Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Earlier this week Governor Cuomo announced a gradual phased approach to reopening businesses, region by region throughout the State. While certain regions within the Diocese of Albany such as the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and parts of the North Country have now met the Phase-One criteria for businesses to reopen, it is not yet clear which phase (1-4) churches fall into. According to one source who had been in touch with the Governor’s Office, “they seemed to hint churches will be in Phase-4,” however, at the moment churches are not listed among any of the groups mentioned under each phase.
Yesterday, I emailed Senator Little (someone I know and respect), in an effort to get clarity regarding which phase actually applies to churches. I have not yet heard back from her, but hope to within the next day or so.
According to the Governor’s plan, seven key metrics or criteria (all of which deal with the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak and the region’s available medical and tracing resources), must be met in each of the 10 regions before that region is eligible for the reopening of certain businesses and various activities. In addition, a two-week monitoring period is required between each phase before a region can move from one phase to the next. At any time, if COVID-19 starts to flare up again in a particular region, the reopening process for that region will be put on hold until each of the seven key metrics are once again met. Based on these guidelines (if churches are relegated to Phase-4), parishes in the Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier and North Country, will not be eligible for reopening their buildings until Friday, June 26th (six weeks from May 15th — the beginning of Phase-1 in their region).
I am currently in communications with other key ecumenical leaders who are planning to reach out to the Governor in an effort to encourage him to see the vital importance of the Church, especially during these difficult times, in which there is such suffering and loss and need for pastoral care and spiritual nourishment. In so doing, it is our hope public worship services will resume sooner than later. I know most of us are very anxious to get our churches open and up and running again. Unfortunately, until the 10 person limitation on group gatherings is lifted, we are not able to reopen our church buildings for public worship services.
With that said, when we are able to resume public worship services, we will need to follow certain guidelines until the Coronavirus Pandemic is over, in order to provide as safe an environment as possible for our people to come to worship and serve God. For the last several weeks, I have been working with several Clergy from around the Diocese of Albany in an effort to research and come up with a set of guidelines on how best to protect our parishioners from COVID-19 as we prepare to reopen our Church buildings and once again worship together as Brothers and Sisters in Christ. We have read dozens of reports from a wide variety of sources (religious, medical and government). In addition, I have sat in on webinars dealing with the Coronavirus as well as spoken to other bishops about how they are handling COVID-19 and the reopening of churches for public worship services.
I have asked Lay Canon Jerry Carroll to set up eight separate teleconferences/Zoom meetings (one for each deanery) enabling me to meet with the clergy in each deanery to talk about how best to move forward in reopening our church buildings for worship services. The Zoom meetings will be held this coming Monday and Tuesday (May 18-19). A separate email invitation will be sent to all the clergy (and the wardens of those parishes where there are no clergy) giving the time and contact information for their deanery meeting.
Once I have had a chance to talk to all the clergy in the deanery meetings, I will finalize the list of guidelines that will need to be followed in each of our congregations when we reopen our buildings and resume public worship services and other ministries. It will be the expectation that the list of guidelines submitted by the Bishop (with the endorsement of the Standing Committee) will be followed in each congregation. If the clergy and vestry in any given parish believe the circumstances in their particular congregation require more stringent guidelines, they may add to the Diocesan Guidelines, but NOT subtract from them.
During this time of crisis with the Coronavirus Pandemic, it is important that we recognize that not everyone is in the same situation or has the same understanding of COVID-19, and as a result are responding differently, based on their circumstances. There are still a great number of unknowns regarding the Coronavirus and how best to protect against it. There are also various degrees of anxiousness and fear surrounding the Coronavirus. It is vitally important that we all work together as best we can by the grace of God, demonstrating Christian love and charity toward one another. By God’s grace and in His time, we will get through this.
In the meantime, I am so proud of all of you (clergy and laity alike) who have stepped out of your comfort zone and demonstrated tremendous creativity in all the various ways you have continued to minister to one another and the unchurched through virtual streaming and online recorded services posted on YouTube, Facebook and other means. All the various postings of the Daily Office, the Eucharist, Bible Studies, Stations of the Cross, and webinars on various topics have been and continue to be such a blessing and encouragement to so many people, not only in our home parishes and the Diocese of Albany, but literally throughout the world. By God’s grace and your hard work and ingenuity and the wonders of the internet we are reaching people for Christ in ways that we have never been able to before.
I know it has not been easy and most of us were under a tremendous learning curve when it comes to recording and sending out online services, but you are doing it and God is blessing it. It is my hope and prayer that these efforts don’t stop once we are able to return to our church buildings, but that they continue in one form or another, so that those who are unable to come to Church are not forgotten, but still ministered to.
For those who are not computer savvy or don’t have the equipment necessary to carry out some of the above mentioned online ministries, a friendly phone call or hand written card or letter to someone who is lonely and homebound can be just as meaningful if not more so. Through whatever means God gives us, may each of us do our best to share the love of Christ with one another during this difficult, painful and uncertain time in which we find ourselves. You all remain in my thoughts and prayers.
In Christ’s Love,
Rt. Rev. William H. Love
Bishop of Albany