The Next Right Step: Public Gatherings Suspended
[March 18, 2020]
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Effective today, Wednesday, March 18, I am calling on all clergy and congregations of West Texas to cease gathering in person for worship and meetings until April 1. In this way, we will join our communities’ and our nation’s efforts to slow community spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suspending in-person gatherings has now become the consistent, urgent, and best advice of medical and public health professionals, as well as public officials at all levels of government. A two-week moratorium is not very long, and we should be prepared to see it extended for significantly longer, depending on the continued spread of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and the State of Texas are urging people not to gather in groups of more than fifty, and the City of San Antonio has issued a seven-day ban on such gatherings, which will almost surely be extended to 30 days later this week. Many elected officials, including our President, have recommended gatherings no larger than ten people. Cities, towns, and counties within our Diocese have issued similar restrictions and recommendations. While a number of our congregations have fewer than fifty people in attendance on most Sundays, all of our churches include plenty of older worshippers and those with compromised immune systems, who are among the more vulnerable to this illness. I believe it’s in the best interest of every member of this diocesan family to take this step together, and to clearly say “no,” rather than leave room for reinterpretation and creative counting.
I have not made this decision easily. In fact, it breaks my heart to do so. However, the reasons for not requiring this measure on a diocesan-wide basis have become far less compelling over the past week than the reasons for instituting this temporary suspension. As I said in my letter to clergy and churches last Friday, we seek to act in love and not from fear. Not gathering physically for worship becomes, by grace, a gift of sacrificial love to our larger communities and to the most vulnerable in them, as we actively seek to be instruments of Christ’s healing and peace, rather than unwitting conduits of coronavirus.
While this decision has been mine to make, I want to assure you that I have been in constant consultation with diocesan staff, other bishops, medical professionals, many of our clergy, and the Standing Committee for the past two weeks. I am so grateful for their steadfast guidance and encouragement during this time.
Let me be clear: We are not “canceling church.” By water and the Holy Spirit in baptism, we are the Church, members of Christ’s Body, united one to another not by buildings, but by our Lord.
And we remain the Church whether we are in our buildings or not, whether we are gathered or dispersed. I encourage you all, and particularly our clergy and lay leaders, to seek ways for your church to remain together, even while “socially distanced.” Though physically distanced out of necessity, we can refuse to be disconnected from the Body. A good number of our churches have long live-streamed their services. The Prayer Book’s Daily Offices (Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline) provide wonderful ways for families, individuals, and small groups to worship together and across physical distance. And it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the online offerings of prayer and worship.
The diocesan Communications Department sent an email on Tuesday, March 17, listing numerous resources and support for technology for both worship and meetings, which you can read at www.dwtx.org/covid19. Later this week, I will send out additional liturgical resources and guidelines to the clergy. I encourage all of you to think and plan creatively for ways your congregation can truly worship, support one another, and continue (or begin) ministries out into your community.
I have postponed my next two Sunday visitations, though I will join St. Christopher’s, Bandera for Morning Prayer this Sunday via livestream. While I’m not overly worried that I will become sick, I do not want to unknowingly bring the coronavirus with me when I travel to Bandera, to George West, or anywhere else. I pray that what keeps us physically separated in this time will be love for one another, and not fear.
The Bishop Jones Center will remain open. I and other staff members will be working, though I am giving them permission to work from home. We will not have in-person meetings for the remainder of March, the Wednesday Eucharist is suspended, and groups that regularly meet at the diocesan center will be asked to stay away, except for recovery groups, who will be offered resources to gather online, as well.
In my lifetime, Americans, as a people, have rarely been asked to sacrifice for the common good. Even the heaviest burdens of war have been largely carried by our military and their families. But now is a time when we are being asked to give up practices and limit freedoms we value for the sake of our life together as a nation. We are being asked to be inconvenienced.
For Christians, this should be familiar territory, even if responding to a pandemic is utterly foreign to our lived experience. We follow Jesus, the Son who became servant of all, and laid down his life for love of us and the whole creation. You might consider this strange and disruptive time as a deepened and rougher Lenten pilgrimage, and discuss and pray Lenten questions of meaning and mortality, values and priorities, power and vulnerability.
I expect you to be disappointed by my decision; I hope you will long to be together in church; I trust you to understand and trust that I have tried to act in love for all our churches and communities.
In addition to all the prayers we are praying in this hard time, I commend to your prayers your own clergy. None of us has prior experience or expertise in this, and they are being called on to love and lead and serve in the midst of great confusion and anxiety. I encourage you to love and care for them.
You are all in my thoughts and prayers. God is so much bigger than this moment. His Spirit abides with us for ever, and we are more than conquerors in him who loves us.
Lord God, Father Almighty: We easily take so much for granted until it is threatened. In this time of pandemic, make us deeply mindful of our need for you. Help us to cherish anew all that we have received from you—the gifts of life, health, families and friends, the Church. Rekindle in us the desire to strengthen these precious gifts and to be knit together in you. While our worries and fears are real, give us grace to not give in to them. While our inconveniences and hardships are real, give us eyes to see those who truly suffer and to find ways to serve them. Remind us daily that those who abide in Christ are never truly separated, and even as we are physically distanced may we find deeper and closer community. Send your Holy Spirit to bring healing and peace to us, and to our communities. And may we find wisdom and power in you to disrupt the disruptions. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, Healer of our souls, Savior of the world. Amen.
Faithfully Yours in Christ,
David M. Reed
Bishop of West Texas