Dear Colleagues in Christ,
Two weeks ago, I posted guidelines regarding ways to address the growing concerns around the coronavirus (COVID-19). While there have not been confirmed cases to-date in Maine, it is almost a certainty this will soon change. We are in the midst of an evolving situation, and we are ministering in an anxious moment. Our task is to respond by acknowledging concerns, to adjust our practices accordingly, and to proclaim the liberating news of the Gospel which sometimes is as succinct as “be not afraid.”
COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person through the spread of respiratory droplets originating from an affected person’s mouth or nose. At this point infectious disease experts, as well as public health officials report most people who contract this virus will experience symptoms that will feel like a mild to a bad cold. For more details, please refer to the Center for Disease Control information on How COVID-19 Spreads .
Our first responsibility to our congregations and communities is to practice good common sense (especially to wash our hands with soap and water and to avoid touching our faces). Second, we must protect the many in our faith communities who are elderly, or who have underlying health risks, and therefore, for whom contracting this virus could be serious or life-threatening.
I particulary urge all of you, as leaders, to take good care of yourselves. If you don’t feel well, please stay home and rest. Not only will this prevent you from spreading illness, it will help you get well faster. Additionally, you will model to your congregation that minimizing contact is the right thing to do.
I’m aware of your faithfulness, around the clock, addressing and caring for your community during this time of great unease. Thank you! Along with other bishops in our province, I am issuing a time-limited liturgical pastoral direction, effective today through the 5th Sunday in Lent (29 March). More information, with potential changes to these directions, will be forthcoming. I promise to do whatever possible to keep us informed and connected. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 please institute the following:
- Catechists and clergy can teach about the Episcopal Church’s Doctrine of Concomitance: the fullness of communion is available by receiving either the consecrated bread or wine.
- Continue to use a chalice of wine for the Great Thanksgiving, but neither you nor the congregation need to receive the wine (both sipping and intinction are prohibited). The consecrated wine can be put down the piscina after the liturgy. Do present the chalice to parishioners so that they can offer reverence even though they will not be sipping or handling it. The chalice-bearer can hold it in front of each person and say, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” or if you prefer, “The Blood of Christ, shed for you.”
- Ministers who administer the consecrated bread pose the greatest risk of spreading the virus; therefore do everything practical to ensure that hands are cleansed before handling the bread and distributing the sacrament; avoid touching the hands of those who receive. Using hand sanitizer visibly demonstrates your care.
- Only the ushers may handle and pass the offertory plates.
- All baptismal fonts must be drained, disinfected, and not used during Lent.
- Exchange the Sign of Peace without touching or hugging. Consider using sign language or encourage people to bow and smile as they say the words, “peace be with you” or “God’s peace.”
- Clergy and lay leaders must strongly encourage people who are feeling poorly to stay at home, and must do what’s possible to support and respond to people who cannot come to church. This is an opportunity to reach out and care for one another!
- Clergy who are running a fever, coughing, or who are feeling poorly shall not serve at the altar. You may not return to the altar until you have been free of symptoms for 14 days or in conversation with me. Please contact my office by phone or email if you will need to make alternative arrangements for Sunday worship. The same restrictions apply fo altar servers, but they should consult with their clergy person rather than with my office.
- How you train or deploy Lay Eucharistic Visitors remains a local decision. Depending upon the situation and the persons involved, risk of spreading the infection may be less than in a public setting, and hands can be washed immediately and frequently. In other cases, the risk might be too great.
If your context and judgment lead you to institute additional restrictions that promote the safety of your faith community, please proceed in the manner you and your lay leaders think best. In addition to the pastoral work you are doing presently, I commend any advance planning for contingencies that heretofore most of us have not ever had to consider, including the following:
- Elderly or chronically ill parishioners who decide not to attend church for an extended period of time: how might your worshiping community respond and care for them?
- What plans can be put into place now so that your congregation’s ministry and mission continues (or has to change) if key leaders, including you yourself, become ill or have to self-quarantine? Morning Prayer, for example, is a perfectly acceptable form for corporate worship.
I am very grateful for the deep care and concern being expressed by each of you, and the steps you are already taking to help mitigate spread of this virus. You are being the church! I will be in touch regularly with updates regarding how we can best care for those who become infected by the coronavirus, and how we can keep our communities as safe as possible. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns.
You, Lord Christ, subdued the troubled waters and calmed the fears of your friends. Send to people everywhere the healing power of your life-giving Spirit; grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour. You traveled through towns and villages “curing every disease and illness,” and at your command, the sick were made well. In the midst of the spread of this virus give us tools to join you in healing those who are sick, soothe the suffering and pity the afflicted. Finally, in your great wisdom grant us an abundance of gratitude for all the ways we shall be your church for the people of Maine in this moment. We pray in your holy and life-giving name. Amen.
You are very much in my prayers in this challenging time.
The Right Reverend Thomas J. Brown
Bishop of Maine
[March 10, 2020]