The Right Next Step: Phase 3 - A Return to Local Control
Dear Friends in Christ,
This week we are in the middle of Advent, a season of reflecting on the year that’s passed and preparing for Christ’s arrival in the weeks ahead of us. As we light our candles, let us give thanks that worship, fellowship, and ministries continue to get closer to normal as protocols for in-person gatherings, mask-wearing, social-distancing and eating together have been eased in churches throughout the Diocese of West Texas.
Since the Phase 2(d) Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches were instated by the diocese on May 18, 2021, we have experienced new variants, new research, booster shots, and vaccines for children. Through it all, our congregational leaders, lay and clergy, have been prudent, attentive, and faithful in their efforts to keep people safe and to be the Church in both familiar and new ways.
In light of increasing vaccination rates, vaccines for younger children, and boosters for all adults and teens, I have set a date when the remaining diocesan pandemic protocols will end, in consultation with the Standing Committee. Effective January 10, 2022, I will transfer full authority over each congregation’s ongoing COVID-19 guidelines to its Clergy and Vestry or Bishop’s Committee. At that time, the Diocese will move to Phase 3: A Return to Local Control. A summary of changes churches may consider in Phase 3 is listed below.
While removing the last of the diocesan mandated guidelines will be a significant milestone, we are not in “post-pandemic times” yet. This decision should not be read as an all-clear message, and I am not advocating that any or all churches immediately remove practices that have kept us safe during the pandemic.
COVID-19 remains a reality in all our communities. We all know people who have caught it and some who have died. Many people still remain unvaccinated, and vaccination of children 5-12 years old has become possible only recently. The information regarding the Omicron variant is still developing; public health predictions for the winter vary. With all this in mind, I strongly recommend church leaders continue monitoring their local context, review existing church guidelines, and carefully consider appropriate precautions to maintain within their congregations. Particular attention should be given to in-person gatherings that may involve unvaccinated individuals, especially children under the age of 5.
As Bishop Rayford High and I travel the Diocese, we find ourselves in churches that remain diligent about masking and social distancing and in churches where few wear masks or practice social distancing. In all of our congregations, we see church leaders doing their very best to keep their people safe and well. Masked and unmasked, online or in-person, the people of West Texas are gathering and worshiping the Lord.
Regardless of what 2022 brings, we must remain vigilant and adaptable. When Phase 3 takes effect next month, any decisions to adjust existing restrictions and protocols made by Vestries and Bishop’s Committees should be communicated clearly to congregants, volunteers, and staff. And I urge church members to honor local protocols in support of their clergy and lay leaders who must continue to make hard decisions.
For now, thanks be to God, we can be together as Christ’s Body, for worship, fellowship, and service. We need one another. And our hurting world needs the strong, graceful and visible witness to the healing power of Christ’s love that the Church has been called and equipped to offer.
Love in Christ,
Bishop of West Texas
Phase 3: A Return to Local Control
The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas presents revised Diocesan Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches - Phase 3: A Return to Local Control. Effective January 10, 2022, the remaining diocesan pandemic requirements will end, and local church leadership will receive full authority to manage each congregation’s ongoing COVID-19 guidelines and protocols.
A congregation’s guidelines and protocol may stay the same at this time. Church guidelines may be amended only following a discussion and plan of action formed by clergy and the Vestry or Bishop’s Committee. That plan must be communicated to the congregation prior to any in-person gathering that will incorporate new guidance, but does not need to be submitted to the diocesan office prior to implementation.
The following changes may be considered by Vestry or Bishop’s Committees, beginning January 10, 2022, if they determine that lifting of restrictions is appropriate:
- Congregations may offer the common cup.
- Clergy and Lay Eucharistic Ministers are not required to wear a mask during the distribution.
- Receiving Communion “in one kind” (bread only) is considered full communion, and receiving the wine by intinction (dipping) is also appropriate.
- Any congregations using individual and/or pre-packaged servings of bread and wine should end that practice now and return to methods of reception listed above.
- Offering plates may be passed among congregants.
- Consider continuing to provide supplemental options for contactless giving, such as online options or placing a stationary offering plate near the center aisle.
The following practices are strongly encouraged, but not required by the diocese, during Phase 3:
Childcare and Christian Formation:
- Church staff and lay leaders who facilitate formation offerings or provide childcare for children under the age of 5 are strongly encouraged continue to wear masks and implement appropriate sanitation and personal hygiene practices.
Responding to Positive COVID-19 Cases
- Any staff member, regardless of vaccination status, who experiences COVID-19 symptoms should be clinically evaluated and tested for SARS-CoV-2, and quarantine if a positive test is returned.
- If a priest, staff member, volunteer, or in-person attendee has a lab-confirmed COVID-19 case, it is important to notify others who may have been in close contact with this person. Be respectful of the individual's privacy while sharing important details, such as the date and time they were at church, so that others may make informed decisions regarding their own risk of exposure.
- Consider continuing to offer online options to support homebound members or families with higher risk individuals that may still need to limit contact with larger groups.
Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches
- The Phase 2(d) Guidelines are preserved online, at www.dwtx.org/covid19, as a reference document to help guide conversations about local protocol.
Pandemic guidelines and protocols for Episcopal Schools continue to be entrusted to the Head of School, rectors and school boards. The Camps & Conferences Department continues to monitor and implement site-specific guidelines for retreats, camps, and other guest groups.