Guidance on Worship
Dear Clergy,

As you know, yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom suspended indoor worship in 30 California counties, including the three that are part of our diocese. In Yuma County, Arizona, like our three California counties, the COVID situation is also very troubling. In our diocese, we had already suspended in-person worship for the month of July because of the increasing numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

During this pandemic, I have had the benefit of wide consultation with advisers in our diocese, including clergy, staff, and prominent public health officials, and will continue to consult with those trusted advisers. When I suspended in-person worship for July, I heard from many clergy and lay people in our diocese, thanking me for that decision and supporting it. Our diocese’s Executive Council also passed a resolution supporting me in that decision. I have also heard from a few of you about your disagreement with that decision. I do understand your disappointment. It is almost impossible to make such a difficult decision without encountering disagreement. As always, I try to be the servant of Christ and of our churches, and act as faithfully as I can, after hearing the advice of others and after deep prayer. 

As we move toward August, I am watching the virus numbers carefully in the four counties in our diocese. Some churches in our diocese may wish to begin (or restart) outdoor worship in August. I will consider those requests on a limited, case-by-case basis, and ask that clergy contact me to discuss your request. Some parameters around that decision:

  • At this time, I will only consider requests to do outdoor worship, and only in San Diego County. Unfortunately, the situation is too grave in our other three counties to consider any in-person worship at this time.

  • In looking at an individual church’s situation, I will consider the number of cases in their area, the availability of outdoor space adequate to suit their needs, and their ability and willingness to abide by our guidelines.

  • If you wish to do outdoor worship, I ask you to update your worship guidelines to include your plan for worshiping outdoors. Please analyze your outdoor space to provide 6 feet of distance between any individual worshipers or family groups, and 12 feet of distance between any speaker or singer and any other participant, as well as providing adequate space for people to move while maintaining a safe distance from others.

  • In setting up worship outdoors, I ask that you thoroughly clean each chair (or other piece of furniture or equipment) after it is set up and before a worshiper is seated there, between services, and again before items are put away. Alternatively, worshipers may bring their own chairs and set them up in designated places.

  • All of our other guidelines still apply. It would be helpful to me if you would upload the guidelines you have created before we discuss authorizing outdoor worship, so I can look at them with you. 

We should also be prepared for our guidelines to change from time to time, as the disease waxes and wanes in our area. I know you crave certainty, and so do I. Unfortunately, this pandemic doesn’t offer us certainty. I can only promise you faithfulness.

Please note that I have become aware of a couple of instances in our diocese where our worship guidelines have not been followed. I need to emphasize that I do expect congregations to follow the guidelines without exceptions.

Grants for Electronic Equipment

Our diocese is pleased to offer a grants program to support you in enhancing online and outdoor worship. Grants of $250 to $750 will be provided to help cover the cost of sound and online equipment, and may be used to cover purchases dating back to March 15, 2020. To apply for a grant, please click here.

Grants to Help People in Need

In addition to our technology grants, please remember that we have raised funds under our “For Such A Time As This” campaign to help those who are suffering from the economic downturn . I am happy to help your congregation start a feeding program, support your members who have lost jobs, or otherwise relieve suffering that you know about. To apply for a grant , please send me an email describing the need and the amount you are requesting. I am eager to help.

Communion for those who Cannot Attend In-Person Worship

Most people in our diocese are not able to receive communion at this time. Some alternative means of receiving communion are possible, including receiving from a lay eucharistic visitor who can give consecrated elements from a safe distance at a person’s front door. Please contact Canon Gwynn Lynch for more information. 
Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why did you choose to suspend worship on July 1?

A: It was clear that worship was not safe in Yuma, Imperial County, or Riverside County, which all had high rates of disease and hospital occupancy. San Diego County went on the governor’s “watch list” two days later (as predicted), because it had reached several “trigger points.” San Diego County’s incidence of new cases now is much higher than it was in March and April. On July 1, the incidence of new cases per day in San Diego County was over four times higher than it had been on June 19 (just before in-person worship briefly restarted on June 21). In other words, the spike in cases started just as we restarted in-person worship. I would not have allowed in-person worship to begin on June 21 if I had anticipated that spike. Unfortunately, this disease is unpredictable and all we can do is make our best guess. As we move forward, I will continue watching the incidence of new cases in all our locations.

Q: Why suspend worship in all our churches when the incidence of disease is low in some areas?

A: I looked carefully at this question for San Diego County. (Since the incidence of disease is much higher in our other three areas, I did not do detailed research there). I listed all the case data for the San Diego County zip codes where we have churches, and ranked the churches from highest to lowest incidence of COVID cases, for July 7 and July 13. You can find that ranking here . When I look at the list, something becomes immediately obvious: almost all of the zip codes with high incidence of disease are in high-diversity areas (ethnically and socioeconomically), while our more affluent, less diverse areas are generally toward the bottom of the list. This is not surprising, as the virus disproportionately targets people of color and people living in poverty. This fact makes restarting worship not simply a pragmatic issue, but a justice issue. I have not resolved the justice issue. I realize I may have to change my view on this to allow some churches to restart in-person worship. But I can only say I find it very troubling.

Q: What about the mission of the church? People have been patient so far, but I’m afraid it will suffer.

Yes, a few people may get used to not attending church, and never return. But good things may happen too. As I have said before, God is an opportunist – God doesn’t cause crises, but God also doesn’t let crises go to waste. The Spirit can use this time to help us reach new people (beginning with online worship), grow us as disciples through daily prayer and Bible study (which can easily happen online), and help us focus on the mission God is calling us to do in our community (by reacquainting us with the suffering of our neighbors). And maybe one good learning for us in this crisis is that Jesus, who didn’t have a place to lay his head, doesn’t ask us to focus our mission only on a certain location or worship practice. Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom to a wider community, and maybe this is our opportunity to do the same. If Jesus brings us the good news of faith, hope, and love, let’s share that with the world around us. During this pandemic time of disease, racial injustice, economic downturn, and deep division, our world needs that good news of Jesus Christ more than ever.

Please know that as your bishop, I am happy to discuss these matters with any of you, my sister and brother clergy. Thank you for your trust and for being colleagues in ministry, and I ask for your prayers, as you are in mine.

In Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook
The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego
2083 Sunset Cliffs Blvd., San Diego, CA 92107