A Pastoral Word from the Episcopal Bishops in Massachusetts
with Updated Pandemic Guidance
November 19, 2020
Dear people of the Dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts,
Our first word to you is one of deep gratitude. In the past eight months our churches have responded to the challenges of this pandemic with commitment and creativity. You have found new ways to worship, continued to provide life-sustaining ministry in your communities, and remained in supportive fellowship with one another. Despite widely shared anxiety and fatigue, you have nonetheless remained faithful to the core identity of the church. We are grateful beyond measure. God bless you.
Our second word to you is one of grave concern and utmost caution. Over the past several weeks, the spread of the coronavirus has increased dramatically in the Commonwealth. Infection levels have returned to levels not seen since spring. On November 2, Governor Baker issued revised measures, imposing stricter controls on gatherings in both private and public settings. As we move into colder weather and flu season, we believe that clear and present risks in our communities demand a similar response from people of faith to help protect ourselves and one another. Jesus’s Law of Love simply must be our foremost and abiding concern.
While religious and political organizations are exempt from many state guidelines, such exemptions place concern for First Amendment legal challenges ahead of concern for the health and well-being of God’s people. As your bishops, we are convinced that Jesus’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) must be the overriding factor in our decisions, even when this requires accepting limits to our own freedoms. Indeed, St. Paul insisted upon this priority. “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial …. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (I Corinthians 10:23-24) For this reason, where state standards for places of worship are more permissive than those for other gathering places, we expect our churches to adhere to the more limited standards provided for other public venues.
One of our consulting medical professionals has observed poignantly, “The infectious disease epidemiologist in me wants everyone to just stay home. The harm reductionist in me wants to meet people where they are and make them as safe as they can be. The Christian in me sees suffering from these practices and wants to comfort them. I don’t know how to be all three at the same time.” As your bishops, we share that tension, desiring to care for the health of all our people and our neighbors, even while providing the spiritual and pastoral care which nurtures and sustains us. We know that our clergy, lay leaders, and all faithful Episcopalians share these same concerns.
The guidelines below represent our hope that renewed restrictions, while causing short-term disappointment, will help us all traverse the coming months in greater health and with genuine care for one another, as Jesus has commanded.
We know and grieve that the timing of these restrictions means that Advent and Christmas simply will not be observed with many of our cherished traditions this year. Instead it will be a year for small, quiet, contemplative possibilities – perhaps not unlike the lonely stable in Bethlehem shared by that little family at the Incarnation, where Christ first came to meet all our hopes and fears.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop Diocesan, Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop Diocesan, Diocese of Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Massachusetts
- All churches are now urged in the strongest possible terms to suspend in-person, indoor worship. This expectation is in effect for the foreseeable future, as steps continue to be taken across the country to curtail the dramatic rise of coronavirus infections.
- Outdoor services are limited to a maximum of 50 persons, while maintaining appropriate physical distancing and other safety practices. This accords with the state guidelines for outdoor gatherings.
- In any congregation where in-person, indoor worship will continue despite our strong counsel, maximum attendance is determined by the physical-distancing protocols applied within the church’s particular worship space (see A Journey By Stages), and in any case is limited to a maximum of 25 persons. This limitation is in accordance with state guidelines for indoor venues. All persons in higher-risk groups should participate in worship virtually.
- All worship must continue to follow the safety protocols outlined in A Journey By Stages and Expanded Guidelines for Stage Two, such as physical distancing, mask wearing, and cleaning and disinfecting.
- Due to the dramatic risk of airborne viral transmission, cantors or soloists must observe 20-foot physical distancing, whether for live-streamed or in-person services, indoors or outdoors. The use of pre-recorded or remotely performed music is encouraged. Congregational singing is prohibited both indoors and outdoors.
- The sacrament of Holy Communion may be made available to the people, as indicated in prior guidelines, through the distribution of previously-consecrated wafers in advance of live-streamed or recorded services. Such distribution should be made by clergy, lay eucharistic visitors, or pastoral caregivers via brief pastoral visits to the home, or during specified hours at the church. Any such method must abide by the protocols for safe distribution of the Sacrament as described in Expanded Guidelines for Stage Two.
CARING FOR ONE ANOTHER:
- We commend the efforts of congregations which have opened their churches for times of private prayer and reflection while following practices to do so safely.
- We applaud such pastoral tools as ‘buddy systems’ and virtual small groups which connect individuals and households with one another. We encourage all people to respond to the isolation felt by so many by reaching out with phone calls, notes, virtual check-ins, and – where safely possible – brief pastoral visits.
- We encourage those who are in lower-risk groups to support those in greater danger of COVID-19 infection by assisting with grocery shopping and other errands, thus helping them remain safer at home.
Bishops Expand Guidelines for Stage Two
August 6, 2020
Dear People of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts,
The attached document, “Expanded Guidelines for Stage Two,” is offered as a supplement to “A Journey By Stages,” the document presented to our two dioceses in May 2020. This supplement provides protocols for the administration of the two dominical sacraments, Holy Communion and Holy Baptism.
Through the summer months your bishops have continued strongly to encourage congregations opting to refrain from in-person public worship, providing virtual opportunities for all aspects of church life until public health considerations suggest otherwise. Where congregational leaders conclude that local conditions allow for limited in-person gathering, such worship has been permitted under strict guidelines since July 1.
We know well the deep yearning for full sacramental practice in the church, and your bishops share the grief many of you are experiencing due to the pandemic-imposed Eucharistic fast. The enclosed guidelines provide for limited administration of Holy Communion and Baptism in places where they may be practicable. A word on Confirmation will be forthcoming.
Even as we prepare to issue these guidelines, however, sobering reports suggest the need for extreme caution. Daily case counts, seven-day average test rates, and hospitalizations are all rising in the Commonwealth. Many experts predict a second surge soon. Given these realities, we underscore the following:
1. Permission, not Persuasion: The following protocols for cautious administration of the sacraments, as vetted by health care experts, are authorized at this time. Nevertheless, no clergy or congregational leaders should feel pressured or obliged to undertake them. Local circumstances continue to vary dramatically, including the capacity to implement safety requirements consistently; architectural design and adaptability; the prevalence of risk factors among your membership, clergy, and staff; and other factors particular to your situation.
2. Prepare to Reverse: Every congregation should be prepared to return to the restrictions of previous stages in the event of future surges or positive tests and contact tracing within the congregation. All remain accountable to state and local guidelines, and – as we have said – to honesty with ourselves! Neither faithful prayer nor wishful thinking allow us to risk the well-being of self or neighbor.
3. Consider the Most Vulnerable: Many congregants and staff members will be advised to remain at home on account of risk factors, or will feel safer doing so. Congregations should continue to make inclusion and support of these members a key factor in all decisions about re-gathering and sacramental ministry. For this reason, and given the very real possibility of resumed closure and tightened restrictions during pandemic surges, the section of these guidelines containing Directives for Pastoral and Eucharistic Visitors is particularly important. Where resumed participation in Holy Communion becomes possible, it must be shared as widely as possible.
The weeks and months ahead remain shrouded in uncertainty. But we have learned much in the past five months about how to worship the God who sustains us; how to remain in community with one another; how to serve the world around us; how to be the church even in these trying times. May we continue to live with patience, forgiveness, sacrifice and courage.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
Bishop of Western MA
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
Bishop of MA
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris
Bishop Suffragan of MA
Deanery Metrics for Entering Stage 2 of “A Journey By Stages”
June 25, 2020
July 1 is approaching and the suspension of in-person services has been reconsidered on the basis of measurable data in each deanery provided by local health officials. The metrics are the same as those used by our Commonwealth. Our deaneries are distinct counties with the exception of Hampshire-Franklin deanery which encompasses two counties. Local data of the towns in each deanery has been interpreted by health care professionals. I am grateful to our deans who have risen to the challenge of this time with faith and clarity of purpose. And to members of our churches who work in the medical field who are assisting our deans with this important work, I give you thanks for your time and service to the Church.
Dr. Donna Barten
Dr. Rachel Walker
Bernadette A. Brusco, MA Public Health
It is critical here to restate what has been written in “A Journey By Stages” Part 2.“No congregation will be forced to make changes or to hold public services or events. Individual congregations may always choose to remain under the policies from an earlier stage. All congregations should be prepared to move back to a previous stage should public health conditions worsen.” It’s important, too, to remember that our stages are distinct and separate from the “phases” of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
If the metrics indicate that a congregation may enter Stage 2 after July 1, the leadership may submit the completed plan to the dean for collegial support, and await final authorization from my office to begin in-person services as they are permitted in Stage 2. Congregations may also elect to remain in Stage 1 for a time or until metrics allow for Stage 3 worship. Several congregations have already decided to continue worship online until after Labor Day.
Many around the nation are just beginning to experience a surge of COVID-19 cases. We have lost 7,938 souls to COVID-19 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This number represents an unimaginable loss. We are marking the deaths of the faithful here in our diocese. COVID-19 has also created an economic tidal wave of joblessness and the collapse of many small businesses. The pandemic has revealed the weakness of our social safety net and the internalized racism in our systems. We have much work to do and the Church is uniquely positioned to be part of the mending of the fabric of the common good.
We cannot know what lies ahead, but we surely know the cost of this virus. Permission to enter Stage 2 may be granted, but I urge continued caution and consideration for our most vulnerable people and clergy. I urge you to make every decision with the wisdom of science and the guidepost of love. I urge you to give priority to the needs of the newly poor and listen to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long.
There is so much about this virus that medical professionals do not know. All of our recommendations and guidelines are based on the best information we have at this time. The situation may change in the fall. We need to be nimble and ready for such changes. We all hope and pray that science will prevail soon and a vaccine will become available. In the interim, love of neighbor means doing our part to model best practices as individuals and as communities of faith.
We are in new territory as Church. The gift of digital ministry has become clear as we engage people who have never crossed our threshold. I give thanks for all of you – for your faith, for your patience in these difficult days and for your bold witness that the mission continues.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
Bishops Issue Guidelines for Resuming In-Person Worship:A Journey By Stages
May 18, 2020
To: All Clergy and Wardens
This evening we are sharing guidelines for returning to in-person worship. I have worked with Bishop Alan Gates and Bishop Gayle Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts so that the Episcopal Church in the Commonwealth can walk together in these days. The canons and deans of both dioceses have been an integral part of this work, and I am particularly grateful for the leadership of Canon Bill Parnell of the Diocese of Massachusetts and our own Canon to the Ordinary, Rich Simpson, throughout this process.
While the Governor’s plan goes into effect tomorrow, I remind you all that no congregation may return to in-person worship before July 1, and only when the criteria for readiness have been met, affirmed by the deans and approved by diocesan leadership.
Following the Governor’s announcement this morning, the Boston Globe reportsthat several epidemiologists have said that “a second wave of infection is possible, likely even. They noted that a return to church and worship services could be especially problematic.” It is reported that several large outbreaks in other states have originated in churches. Gathering is still not safe. Our first priority remains the health and well-being of our communities. We must be deliberate and comprehensive in our preparations. Our deans are developing a checklist specific to our congregations that will be part of preparing for Stage 2. This checklist will be sent to rectors and wardens as soon as it is complete.
I continue to be grateful for your faith in this time of pandemic. We have continued to be the Church in new and hopeful ways. I bid your prayers for those who have died from this virus and for all who grieve them. Doctors, nurses, essential workers are living icons of God’s love for us, and they need our prayers especially. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope continues with passion and creativity. It is good for us to imagine gathering again as God’s people. We will undertake this journey in stages trusting that God goes before us and beside us
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
Pastoral Directive from the Bishop: Love of Neighbor Guides Our Way Forward
May 9, 2020
To the faithful of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts:
A prayer from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, minds and souls, and love our neighbors as ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and sorrow. Amen.”
I have prayed that prayer every day for these two months because it speaks so powerfully to the present moment. Three things are true. These are days of emotional tension, with gigantic problems and chaos. It is true that God is with us. And at the heart of following Jesus is love of neighbor. It is all true.
Thank you for loving your neighbor in these days. Our doctors, nurses, hospital staff and first responders, and all essential workers are truly saints. I have witnessed incredible generosity and pastoral care from all of you. Thank you for staying at home and practicing physical distancing when you are out. And thank you for being faithful people of prayer, in your private prayer and by gathering with others online. The Church is truly open and at work in the world.
How can we continue to be faithful followers of Jesus regarding our worship in our church buildings in the days, weeks and months ahead? Here is where we do not want to be “chaotic in detail.” I am meeting with a team in our diocese and with Bishop Alan Gates and his team in the eastern diocese (which includes two of the top epidemiologists in the Commonwealth) to develop a plan going forward. The plan will always be open to adjustment as circumstances require. Here is what is certain right now:
1) Our church buildings will remain closed for worship through July 1. Listening to medical experts and loving our neighbor make this decision clear. It also allows our congregations to settle into online worship which has developed quickly and faithfully. Remember every church does not have to conduct these services. We can collaborate with other churches locally and with our National Cathedral. During this time, our team will be working on plans for moving forward toward safe in-person worship in our church buildings and we will coordinate those plans with our sister diocese to the east so there will be one plan for the Commonwealth.
2) We commit to having guidelines available to our congregations by July 1 so that may mark the beginning of phasing in worship in our church buildings. What those phases are and how long each one will take, is yet to be determined. The priority each step along the way will be safety and love of neighbor. We had hoped it would be an “Easter reopening” with our doors wide open to everyone but Church leadership throughout the nation has already said, with clarity and faithfulness, that is not safe and not possible. If science tells us that July is too soon, we will watch and wait and continue our suspension of in-person services.
3) Pentecost. You are invited, all our church members and your friends, to a very special Diocesan Pentecost Liturgy online on May 31 at 10 am. We will feast on the Word, renew our Baptismal Vows together, and experience music from many voices across our diocese. It will be my joy to preside and preach, to gather us all as one flock on this holy day.
Remember our church buildings are still closed but Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope continues even as we grieve the unimaginable losses- all the saints who have been taken from our midst by COVID-19 and those who have died from other causes and for whom we have not been able to mourn in our comforting traditional liturgies. God’s mission continues as we gather online for prayer and bible study, as we reach out to those who are not online in creative ways, deliver food to the hungry curbside, and wear masks for the love of strangers. If you are feeling depressed or anxious or know others who are, our clergy and lay pastoral care ministers are here for you. Jesus’ Mission is as important as ever. Come Holy Spirit and make us a New Creation as we face new challenges. Love is stronger than death.
The Right Reverend Douglas J. Fisher
Governor Baker’s Executive Order Regarding Non-essential Businesses Effective Noon Today
March 24, 2020
Colleagues in ministry,
Yesterday our governor notified the Commonwealth that a stay-at-home order went into effect at 12:00 PM today. The closure of all non-essential businesses is part of a strategic effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. In addition to suspending in-person services, I encourage you to proceed as follows:
1. Close all offices in all parishes and worshipping communities of our diocese and direct all staff to work from home as much as is possible. Some who work from home still need to go to the church office to check mail or gather other paperwork to bring home. This is acceptable as needed.
2. Continue finding innovative ways to share regular worship in our parishes and worshipping communities using online technology. In all circumstances, the directives to practice physical distancing and healthy and safe behaviors to avoid the spread of COVID-19 should be observed. Worship should include no more than ten in-person leaders, standing six or more feet apart. Ideally such in-person worship leadership would be limited to one ordained person and one other facilitator/videographer/acolyte/reader, etc. as necessary.
3. Parishes and worshipping communities are urged to continue as much as possible, following physical distancing and healthy and safe behaviors to avoid the spread of COVID-19, their ministries with/to 12-step communities and those who are food and housing insecure. We have several congregations offering 12-step “meetings” via ZOOM. Others are welcoming participants to enter the church building with very specific directions related to physical distancing and cleaning the space afterward. We now must work within the Governor’s instruction, so no more than ten persons may attend such meetings. Food pantries around the Commonwealth are creating new protocols to continue to provide food to the hungry and working poor in our communities. I encourage you to support their efforts, if possible.
For people of faith, being Christian community is our essential service and we are already doing that in new ways. I thank you for your creativity, faithfulness and perseverance in the most challenging ministry context of our time. Many are staying connected through a daily email prayer. Some are utilizing Facebook LIVE, ZOOM, and YouTube to pray The Office or to stream the Holy Eucharist. An ever-growing list of these “gatherings” may be found here. There is no wrong way to minister at this time. There is only the call to tend our sheep in whatever way feels right for each community of faith.
Pope Francis has asked people of faith around the world to engage the prayer that Jesus taught us as a means of connecting us to one another and to the God who is in the midst of our suffering. So I ask you to invite all Episcopalians to pray The Lord’s Prayer at 12:00 PM on Wednesday, March 25. If every follower of Jesus turns to God in this way, with one voice, what a moment that will be. In a time of Eucharistic fasting, the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” have special meaning. They remind us that the Word of God is life for us and sustenance in these days. Know that I will be praying with you and for you as these days unfold.
These are days that require us to take a long view, and to pace ourselves for a season of intense ministry. These moments of shared prayer are no less important than the good work being done on new platforms and in cyber spaces. No one needs to be doing it all. The opportunities to partner with others are even greater in virtual spaces. I am grateful for the experimentation but I also encourage you to do something you know I struggle with myself: slow down. Make time for processing grief and loss. Stay with what is essential to your ministry and to your well-being and let some other things lay fallow for a time. I know that’s hard. I also think it’s crucial as we prepare to face the days, and weeks, and months that are ahead of us. Be still, and know that God is still God.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
Suspension of In-Person Services Extended to Include April 12 – Easter Sunday
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop
Two-week Suspension of Services: Be Witnesses of Hope
The Rt. Reverend Douglas J. Fisher
Bishop of Western Massachusetts
Diocesan Meetings and Events During the Outbreak
- Diocesan Council, Fresh Start, commissions and committees will meet via the ZOOM platform, as much as possible.
- I have given diocesan staff the option to work remotely.
- We are cancelling the gathering of clergy here on Tuesday, April 7 in favor of a virtual gathering for prayer and the blessing of oils. The oils will be shipped to our deans for local pick-up/distribution.
- Clergy Conference is “on” for now. We’ll keep you posted.
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher
IX Bishop of Western Massachusetts
Pastoral Directive in Response to COVID-19
- Priest and all ministers of the table must wash hands before the service and use hand-sanitizer before the distribution of Holy Communion. Anyone who touches the bread must observe this protocol, including members of the Altar Guild.
- The Peace is to be expressed without shaking hands. Clergy are to refrain from shaking hands before or after the celebration.
- Please do not pass the plate, but ask ushers to reach in to the pews to collect the offering.
- Baptismal fonts must be drained, and disinfected before liturgical use.
- Please ask the Altar Guild to sanitize the altar rail before and after the liturgy.
- Please provide disposable gloves for Coffee Hour hosts to wear when preparing food and drink to be shared.
- Hand-sanitizer should be readily to the congregation.
- If you cough or sneeze, please do so into your elbow, or use tissue that may be disposed of at home.
- If you have a cough or feel at all unwell, please remain at home.
- Ask members to notify the Church if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, for both practical and pastoral reasons.
- Communicate with your congregations about precautions and protocols. Rather than simply send my directive, use your voice, your relationship with members to affirm that our Church is taking this seriously, but will not yield to panic.
- Be mindful of members who rely on an hourly wage and may experience a disruption in income.
- Encourage phone checks on those who may be most vulnerable to COVID-19. Elders among us seem to be at greatest risk.
- Consider some financial options should worship attendance diminish or be cancelled by local health authorities.
- Investigate online platforms that may be useful if physically gathering becomes impossible for a time, or to enable at-risk congregants to worship from home. Facebook LIVE, ZOOM, Google Hangouts are all good options for staying connected on Sunday and for maintaining connection during days that demand isolation. We know of at least three congregations who are live-streaming their Sunday celebration: St. Mark’s, East Longmeadow; St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow; Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield.
- Learn more about responding pastorally at this time. US Disaster Program – a part of Episcopal Relief and Development – is offering a webinar on March 13.
Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop