My dear family in Christ,
The short version first:
The longer version:
As you know, it has been a year and a week since the last time we were all together in our beautiful church, praising God, singing hymns, and sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion as the gathered Body of Christ in Appleton. A year is a long time to be apart, even under the best of circumstances, and—regardless of one’s perspectives, preferences, proclivities, or priorities—I think we’d all be a bit hard pressed to describe 2020 as having comprised “the best of circumstances.” It has been particularly difficult to have to fast for so long not only from each other’s presence but also from Holy Communion shared together.
Now, as the season of Lent draws to a close and we look eagerly toward Easter, I have some good news to share. Of course, the greatest good news is that Jesus is Lord! and that we will once again celebrate the Resurrection this Easter! But I have some more immediate, down-to-earth good news to share, as well:
We will reopen our church (in limited fashion) beginning on Palm Sunday!
It’s time. Not because Covid is over—it isn’t! (More on that in a moment.) Not because the risks are gone—they are not! Even so, the overcrowding in our hospitals and healthcare facilities has started to go down, more and more people are getting vaccinated every day, and as long as we continue to mask, distance, and observe the recommended safety protocols, we can finally worship together again in limited numbers. So it is time for us to begin the long process of moving back into our shared, communal worship.
That’s the good news. As you can tell, however, from my careful wording above, there is unfortunately also some bad news.
The bad news is that the return to our remembered experience of full-scale in-person worship, including so many of the things we love about the All Saints experience, is still a good ways off. In other words, we will NOT be “going back to the way things were” anytime soon.
Instead, our return to in-person worship will have to happen in stages, in increments. And this first stage will NOT be ideal. In many ways, it will be awkward and strange. It will almost certainly feel frustrating. But it WILL be a necessary and important first step towards a complete post-pandemic reopening, and that’s not nothing, y’all.
So how is it going to work? What exactly will it look and feel and sound like? What will be different? Here’s a breakdown of some key features of this next phase we’re about to enter into together:
Face masks & social distancing are absolutely required. Until the Covid numbers get significantly better, these requirements MUST be observed. We don’t ever want to turn anyone away from our doors … but as pastor, my responsibility—and my sincere desire—is to safeguard the well-being of the entire flock. So these restrictions are non-negotiable. (We will try to keep a small supply of disposable masks on hand, in case someone just happens to forget to mask up before leaving the house to come to church, but if possible, please bring your own.) As for spacing, we will limit seating to one family unit* per pew, and we’ll have to skip a pew in between each family unit as well. The pews will be marked off accordingly when you come in to the church.
Reservations are required in advance. You’ll have to contact the church office before the close of business on Friday in order to reserve a physical place for yourself and your immediate family* for the following Sunday service. In order to make sure as many folks who want to attend in-person get the chance to do so, we are going to ask that if you reserve a spot and attend in-person in a given week, you then join us virtually/online the following week, to give someone else a chance to worship in-person. If we can voluntarily alternate weeks like that, it will make it easier for us to adhere to the other restrictions we have to follow, and also hopefully calling the office to sign up will maybe feel a little less like trying to get a vaccine appointment. : )
* NOTE: I am using the terms “immediate family” and “family unit” to indicate a small group of people who live in the same space together. If you have family in the parish, but you and they live in separate houses, then you and they would count as different “family units” for purposes of maintaining social distance.
One single service will be offered (to start) at 9:30. As we begin to add in-person worshippers back into our Sunday morning service, we will continue to have a single 9:30 a.m. service that will combine in-person worship and live-streamed online worship. At least, we’re going to try it that way to begin with; if it does not work to combine in-person with live-streaming, we might have to separate the two types of service, but I am truly hoping that we don’t have to do that. I would prefer that what we do be what we live-stream out, in terms of worship, so that we have one communal act of worship, with some folks taking part in person and some folks taking part online, but all of us sharing the same worship together.
In-person capacity is limited. Current diocesan restrictions for in-person worship services limit us to 25% of building capacity OR 50 persons total (including priest & servers), whichever is fewer. With a space as large as ours, that means we are limited to 50 people per service. For comparison, prior to the shutdown a tad more than a year ago, we were averaging between 70 and 90 people between two services. Given that a significant number of our parishioners will not yet feel safe and/or comfortable attending in-person services, it may not be too unreasonable to expect that a single service that allows for 50 people would suffice for us, at least for this first phase of reopening. Of course, if demand is too great, we will add a second service on Sunday morning.
NOTE: Folks who attend in-person on Palm Sunday will still be eligible to attend one or the other (but not both) of our Easter services, either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. But, again, we would prefer that you choose in advance which one of the Easter services you want to attend.
In-person worshippers will receive the Bread only. Diocesan restrictions require that both Bread and Wine be consecrated, that the Celebrant receive in both kinds, and that all other participants receive in one kind (Bread only). Essentially, at this point it is still far better to be safe than sorry, and that is why we will not be sharing a common cup just yet.
In-person singing is NOT allowed. This restriction, I predict, will hit our specific community particularly hard. Music and (especially) singing are so deeply ingrained in the culture and identity of this parish that it’s almost unthinkable to consider returning to worship together … without also returning to our practice of singing together. Overwhelming amounts of research show, however, that, because of the ways that the virus spreads most effectively, singing in groups is one of the most dangerous things we could do. At this time, we simply cannot risk it. Of course, the folks participating in our live-streamed service from their own homes can belt those hymns out as much as they like. : )
Grace will be needed. We will need to remember that a number of our fellow congregants won’t want to, or even shouldn’t, attend in-person gatherings until the rates of Covid infections go down significantly. So we must be absolutely clear that participating in our worship online via live-stream is every bit as valid and meaningful as attending in-person. We can’t have higher or lower “tiers” of worship in our community, and we certainly cannot have “second-class citizens” in our parish.
You will need to dress for the weather. For purposes of maintaining as much non-re-circulated airflow as possible, we will need to open some of our windows and exterior doors. Using recycled air in enclosed spaces pretty much destroys any advantage we gain through social distancing, because it mixes everybody’s air all together and blows it all over everyone in the group. Depending upon the weather on any given day, you’ll want to keep your heavy coats with you in the pew.
None of this process will be easy, at first. It’s going to be awkward and strange and likely rather frustrating to be back in church, but in such restricted and unfamiliar ways. But I have great faith in the faith and the grace that, in my experience, define this parish family. With a bit of patience, continued devotion, grace from above, and a healthy sense of humor (or at least irony), I believe we will continue to be a blessed people of God together during this new phase of our shared life, just as we have during the long separation and isolation of Coronatide. You all continue to inspire me, and you remain in my daily prayers. Please call or email if you have any questions, and God bless you all!