Brothers and sisters in Christ,
Let me first begin with a prayer:
O Most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succor. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (“Prayer for Time of Great Sickness and Mortality” from The Book of Common Prayer 1928)
A week ago, I wrote to all of you to share some basic guidance and some thoughts about the spread of the COVID-19 (aka corona virus) in the United States. That message was mostly intended to be a reminder about basic practices such as washing of hands, alternative options for the peace and communion options. As we all know, things have changed a lot in the past week.
On Thursday, Montana’s governor declared a state of emergency statewide because of the virus. It is important to note that this was done as a preemptive measure. There are no confirmed cases of the virus or disease in Montana as of late Thursday. However, this is likely due to the fact that only 55 people have been tested in the state as of that time. For the latest Montana-specific details, visit the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services website. But this situation will likely change in the near future. Now, we must look to and plan for the future with the expectation that the virus will be identified throughout Montana.
You might have heard that a number of dioceses in The Episcopal Church have stopped offering the chalice during the celebration of Holy Eucharist. More recently, the Dioceses of Virginia and of Washington announced that all of their churches would be closed for at least the next two weeks. Those decisions were made because of the known and active spread of the virus in numerous communities in those dioceses. That is not the case currently in Montana. Therefore, St. Stephen’s will not be implementing such measures at this time. However, we must make some adjustments to help slow the possible spread of this virus.
Our bishop sent out what is known as a pastoral letter to the clergy of the Diocese of Montana on March 12, 2020. She said that she expects congregations to continue to hold their usual worship services for the time being, but to prepare for alternative options. To that end, there are no immediate plans to alter our service schedule. I am preparing to test out options for sharing liturgy electronically for those unable to join us in person or, in a worst-case scenario, if we must cancel services.
The bishop also encouraged considering some adaptations to communion practices and I agree with her wisdom. So, for the time being we will be using “communion by stations” instead of the kneeling at the altar rail. This minimizes the physical contact that each of us has with a common surface. If you are confused, do not worry, we will walk you through this during the liturgy. The chalice will continue to be offered to people. If you are hesitant about receiving from the chalice, I encourage you to simply hold onto the base of the chalice when offered as a form of receiving the Blood of Christ, instead of intinction. There is no requirement to receive communion in both forms.
In my email last week, I encouraged people to not shake hands or hug during the peace. Now, I would like to say that it should not be done at all. Exchanging the peace can be done verbally or through hand gestures of various sorts, but for the time being, we should abstain from physical contact. Unfortunately, this also extends to shaking hands at the end of the service.
Finally, I wanted to reiterate that I will continue to use hand sanitizer frequently and ensure that I am keeping safe when leading worship. I encourage you to do the same. I will continue to drink from the chalice at the end of the liturgy until told not to so to reassure those who also continue that practice. However, I do not want anyone to feel obligated to do anything that they are uncomfortable with.
If you are sick, please seek medical support and stay home. If you have questions about any of this, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or the church office. We are in this together and I encourage all of us to remain hopeful, while also being prudent.
Yours in Christ,