Dear Beloved People of God,
Recently I’ve been receiving questions about our witness in this time of COVID-19, our shelter-at-home orders, and the ways in which we tend to spiritual and emotional needs of God’s people. I am grateful for these questions; they are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some of the questions articulated are ones I’ve been carrying with me as well. So, please read on. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.
First, I and others bristled at not being included in the list of “essential workers” on county Public Health orders. From where I sit, our work—the care and feeding of souls, the nurture of the needy, the very act of being a praying community—are at the essence of our humanity and what it needs, both globally and locally. The gospel, as I read it, tells me that each and every one of us is an essential worker in the kingdom of God. Yet, for the sake of the shelter-at-home order, what is essential about our work is that we model prayer, worship, and maintaining physical distance when serving at-risk people in our larger communities.
Some suggest we may have compromised by allowing ourselves to be labeled as non-essential. We may have, by not making a stink about this. On the other hand, we—although not labeled as essential workers—labor for the kingdom in ways that have always set us apart from societal labels and recognition. It’s nothing new, and in this increasingly secular world, I expect nothing different. We have always been a countercultural movement, because of our understanding of who we are and to Whom we belong.
As we progress through this small period of shelter-in-place, I see amazing witness happening. Yes, it is virtual, it is happening on social media, or it is being recorded on social media. The human spirit, or God’s spirit at work in us (as I prefer to see it), cannot help but burst forth in joy and hope. People are singing on balconies during their isolation. At 7 pm every evening in New York City, bells ring and people cheer for those working on the front lines of this epidemic. Families are sitting down to virtual meals together (I’ve done it twice in the past week). More and more people are signing in to virtual worship services, and congregations are gathering and inviting others into virtual classes, conversations, and Bible Study. I would have not guessed that this witness would have happened, but it is.
We have the prayer book, such as it is. It’s not without flaws, for it is created by human hands for the worship of God, but it is intended for personal devotion and corporate worship. I’ve been encouraging our clergy and lay leaders to get on the phone. To talk to people. To pray with them over the phone. To listen, and be present. Our clergy are able to offer confession and absolution over the phone; I realize it is not optimal at other times, but in the present situation, it is the most optimal.
In this time of tragedy, I am encouraging people to write notes to those in need. To send a letter to someone in your parish who needs to hear from you. To call, to be a beacon of hope—a hope that is founded in God and conveyed by grace. I can’t give you a hug right now, for example, but I can e-mail you and spend time reflecting with you; and then you can read this note over and over again and know that I love you and care about the loneliness you may feel.
It is true that the effects of COVID-19 will last way beyond this year or the next. The effect on family life, worship life, and societal life is significant, and we won’t go back to the way we were. In my family, my husband’s grandfather died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. He was a young man, and he did not get to see the birth of his daughter one month later. His death had a profound effect on three generations in the family—and there were no notes written by him, and little is known about who he was and what he believed. You and I have by contrast, have the opportunity to find significant ways to bear witness and to share stories of lives affected by COVID-19 and God’s loving presence throughout.
I am not able to give our clergy permission to violate the shelter-in-place order. The epidemiologists and worldwide health organizations clearly state that up to 50% of the population may be currently affected with COVID-19, but we aren’t showing it. Yet we are probably carriers. I cannot have any clergy, as healthy as they may seem, put others at risk. And, I cannot have any individual put others at risk. My own witness is my call to hold a harder line for the sake of you and your congregation. I don’t want anyone to get arrested or fined because they bowed to individual willfulness.
As we enter into Holy Week, I invite you to open your prayer book. To read through the services on your own, including the scriptures. Spend time with the Passion reading, the prayers. Note where you connect with this story. Name what you are missing in our Holy Week services, and why you miss these things.
The disciples who walked through Holy Week were confused, bewildered, and utterly at a loss to understand what was going on around them. They didn’t know what to bear witness to—until Easter morning (and even then, it wasn’t totally clear). Walk with the disciples this time, in ways you have never done before.
Thank you for reading. You have given this bishop an opportunity to express some important reflections.
My prayers continue for us all.