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Five Suggestions for Reopening Your Church

By Zac Koons

It is a fascinating time to be planning worship. We have no pandemic playbook. We have been forced instead into improv mode, each of us walking backward into an uncertain future, trying to keep in sight the rubrics of our prayer book and our greater inherited Christian tradition and then bring those to bear on our diverse local contexts. What is fascinating is that while this coronavirus is squeezing us into the contours of its new reality, our theology is leaking out everywhere. And the world is watching. What will the they learn about the God we worship through the decisions we make over the course of the next year?

Of course it’s impossible to know for certain. The ground under our feet is still shifting and no one has a crystal ball. But we should try to make our improvisations as faithful as possible. To that end I have some suggestions to make, especially as many of us begin to make plans for reopening our churches for new versions of in-person worship. I am not at all interested in calling balls and strikes. This is a moment where grace must abound in all things. We’re all trying our best. This is improv. But I am a parish priest who happens to be married to a public health professional, so I do hope to add some value to the conversation. These are just suggestions, meant to stir the pot of our mutual processing, offered in effort to accord with the most up-to-date public health research, but with the acknowledgment that things are still changing and developing rapidly. Every church leader must make it a high priority to stay informed.

One more disclaimer: Everything below is advice on how you should open, not when. Evidence abounds that churches have been contexts of superspreading, even when following social distancing guidelines, so church leaders should proceed with extreme caution. Every context is different and you should not consider opening until CDC recommendations and your ecclesial authorities tell you it is safe to do so. It may be this week, it may be a month from now, it may be six months, or longer. But it is important for us to begin to plan. As an example, in my own Diocese of Texas, the Bishop has stipulated that no church can open until our county has had 14 consecutive days of decreased infection rates and until our regional bishop has personally certified our plan to abide by all locally-determined health protocols.

  1. Keep the virtual worship going

Until we have a vaccine or some other effective countermeasure, the CDC will continue to discourage those in higher-risk categories from participating in any kind of public gatherings. Instead, they will be encouraged to “cocoon.” This means that as churches reopen, there are many who will continue to stay home, not only for their own well-being but for the sake of the common good (this is an important point: high-risk individuals reducing their own exposure is important not just for their own safety, but because it reduces the number of hospital beds that are likely to be needed at any one time). This takeaway should be obvious, especially given that churches tend to have a significant population of people over sixty-five: As you are able to offer some kind of in-person service, do not take the virtual opportunities away.

  1. Consider keeping your virtual service as your main service

More pointedly, as long as any group within your church is being discouraged from coming to church, the virtual space remains the one where the greatest number of your members can safely gather. So, as you plan for how your church will move into phased in-person regathering, consider continuing to reserve a prime Sunday hour for a virtual version.

Consider the effect of announcing a return to in-person worship if that invitation comes with an asterisk to all those who are 65+ or are high-risk for some other reason. This asterisk could communicate “We are moving on without you;” or “Yes, I know you are more likely to die if you contract COVID-19, but consider coming anyway.” There are moments in the course of Christian discipleship where it is appropriate to forego one’s safety for the sake of the gospel, but this is not one of those moments.

These parishioners are already disproportionately affected by the disease, and they deserve more than whatever virtual scraps remain behind after the “main” church has gathered again.

The consequences of this decision will, of course, look different in every context. It might be simply a matter of messaging. For us (and for now), this means we will continue to live-stream our service on Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. with no congregation present. Smaller in-person services, when allowed, will be fitted in gradually on either side and throughout the week.

  1. Continue to improve your technology

For the first few weeks of this crisis, our congregations had a lot of patience for our technological foibles. But the days of “Isn’t it cute that they didn’t realize the camera was upside-down?” are gone. We are now competing in the arena of screens. And there is no arena more competitive than that. It is not that what we offer must be flashy and expensive (it does not), but we must build up at least a baseline competence. When we are planning worship, we should start by thinking of the person sitting down in front of their computer, or maybe even their phone, instead of pretending there still are bodies in the pews. Our brains process screens very differently than our bodies process physical space. Think about it: if you are watching anything on any screen and you are bored for even 5 seconds, you instinctively open another tab, or pull out your phone, disengaging. Before you know it, the sermon is half over.

Production value really does matter. It is essential to keeping people’s attention. Good lighting, decent sound, multiple camera views — it all makes a difference. It means that you need to spend some money if you haven’t already. But not a lot. And it is not nearly as difficult as you think it is. Video and streaming technology has come a long way in the last few years. Cameras like Mevo are basically point and shoot all-in-one live-streaming devices that can even auto-edit on the fly. Another affordable option would be to simply upgrade your iPhone, buy a couple umbrella lights, a tripod, and a decent mic. That will put you light-years ahead of most mainline churches by next Sunday. Switcher studio is a great resource to check out. Buy a few packs of moving blankets to hang over the pews to dampen the echo.

Spending money on some good tech equipment or even a part-time staff person with the expertise to run it for you is an investment worth making right now, especially if you plan to keep your virtual service as the main service. I know the economic outlook is frightening, but that is all the more reason to spend the money now while you have it. We are going to be playing the virtual game for a while.

And do not despair. We have one other leg up in this department: We know them and they know us. You may not usually watch Wheel of Fortune, but what if I told you your cousin was going to be on it? The pandemic has opened up a medium-sized social media/screen market that did not really exist before. People are isolated in their homes and overwhelmed by screen options. They have an incentive to use that screen to connect with someone they know in real life. But if churches are not able to get their technology up to snuff quickly, people will start to drift towards others churches that have. Or just queue up another episode of Schitt’s Creek.

  1. In-person services should be short

We continue to learn more about how this virus is spread. Two factors are especially pertinent to reopening churches. First, the length of time that groups of people are together in enclosed, indoor spaces — even with social distancing — matters a great deal for the virus’s ability to spread. Second, singing in those enclosed spaces, sadly, is a particularly bad idea. For these two reasons, combined with the fact that bathrooms will probably need to be cleaned and disinfected after every individual use, whatever in-person services you do offer should be very short.

Most will need to increase the number of shorter services they offer, and space them out over as many hours or days as it takes to adequately clean and disinfect between services. There will be plenty of other practical matters to consider that will be dependent on local public health guidelines, diocesan stipulations, and individual church architecture.

Households will probably have to practice social distancing while attending worship, all will have to wear masks the whole time, etc.

Here are a few other things to consider:

  • Outdoor services are lower-risk settings than indoor ones.
  • Keeping a log of who attends each service will be important for contact tracing, should someone in your congregation contract COVID-19. Here RSVPs (distasteful as the idea may be) are important. They provide a record and ensure that you have adequate space for attendees.
  • Do not make promises to your people that it is safe to come to church. It does not matter how intensely you scrub or how tyrannically you enforce every rule. Until there is a vaccine, the truth remains that attending in-person worship will always be riskier (for oneself and for public health) than staying home. Use phrases like “We are making every effort to make in-person worship as safe as possible” instead.
  • This applies much more broadly, but is worth reiterating again and again: a key public health principle for planning worship is for all people—but especially worship leaders—to behave like they themselves are asymptomatic spreaders.
  1. Celebrate the Eucharist, but differently

Dr. Fauci, himself a Catholic, recommends that as churches begin to reopen, they hold off on distributing communion. I agree. (More importantly, so does my wife.) His concern is specifically the physical distance between priest and communicant that distribution requires. “It’s that kind of close interaction that you don’t want when you’re in the middle of a deadly outbreak,” he says. Fair enough. But I don’t think that means we must also hold off on celebrating the Eucharist altogether. Let me explain.

In this initial phase of online-only worship, many congregations have dusted off the long-neglected service of Morning Prayer and found it to be surprisingly delightful. Others have utilized an abbreviated Ministry of the Word. These choices strike me as entirely appropriate. In crisis mode, we returned to familiar, comfortable ground within our tradition. Plus, online communion simply sounded like a contradiction in terms—rightly so. But as we transition out of crisis mode into a second longer and (hopefully) more stable interim phase while we wait for a vaccine, what began as strategies for short-term survival risk solidifying into long-term norms if we only follow the path of least resistance. Now is a moment to pause and ask ourselves what we want our norms to be going forward. What theological commitments do we want to be sure shine through?

Others, like Bishop Hunn and Sam Wells, have written more eloquently than I am able on why we should keep the feast through this pandemic. My reasoning is simple. Commitment to regular Eucharist as the principal act of Christian worship is the hallmark of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It is at the heart of the liturgical renewal movement of which we are grateful inheritors. And if the prayer book provides rubrical means through which we can maintain that commitment in the face of unprecedented circumstances, such as this pandemic, we should. And it does and so we can. It is called spiritual Communion. Set in the context of Ministry to the Sick, the rubric for spiritual Communion runs as follows:

If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP, 457)

While the rubric obviously envisions a hospital or homebound context, rather than a public health crisis, it strikes me that this is precisely what I spoke about at the beginning of the piece: a faithful improvisation within our inherited tradition. Here is a rubric making an important theological statement to an entire church living in “extreme sickness”: there is good that comes through celebrating the Eucharist even when one is not able to receive it physically with one’s body. The sacrifice of the New Covenant has an inherent integrity even when distribution is not possible.

Obviously, spiritual Communion is not intended to be the norm. It is only to be used in exceptional circumstances. But those are precisely the circumstances we find ourselves in. We should be eager to distribute communion as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. It may very well be the case that as infection rates decrease in our local areas, it will be deemed safe before we have a vaccine, in which case that introduces an entirely new set of innovations we must be prepared to make. Almost certainly, no one but the presider will receive the chalice for a long time. The presider will likely need to wear a mask even during the great thanksgiving, and perhaps even cover the bread with a corporal during the Eucharistic prayer. Distributing via communion rails should probably be avoided. Clergy may consider it better to deliver the bread row by row, rather than stir the congregation to move about. They will need to take care not only to ensure their own hands are disinfected immediately prior to distributing, but also must be careful to avoid making skin-to-skin contact with communicants. It will be the age of the lavabo bowl.

Even though spiritual Communion ought never be the norm, it does not mean that in other ways our experience of communion could be enhanced during this time of extreme sickness. Consider for example how not being able to receive physically might turn one’s attention to focusing more deeply on the words of the great prayer of thanksgiving itself—that prayer known by most people in the pew as the one “where I kind of stop paying attention and just wait my turn to go forward to receive.” It is a prayer not just about the present moment of consecration, but a prayer that tells the whole story from creation to redemption, a story that puts our present crisis in appropriate perspective.

Spiritual Communion should be introduced with careful teaching regarding the theology of the priesthood, reminding our people that all the baptized share in Jesus Christ’s unique priesthood, with presbyters and bishops serving a representative role within that priestly people. Seen in this light, when the priest receives the sacrament (which is required by the rubrics), she does so not out of clerical privilege, setting her somehow above the rest of the baptized, but in solidarity with them, as an expression of the priesthood in which we all share, and in anticipation of when we are all able, once more, to receive the sacrament together.

If you are convinced to follow my previous four suggestions, this fifth one falls in line nicely. If we are only permitted to gather in groups of a limited number, if we are not allowed to sing, if there is another avenue through which to receive a proper sermon that day or week through one’s main virtual service, offering a 25-minute spoken Mass that includes a two-minute homily is exactly the kind of thing our people will show up for. In this case keeping the feast may feel more like a fast, but better in my mind to maintain our commitment to the Eucharist and adapt it for the storm we’re in than change course altogether and risk emerging on the other side of this pandemic  having lost sight of what is arguably the thesis statement of our newly-memorialized 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.


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