleaning procedures, starting May 18. However, each parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is under the canonical authority of the Bishop of Massachusetts. In coordination with the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, our bishops and an advisory team released a fifteen-page regathering plan that may allow public worship as early as July 1, provided certain public health criteria, as well as church specific criteria, are met. This document, “A Journey By Stages”, provides four stages for regathering in person. These stages are keyed to public health indicators, rather than to specific timelines. Right now we are in “Stage One” of the guidelines. These stages will stretch on for weeks, months, and maybe even years, in order to ensure that our parishes do not become transmission epicenters like ones you’ve read about in the news.
Most of the Episcopal church population, by virtue of being older, or sustaining underlying conditions, falls into the “high-risk” category for COVID-19. To that end, the protocols are stringent. “Church” as you remember it pre-COVID does not return until “Stage Four,” when a vaccine is developed and widely available; that is probably more than a year away.
By way of illustration, in-person worship in “Stage Two” states the following:
• Higher risk individuals (over the age of 60 or with underlying medical conditions) encouraged to participate online, not in person • New “reservation” and pew/sanctuary occupancy restrictions • All attendees and officiants in masks • New cleaning protocols pre- and post-service • No congregational singing or choir • No communion • No hymnals, Bibles, or Books of Common Prayer in the pews • No childcare or in-person children’s programming • No coffee hour or post-service fellowship
In other words, many of the things that we consider to be vital to church, like the choir, congregational singing, communion, nursery, children’s programming, and coffee hour will have to be reimagined and reintroduced. “Stage Three” has modified communion, coffee-hour, and youth group (but no nursery care). There are logistical hurdles to the implementation of each and every stage which will require efforts of many, not a few.
Given the significant logistical challenges of Stage Two, listed above, paired with staff vacation needs, our goal is to open for the first in-person worship service in September. Launching our in-person regathering in September will allow St. Mary’s to learn from other area institutions as they also take steps to come back in-person. A later physical regathering is also aligned with what many communities of worship are doing in the Newton-Wellesley area.
Although Massachusetts has been able to flatten the COVID curve for the moment, the states that have reopened are now experiencing spikes, and the trajectory of this disease remains uncertain. Our job and work ahead is to make sure that the parish survives the regathering process – a process geared toward protecting our current membership. As one of us, Cécile, the senior warden, has heard and repeated: “God will forgive us if we come back together too late. We may not forgive ourselves if we come back together too early.”
Please know that your help, patience, and prayer are necessary. Our in-person regathering will be cautious, deliberate, and thoughtful; also exhausting, and perhaps maddening to some who yearn to be together, right now, the way we once were. However, we must acknowledge that there is a lot beyond our control. Giving one another the benefit of the doubt, being kind whenever possible, and attempting to maintain a sense of humor and community in ways small and large will help us along the way. Know that we too are looking forward to being able to be together again.
“O God our heavenly Father: Increase our reverence before the mystery of life; and give us new insight into your purposes for humanity, and new wisdom and determination in making provision for its future in accordance with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (adapted from BCP 828).
Ann Bonner-Stewart, Rector Nate Hylan, Junior Warden Cécile Tucker, Senior Warden