Beginning Sunday, June 13, decisions regarding the use of masks, singing, serving food for coffee hour and feeding programs, reception of the sacrament, and the physical spacing of participants at any in-person gathering will be the responsibility of each individual congregation’s clergy and lay leaders. Please read the entirety of this letter carefully.
Continued progress in understanding the nature of the coronavirus and increasing success in limiting its spread through vaccination, as reflected in amended guidelines from the CDC and state health agencies, allow us to move further toward subsidiarity in pandemic response and procedures. The availability of sound scientific resources and the intimate knowledge of their communicant base increasingly support individual congregations in making decisions that best meet their particular circumstances.
I recognize that in some places this may result in a transfer of frustration or disagreement from episcopal to parochial leadership, and I regret any increased burden on our clergy and lay leaders after all that they have endured over the past 15 months. Nonetheless, the breadth of our parishes in almost every demographic and characteristic makes it increasingly difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all set of protocols that adequately responds to their varied contexts.
The makeup of our congregations differs considerably from parish to parish. Those with relatively fewer communicants, all of whom are fully vaccinated, are, according to CDC and state guidelines, at low risk as sites for COVID-19 contagion. Requiring masks in those settings is now no longer considered essential by the State of Ohio.
Other parishes, on the other hand, whose attendance regularly fills the available space, or whose communicants either include families with young children or hope to include such families, may appropriately feel that wearing masks is a discipline warranted by their commitment to the health of the particularly vulnerable. This would likewise be a reasonable and responsible practice for congregations with communicants unable to be vaccinated due to some other health condition.
Thus, the decision about whether and at which services the required use of masks is appropriate is best determined by parish leadership.
Singing will be permissible both out of doors and indoors, with or without masks, as determined by each parish. This applies to parishioners, soloists, and choirs. As with all in-person practices, attention to safe practices is paramount and should be determined by leaders and encouraged by all.
Food may be served at church and outreach events alike, as directed by safety policies and practices established by clergy and vestry. This includes coffee hour, receptions, formation events, community dinners, and any event at which food and drink may be offered.
Reception of Eucharistic elements
While I will continue to encourage strongly that the Eucharistic sacrament be received in one kind (bread only), that decision will also be the responsibility of parish leadership, with the final say resting with the clergy. There are certainly a few congregations in which every attendee may be fully vaccinated. Drinking from the common cup, however, or reaching one’s hand into the chalice for intinction may well remain uncomfortable to many and unsafe for some. It is important to teach the Doctrine of Concomitance as an assurance to communicants that the sacrament is complete when received in one kind only, i.e., in either the bread or the wine.
On a personal note, as a recovering alcoholic I have received the Eucharist in bread alone for over 35 years. For me, not unlike for those who would choose to do the same in this time of pandemic, this was solely to protect me from a grave and chronic illness – alcoholism. In all of that time, I have never felt a diminution of the Eucharistic presence of Christ.
If a congregation considers distributing the consecrated wine at this time, I strongly urge that it be done cautiously, patiently, and after providing appropriate teaching so that communicants will feel free to choose not to receive.
Restoring the option to return to any of these practices is in no way an indication that doing so is the appropriate and correct determination for a specific congregation or event. That choice, as with all issues in Christian community, is a responsibility, not a right. It should be considered thoughtfully and humbly, not measured simply by one’s own desires, rather, as Jesus directed his disciples, in light of its implications for the well-being of “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”
As always, Brad Purdom, I, and all members of the Bishop’s staff are available to assist in exploring these or any issues regarding in-person gathering.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio