Beloved in Christ!
In this time of near-universal concern about the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 in the territories of our two synods, we wish to share a word of support to you, our congregations and their lay and rostered leaders, as you wrestle with local decisions about how to modify your worship and other ministries in ways that are responsible and help keep your people and your communities as safe as possible. Our key advice is this:
obey local regulations; take sensible precautions; pray without ceasing.
First, because of the Los Angeles mayor's statements today, we urge Los Angeles area congregations to
consider canceling worship this Sunday and next (March 15 and 22). The City of Los Angeles has discouraged any gatherings of more than 50 persons. There may, however, be congregations in more distant communities that still wish to worship this weekend and take a decision on suspending worship later. Within another week we should know more about the virus's spread. If it is as infectious as expected, taking these measures early should help greatly.
Ultimately, the decision about
whether or when to cancel Sunday worship services rests with the pastors and congregational councils of each congregation. We your bishops can only advise you and support you in what you decide. As a church, of course, our default position is to hold worship on the Lord's Day. But there are situations in which canceling worship is the wisest choice. Our governor has recommended cancelling meetings of 250 or more. If your attendance is at that level, you may want to consider cancelling services, or encouraging worshipers to stay home and live-streaming the service. If not cancelled, worship should certainly be modified to accommodate local situations and to make it safer for those who attend. There are many practical solutions circulating. People in higher-risk groups can be urged not to attend in person. Live streaming remains an option for some communities. We will try to make it easy to find some possibilities by posting them on our websites and communicating them in our regular e-mail messages. We realize that canceling worship may reduce offering income and that Sunday-only employees must still be paid. We do not take this lightly-but this is a public health emergency.
Second, if worship is held,
please do what you can to reduce risk. It is always possible to omit Holy Communion and hold a Service of the Word instead. If Holy Communion is celebrated, it may be offered or received "in one kind" - that is, by only receiving the bread. Lutherans believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present in both the elements of bread and wine-we offer and receive them both because we believe that to be the fullest obedience to Christ's command-but it is perfectly possible to commune validly with only one. In fact, Martin Luther insisted that a fully valid communion could be made in the heart, by anyone who hears the words "given for you" and believes them to be true. If you choose to experience a worship service digitally or on your television, know that you do not need the bread and wine to have communed spiritually-you only need faith.
A number of congregations in our synods hold hands while singing the Lord's Prayer, when saying other prayers, or when receiving the blessing following Holy Communion. We recommend this practice be suspended throughout this health crisis. Shaking hands during the passing of the peace should also be replaced with some other gesture, such as a bow, of peace.
Third, we strongly recommend that you
cancel all non-essential gatherings
of people: coffee hours, midweek Bible studies, Lenten soup suppers, and other side activities should be suspended for the time being. If you have feeding programs for your neighborhoods, consult with other social welfare providers, and keep in mind that the poor and those enduring homelessness are vulnerable on many levels and at special risk for infection. Many of our congregations have tenant groups that meet on your property; you may have to honor your agreements with them, but it would be better to shut as much down as you can until health officials declare the worst to be past. Congregations with church schools or early childhood centers should be guided by the example of local public schools when deciding when to close or how to change procedures. The CDC provides
guidelines for school administrators
which may be helpful during this time. We need to balance our care for others with our care for ourselves-somehow we have to do both as best we can.
Fourth, we are
not as of now cancelling events that will take place after Easter. Our combined Synod Assembly and Pacifica's Anti-Racism Training Workshop are still scheduled to take place for now. You may make hotel reservations for the assembly, but check the hotel's cancellation policy. We hope that we will be able to have these events as planned.
On a smaller scale,
we will be reducing staff presence in our respective offices in Glendale and Santa Ana for the next week at least. We will try to keep at least one person present during business hours, but if your phone call is not answered, please be patient: leave a message or send an e-mail. Work will go on, but in different ways: all in-office meetings will be converted to virtual meetings. Please do not come to our offices unless you are specifically invited by a staff member. If you have a meeting scheduled with synod staff, they will send you a way to get in touch. We think it is safe to say that all Synod-sponsored face-to-face gatherings between now and Palm Sunday will be cancelled or made digital. The Bishop's Chapel weekly Eucharist on Wednesday will be suspended until further notice.
Finally, remember: you are not alone. God is with you, with us all.
We urge you to watch
Presiding Bishop Eaton's video message
on the current situation. We promise to keep you informed as the situation changes; we will update you through e-mail notices and through social media. Again: be not afraid, for even in our anxiety and uncertainty, God is with us and will bring us through this crisis into fuller and more abundant life.
God bless you all!
Bishop Guy Erwin and Bishop Andy Taylor
March 12, 2020