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Messages from the Bishop and Guidelines for In-Person Gathering

A Message from the Bishop

March 1, 2021

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Thank you for sustaining your heroic efforts to maintain parochial community as we continue to combat the coronavirus. I share everyone’s longing to return to in-person gathering. The numbers are finally trending in a positive direction, as a result of adherence to the protocols requested and required by federal, state, and local government agencies. Just last Thursday, the first four of the 48 counties in the Diocese of Ohio have turned from red to orange, one of which is home to an Episcopal congregation. At the same time, a number of epidemiologists are expressing caution about a potential surge at the end of March from the variant strains currently being diagnosed across the country. While we monitor that possibility, we can begin to consider the possibility of return to in-person gathering for worship, formation, and governance.
To that end, the decision of whether in-person gathering for worship, formation, and governance is safe and appropriate will return to parish leadership for services and events beginning on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 21. This will give every congregation time to consider carefully and thoughtfully what will be best in their specific context.
No congregation is required to return to in-person gathering and no communicant is expected to participate if and when it does. The parochial responsibility for making this decision in no way implies that in-person gathering is necessarily appropriate. The decision of whether to participate is an individual obligation that concerns one’s own health and that of others.
No member of the Clergy is required to participate in in-person gathering for worship, formation, or governance at this time. Members of the Bishop’s Staff will not be expected to visit parishes for gatherings of any sort until the county in which they live and the county in which the parish is situated are at Level 1 or 2 (Yellow or Orange, respectively) and the staff member has received a COVD-19 vaccination or otherwise feels secure.
To every extent possible, all vehicles for “virtual” participation (Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, etc.) should be continued and enhanced.
In carrying out this responsibility, it will be critically important for clergy and lay leaders to give serious consideration to a range of available data and guidelines.These include:

  • The Ohio Public Emergency Level (1-Yellow, 2-Orange, 3-Red, 4-Purple) of the county in which your parish is geographically situated. Updated ratings are released every Thursday. Extensive county-specific data is available on this site by clicking on the name of your county in the drop-down to the right of the map. (These data do not include the incarcerated.)

  • The Ohio Public Emergency Level of the counties contiguous to the county in which your parish is geographically situated. People regularly cross county lines for many reasons, including church attendance.

  • The Ohio Public Health Advisory System’s Summary of Alert Indicators.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines for protecting oneself and others.

  • The Episcopal Church’s Toolkit for COVID-19 Vaccination Distribution.

Beginning the 5th Sunday in Lent (March 21), parishes resuming in-person gathering must:

  • follow all existing guidelines regarding the wearing of masks, physical distancing, sanitizing, restrictions regarding singing by congregation or soloists, the sharing or distribution of food, contact tracing, and the use of buildings for community service ministries or by outside groups, and

  • at least one week prior to resuming in-person gathering, submit this brief, online report. The purpose of this report is to facilitate communication and coordination with Mission Area deans and diocesan staff members for sharing valuable information and helpful resources and communicating best practices.

A pre-recorded, online worship service for the Second Sunday of Easter (April 11) will be made available to all congregations by the end of this month. The hope is that this will provide a modest break in responsibilities following Holy Week and Easter.
Finally, if any vestry, clergyperson, or lay leader is experiencing difficulty in making these decisions, please do not hesitate to contact me or any member of the Bishop’s Staff for assistance. There is a wide diversity of perspective on every aspect of COVID-19 response, and I know that when decision-making about gathering moves from me back to parish leadership, so, too, will move some of the division and divisiveness that accompany it. The challenges of this time need not threaten our unity, rather may they bring out the best in our vocation to be Christian and exhibit, within our congregations and beyond, what it means to be the Body of Christ.
Know that you remain always in my prayers and affection.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio


A Message from Bishop Hollingsworth


August 18, 2020
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

For almost six months we have been living in response to the coronavirus, changing the patterns and practices of our work, worship, and social interactions. While we are becoming more accustomed to frequent handwashing, masks, and distancing, we continue to face unfamiliar fears and frustrations in our everyday lives. In spite of the efforts of many to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, we continue to watch both COVID-19 cases and death counts increase nationally at a distressing rate. Most of us are experiencing some degree of “pandemic fatigue,” the emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from the stress of uncertainty, anxiety, and change to daily routines.

All of this is doubtless compounded by the modifications we have had to make to numerous reliable support structures in our lives. For us as Christians, that is particularly true of the worship, fellowship, formation, and outreach gatherings that frame the spiritual disciplines of our faith. We yearn to be together, to worship as a community, to share fully in the Eucharistic celebration, to be fed by word and sacrament, and to lift our voices in sacred song. The adjustments parishes have made to stay connected and provide spiritual nurture through in-person and online services continue to be inspiring. They are not what we were used to and may not be what we desire, but they are coping with the realities of this difficult time in creative and faithful ways.

The two most frequently expressed longings are for personal contact and reception of the Eucharistic elements. I know how difficult it is not to have available to us the regular companionship of others and the sacramental communion of Christ’s body and blood. Social connection is being accommodated for those who feel able to risk in-person gathering by practicing cautious distancing and sanitizing. Even in those cases, the precautions and restrictions necessary to keep one another safe are for some discouraging and for others inadequate, given their susceptibility to contagion. The continuation of rich online worship offerings remains essential for countless communicants who cannot risk public gatherings.

Reception of the sacrament
The fast from receiving the consecrated elements has been difficult for all and has been a source of deep frustration for some. While reception of the sacrament will continue to present an increased risk of exposure, especially for those with particular vulnerability, we will allow the sacrament to be distributed in one kind (bread only) at public worship beginning on Sunday, September 6. This will provide congregations time to consider thoughtfully whether to do so, and to make the necessary adjustments for providing as much safety as possible. Please understand that permission to distribute the sacrament does not imply any assumption that this is appropriate for every congregation and communicant. No clergy or communicants are required or expected to participate in the celebration or reception of Eucharist unless they so choose. Parishes may well determine it is best to wait until all parishioners are able safely to participate before resuming any of these practices, including in-person worship.

In choosing to provide for reception by communicants, the clergy and vestry are taking on an increased responsibility for the health of each person committed to their spiritual care. To that end, a number of precautions and practices in preparation for and celebration of Holy Eucharist will be required. These include:

  1. All involved in any aspect of preparation and celebration will wear masks and thoroughly wash hands before handling elements and vessels.
  2. The Celebrant alone will set the table and be the only person to stand at it for the Great Thanksgiving.
  3. The Celebrant alone will handle the elements, and only after thoroughly cleansing the hands with sanitizer.
  4. The Celebrant alone will consume the “Priest Host” and the wine.
  5. The bread for all other communicants will be in the form of wafers and brought to the table for consecration in a covered ciborium, breadbox, or similar container, and remain covered through consecration and until distribution. Pre-packaged bread and wine, or bread brought individually by communicants from home for personal consumption, are not permitted.
  6. Distribution will be at a station at the front of the chancel. The altar rail will not be used.
  7. Communicants will come forward individually, wearing masks, and practicing safe distancing of at least 6 feet.
  8. The Celebrant will drop the consecrated wafer into the open hands of the communicant without touching them.
  9. The communicant will lift the mask, consume the sacrament, replace the mask, and return to the pew, providing as much safe distancing as possible.
  10. Following the service, Altar Guild members will wear gloves when cleaning vessels and divesting the altar of linens and other articles.
  11. These requirements apply equally to outdoor services. While the weather permits, it is encouraged to worship outdoors whenever possible, as it immeasurably increases safety.

Here is a video to assist in planning.

The distribution of consecrated hosts to the hospitalized, homebound, and those in hospice care may be done by priests only, taking extreme caution. Please use only hosts that have been previously consecrated, and practice safe distancing in every way possible. It is up to the priest to determine the pastoral need for Eucharistic visitation, and should not put herself or any communicant at risk. It is not permissible to use this pastoral accommodation as a vehicle for providing “private” communion services for individual parishioners or families to receive the sacrament outside of regularly scheduled services.

While this change in our protocols may come as welcome news to some, it may also cause increased anxiety and potential division for others. There are countless reasons why returning to reception of the elements might not be appropriate in any given context. If we focus on what is best for the other, and not on getting our own way, we will surely build community rather than risk dividing it. If there is disagreement among vestry and clergy leaders on how to proceed, the Bishop’s Office is available to assist in making the decision.

We receive sacramental communion as a precious, spiritual gift that is intended to inspire and challenge us to achieve the communion for which Jesus prayed in John 17, that we “all might be one.” Whether or not we choose as a congregation to offer the sacrament, or as an individual to receive it, the experience of yearning for it over these months is profound and formative in and of itself. I pray that the deep longing we share to receive communion in this pandemic time will serve to deepen our longing to achieve the ecclesial and societal communion that is modeled in the holy meal and for which Jesus gave his life, that “beloved community” which all of us are striving for in this time of political and social division.

Use of parish property for non-religious nursery and preschool programs
There is one clarification regarding the use of parish property for non-religious educational programs like weekday child-care and nursery schools that has been added to the regathering protocols. Those parishes that provide space for such programs should note the following two paragraphs:

Childcare and educational programs like preschool that operate in a parish owned facility and are not religious education programs (e.g. Sunday School, Christian formation, etc.), must follow or exceed all current State of Ohio coronavirus safety regulations and mandates which apply to their business. Prior to opening, they must sign a diocesan provided statement to that effect which the parish will hold on file. No parish is required to allow such an organization to reopen in their building and the parish may require additional safety measures as the vestry desires.
As of this writing, Governor DeWine has mandated a ten-person limit to public gatherings in the State of Ohio. While religious institutions are currently exempted from this restriction, the religious purpose does not minimize the risk, nor the importance of caution. This should be kept in mind when planning worship and other church gatherings.

Know that you may continue to direct questions about regathering protocols to the Rev. Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations, or any other member of the Bishop’s Staff.

As we continue to make our way forward with the ambiguities and ever-changing landscape of this virus, Bishop Williams and I are considering when episcopal visitations might be resumed and how services of Confirmation and Reception can safely be provided. It is very likely that we will create a new schedule in order to accommodate both the visitations that have been cancelled since April and the likelihood that, at first, I will be the only bishop making visits. In the meantime, I have been joining Zoom calls with Confirmation and Inquirers classes whenever invited, providing an opportunity to get to know and support those intending to make a public affirmation of their faith, regardless of when that might be accomplished in a worship service.

Last Monday, in the weekly, half-hour Zoom check-in for bishops and their designees with Episcopal Relief and Development and the Presiding Bishop’s Office, the guest presenter was Dr. Anthony Fauci. In both his opening remarks and the question-and-answer dialogue that made up the majority of the call, he reiterated the critical importance of these three things: the universal wearing of masks, the avoidance of crowds, and keeping a distance of at least six feet from one another. As well, he urged all of us in the church to provide hope. Any resignation that this virus is here for good or that we can do nothing to combat it leads only to reduced vigilance and irresponsible behaviors that the virus will capitalize on, and that will inevitably thwart our critical effort to arrest the outbreak. He assured us that we will develop effective vaccines and treatments that will allow us to return to more familiar behaviors, but right now we must take advantage of the window we have with warm, dry weather to be out of doors and to take essential precautions in order to slow the pandemic’s progress. 

In closing, please know of my continued prayers for you, the congregations in which you worship, and the communities in which you live and serve. By grace and your continued fidelity to God’s mission, we will come through this time stronger and more connected to one another and to God.

With every blessing,

The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio


Amended Regathering Guidelines

June 11, 2020

The amended regathering guidelines (as of June 11, 2020) can be found here.

Phased Return Guidelines Clarifications

May 27, 2020

As the Bishop previously announced, all parishes will begin operating under Phase 2 Guidelines this coming Sunday, May 31, 2020, whether they are regathering then or at some later date. This, along with your questions and ideas, have raised several issues we want to clarify here.

  1. All worship from the church where there is more than one person from different households present, either live or recorded, both indoors and outdoors, must comply with Phase 2 guidelines, including 1) the use of masks by all participants; and 2) the restriction against live singing. If only household members are present and there is singing or masks are not used, please explain to viewers why that is the case. 
  2. Online worship that is streamed from home with only household members present does not require masks and may allow live singing. If that is the case, please explain why to viewers.
  3. It is not necessary to clean your building until you are opening it to the public. For those gathering outside and making your bathrooms available, that may mean it is only necessary to clean your bathrooms and the paths through the building leading to them.
  4. The guidelines imply that the Prayer for Spiritual Communion is required when Eucharist is celebrated, but it is optional. If you plan to use it, the prayer is included below. It is to be said by all immediately prior to the Postcommunion Prayer.
  5. It is not necessary to complete the Phase 2 Regathering Report until such time as you are preparing to reopen all or part of your building to the public.
  6. It is clear that contact tracing is a valuable tool in fighting this virus. Whether it is recommended or required by the protocols is not clear. Please read them to mean, “It is therefore recommended and strongly encouraged that congregations institute some contact tracing mechanism to assist the local health department in quickly tracing, testing, and isolating individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 in your building.
  7. In Phase 2, all formation (e.g. Bible studies, youth groups, inquirer’s classes, Confirmation classes) may take place within the building or outdoors under the sanitization, mask, and physical distancing guidelines. This does not apply to Sunday School in which the children are too young to be certain of physical distancing.

These clarifications are in addition to those you received last week regarding singing, wind instruments, and the phrase “deep clean.” It is almost certain such clarifications will continue to be needed as we work out the guideline’s implementation over the coming weeks and months.

To that end, as with this letter, we will send clarifications by email and post them on the Leadership Basecamp as soon as we have them available. At the beginning of each new month, we will also send an amended Phased Return Guideline document incorporating all clarifications or changes from the previous version. 

Please contact Brad Purdom at bpurdom@dohio.org with any questions or comments. 
A Prayer for Spiritual Communion, from The Prayer Book for the Armed ServicesIn union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer to you praise and thanksgiving. I remember your death, Lord Christ; I proclaim your resurrection; I await your coming in glory. Since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.


A Follow-Up Message Regarding In-Person Regathering

May 22, 2020

Dear colleagues and communicants,

I write following up to the regathering protocols you have received this week. Recognizing how complex and serious are our preparations for the care of God’s beloved in this pandemic, there are a few immediate reflections and clarifications that arise from our continuing conversations.

In the past 24 hours, it has been heartening and encouraging to hear of the patience, caution, and thoughtfulness with which clergy and lay leaders are approaching the possibility of in-person ministry and worship. Understanding that each “phase” refers only to what may be possible in a particular season of this new reality, it should be clear that the guidelines make no assumption or expectation for in-person gathering at any specific time. The timing of appropriate implementation will be specific to each congregation’s demographic, size, location, and context. Some parishes may explore outdoor options in good weather, others may continue sustaining community and participating in worship via internet and social media for weeks to come.

In looking ahead to what gathering physically for worship may look like, whenever that may occur, some have asked for clarification regarding the restriction on singing. For now, that prohibits all singing, including vocal soloists, even at an increased distance. Prerecorded vocal music is permissible, as it has been for online worship. In planning liturgies, however, I encourage a pastoral sensitivity to worshipers for whom the absence of participatory singing will be very difficult and urge you to avoid familiar hymns in familiar places that will be difficult for many not to sing. Instrumental music or prerecorded vocal pieces may be best suited to more contemplative moments in the service.

In some places, the use of woodwinds and brass in worship has been suspended for the same reasons as singing. This seems both prudent and responsible. It will be impossible to imagine all eventuality, but I have confidence that you will always err on the side of safety and caution in your decision making.

There has been an understandable question about what constitutes “deep cleaning,” as this is a term used in hospitals and other public facilities. The intention in our protocol is not to define a specific practice, but to underscore the need for conscientious sanitization. Please read the guideline to mean: Before any public use of church-owned spaces, congregations must thoroughly clean and appropriately disinfect each part of the church building that will be open to public use, including pews, bathrooms, doorknobs, light switches, stair railings, and microphones.
A thorough cleaning is expected before public use with special emphasis on where people will touch things. It is not necessary to clean the spaces of the building that will not be used until later. Those spaces must be similarly cleaned prior to their public use, which may be some months later.


The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio


A Message from the Bishop Regarding In-Person Regathering

May 19, 2020

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

As we take cautious steps forward into this new reality of living with Coronavirus and COVID-19, the physical and spiritual safety of God’s beloved is foremost in my concerns and prayers. The desire to be with one another again in all the varied activities of life is great, and for many of us, the yearning to gather in worship, service, and fellowship is paramount. Our transition to in-person gathering must be careful and thoughtful, putting the well-being of others first, as Jesus taught us.

Attached you will find a letter from the six bishops serving the two dioceses in Ohio outlining our common perspective, followed by a guidelines document describing requirements and suggested procedures for phased, in-person regathering in the Diocese of Ohio. It is important that you read the entire document to get a clear understanding of the process. Please remember that the progression may not be linear, as we may well have to return to a previous phase at some time.

We have been in Phase 1 of this process since the suspension of public worship two months ago. Beginning on the Day of Pentecost, May 31, we will move into Phase 2.That does not mean that a particular congregation or communicant must resume in-person gathering at that time, only that it will be permitted, given suitable preparations. Each parish and individual’s decision will be particular to its own context and circumstances. For some, regathering may be appropriate, for others it may not.

If you have questions or concerns, please reach out for assistance. The bishops and staff of the Diocese are ready to help in every way possible.

Again, know that you are in my prayers always.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio