Hello St. Paul’s,
I’m not sure which is more challenging: to have rigid rules that we don’t like, or to have flexibility that brings confusion along with it. I’m sure I am not alone in my struggle for clarity around the rules and restrictions regarding gatherings, worship, and social events.
When it comes to COVID-related restrictions, St. Paul’s is subject to the state and city-imposed restrictions and, in addition, to those imposed by the Bishop. As of today, September 2, here’s where we stand:
We have received permission from the Bishop to conduct an outdoor service, and this is now taking place on Thursday evenings at 7 pm. However, all services approved by the Bishop are subject to a number of conditions, including a maximum permitted number of attendees, social distancing, and masks to be worn. Congregational and choral singing is not permitted; neither are processions. Vestments, seats and all surfaces touched by congregants or clergy must be thoroughly cleaned between services. Because of all these conditions, our Thursday service is extremely informal.
On September 1 our Bishop issued revised guidelines which now permit limited worship indoors, after consultation with her. The cathedral staff are not able to add indoor Sunday worship to all the online activities that we are currently offering, so please don’t expect this to happen any time soon. When it does happen, in addition to all the safeguards we are following for outdoor worship, we will be required to take attendance, to allow for contact tracing should an outbreak occur. We are to provide the maximum possible ventilation – quite a challenge in our old buildings. We will be limited to 100 people, so advance reservations will be required. We will be limited to 30 minutes in a given space, which is not sufficient time for any of our traditional Sunday services.
When you view the diocesan service this Sunday you might want to note that we are filming it in several segments of 30 minutes, with a break in between to allow the air to completely exchange in the cathedral.
The Bishop’s guidelines state that we are to discourage people aged over 65 or in a high-risk health category from attending in-person worship. The age threshold may seem arbitrary, and it is, to some extent: it is based on the knowledge that as we age, our immune systems become less effective at fighting off infection and we tend to accumulate chronic conditions that further impede our ability to fight viruses. It’s impossible for any public health advice to be tailored to every individual’s state of health, and 65 has been selected as a reasonable average.
People over 65 are not prohibited from attending worship, and nobody is going to turn you away at the door if you seem otherwise healthy; but my first concern is always: what is the most loving thing to do? And I believe that the most loving thing to do in this case is to make you fully aware of the guidelines and ask you to consider carefully not only your own risk but the effect on this community should you become infected and seriously ill as a result of attending a service. So, nobody will tell you not to come or turn you away, but we have an obligation to make sure you’re aware of the guidelines and the risk. Clergy over 65 or in a high-risk category may not
lead worship without explicit permission from the bishop; that’s part of what it means to be in Holy Orders.
When you do come to worship, please help everyone by remembering to stay at least 6 feet away from others and keeping your mask on all the time. If anyone at the event has taken their mask off, maybe to eat or drink, please keep much farther away. Don’t put your friend in the position of having to tell you to back off! Many of us, including myself, yearn for hugs, but we must resist the temptation, including when we are leaving after the service. The virus doesn’t go off duty as we are walking back to our cars!
Finally, while the civic authorities are permitting some indoor activities by faith communities, our Bishop interprets this as covering worship only: concerts with live audiences are still prohibited. So we won’t be opening the doors to our organ recitals just yet. For the same reason we won’t be hosting any in-person events such as stewardship or newcomer parties in the near future. Thank goodness for Zoom!
I hope this letter clears up some of the confusion: the important things to remember are that we take direction from the Bishop; that outdoors is always safer than indoors; that there is no such thing as a risk-free gathering but we can mitigate risk with good practices, especially staying home if we don’t feel well, wearing our masks, and maintaining good distancing. And love is our priority, always.
See you on Sunday.