The Spirit was There: Grief and Joy in Phased Reopening
June 12, 2020
Following the Rt. Rev. David M. Reed’s release of Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches and permission for churches to begin phased reopening for modified in-person worship after Sunday, May 24th, approximately 16 of the 87 worshipping communities in the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas held in-person services beginning May 31st. That number doubled on Sunday, June 7th, with 16 more congregations opening their doors, and 10 additional churches indicated their intentions to open June 14th on Covenants provided to the diocesan office during the month of May. At this time, a handful of churches plan to open their doors in late June, and more have not yet decided upon a date for reopening.
The Phase 2 “Modified Return to Public Worship” guidelines provide protocols for churches to follow for facilities, employees, volunteers, and for attendees. Protocols include cleaning and disinfecting all regularly touched surfaces and seats or pews between every service, making hand sanitizer readily available, eliminating provisions of food or drink, screening employees and volunteers for potential illness, ensuring six feet spacing between attendees, requiring face masks, distributing communion in one kind, and suspending in-person formation and childcare services, to name a few.
As plans and logistics are worked out so that churches can align their daily operations and weekly services with Phase 2 guidelines for reopening, clergy and lay leadership wrestle with logistics coordination and managing expectations. Regarding this phased reopening, Bishop Reed stated with clairvoyance in a letter to the diocese on May 21st that, “We need to understand that it will not be the same. As churches across the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas prepare their phased reopening plans for modified public worship, we need to know that the services we will be returning to will be less, for a season, than what we remember and have been longing for. We will be like the Israelites returning after a long exile and beginning to rebuild the Temple - it will bring us joy, and at the same time, we will also feel disappointed that it is not the same.”
During interviews for this article, priests were asked about the demographics of parishioners who attended in-person worship after opening their doors. Unanimously, they shared that they were missing the youngest (children and families requiring childcare services disallowed during current phase) and the oldest (80+) generations of members. While they received some resistance to new protocols, the overwhelming majority of in-person participants gladly followed new health and safety guidelines.
Many church leaders lament over the struggle to transition into online-only services as well as the shift back into modified in-person services. St. Alban’s in Harlingen began offering ‘hybrid’ services on May 31st. “I grieve the loss of church as it was,” shared The Rev. John Inserra, Rector of St. Alban’s. He continued, “As a priest who likes church, I grieved that online church wasn’t going to be the same, and then I grieved, selfishly, for the loss of momentum we had and how that could reflect on my leadership. I had to work through all of that, and it took me a while. I did not embrace the live stream right away. We would pre-record services and they weren’t great. We weren’t putting our best effort into it because I felt like we would save our best effort for when we’re on the other side of this. It took me a little while to realize that this might be how that 85-year-old person participates in church for the rest of their life. They deserve to have something that’s not an afterthought. So now, we call it a ‘hybrid’ service: in person and online, where we intentionally make it something that people at home feel they can continue to connect with.”
St. Helena’s in Boerne opened their doors for the first time in twelve weeks on Sunday, June 7th. Reflecting on the planning process for returning in-person, the Rev. David G. Read, Rector of St. Helena’s shared, “The amount of detail was incredible. The protocols that the diocese came out with were really helpful, but getting down to the nitty gritty of ‘who, what, when, where, and how’ is a serious task that can feel overwhelming.”
On the first day back in person, St. Helena’s experienced 25% of their average Sunday attendance. Read stated, “Our biggest loss is even though it’s a big step to reconvene public worship, we’re still incomplete because so many people still aren’t ready to be at a public gathering again. We’re incomplete until all of us can gather again and feel safe.”
While so many are experiencing deep pain at the loss of normalcy and fellowship, there is great joy in even a modified return to liturgy, communion, and community. Rev. Read expressed delight over simply having others in the room, sharing that hosting 25 vestry members and ushers for a training prior to reopening brought him to tears, “I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. People are so longing for connection, community, and their church family. Just hearing people talking before and after the service was wild. It was wonderful to see and hear the people reconnecting and loving the church family and community that they haven’t been able to be a part of, except for online.”
The Rev. Jan Dantone, Rector of Epiphany Church in Kingsville, has offered two in-person Sunday services since reopening their doors on May 31st. She stated, “We have only two active cases of the coronavirus in Kleberg Country right now, so we’ve been very eager to return to our space. Since we have, it is just wonderful to be back together. It is so much better to be preaching to people than to a camera, and it is a true joy to see the kids again.”
The Pentecost service at St. Alban’s brought similar joys and a powerful revelation for the Rev. John Inserra, “Everybody came away from that first service thinking that the service was so much better than we had worried about. We were expecting church service in a hospital waiting room. It was going to be so sterile, and heartless, and spiritless. And it wasn’t. The Spirit was there. For a lot of us clergy, and maybe for lay people, there was a thought that it’s only church if we have the same elements we are accustomed to. It feels like the same story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Maybe all the stuff we love, that we thought is what makes up Christmas, is not what Christmas is about at all. Maybe all the stuff of ‘Church’ wasn’t what made ‘Church’ in the first place. Maybe there was, in fact, something else that makes it feel the way it does, and we just thought it was all these exterior things, and not the Spirit itself.”
In his opening letter to the guidelines for phased reopening of churches, Bishop Reed offered encouragement to church leaders that continues to be true, as churches begin to open their doors, “Everywhere I look in the Diocese of West Texas, I see signs of hope and powerful reminders that although we are temporarily confined by the novel coronavirus, we are not defined by it. It is the risen Christ who claims us and defines us. I see this Easter life in the countless ways that you have continued worship and ministry in the name of Christ and your determination to make that happen…We have traveled a long way during these past months.”
Currently, there are four phases for reopening the diocese outlined in the guidelines for reopening in West Texas. Phase 1 – Stay at Home Orders and Work Safe – prohibits all in-person church meetings, events, and gatherings while video and online worship becomes a part of our life together. Phase 2 – A Modified Return to Public Worship – the current operational phase, allows for modified in-person worship with proactive health and safety protocols, and church offices reopen where facilities can accommodate proper social distancing and proper sanitizing. Online worship continues as a supplement to in-person worship under this Phase. Phase 3 – A Full Return – lifts all restrictions on in-person worship, formation, meetings, ministries and gatherings after mass vaccination is available. Phase 4 – A Time for Reflection – invites the church to discern ways to reflect on how we’ve changed and what we’ve learned in the process.
As churches begin opening their doors for worship services following Phase 2 guidelines, diocesan leadership recognizes the necessity for further phases of re-opening to be permitted for implementation prior to beginning Phase 3 "Full Return to Worship." The Bishop, Standing Committee, and Diocesan Staff are currently developing Phase 2b guidelines, allowing for some in-person meetings and childcare to be offered on church campuses with safety measures for the continued health and safety of all individuals. These Phase 2b guidelines and protocols are expected to be released the week of June 15th.
News, resources, and information regarding the diocesan response to COVID-19 can be found at dwtx.org/covid19. To receive updates in your email inbox, please send your contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Photo credit: Meagan Sullivan - member of St. John's, McAllen