Wednesday, March 11, 2020
To the People of the Diocese of East Carolina:
Dear Friends in Christ,
There is a powerful gospel story that speaks of Jesus falling asleep in the stern of a boat in the midst of a great windstorm. As the boat filled with water, those with Jesus woke him with anxious cries about Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for their safety. In Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea and calms them with the words, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39, NRSV) Oh that the coronavirus and our fears could be banished so easily!
Last week, I wrote a simple note to the clergy and churchwardens of East Carolina. In that note, I pointed to useful resources available from our website, indicated that we would continue to offer the common cup, encouraged the modification or elimination of the practice of intinction, asked that our members be reminded of the option to receive bread only during communion, urged that pastoral strategies be adopted in order to care for the most vulnerable in our midst, and repeated these words spoken often by Jesus, “Be not afraid!” A lot of details for a simple note! Since that time, I have consulted with East Carolina’s Executive Council and with a number of clergy and lay leaders from across the diocese. During our online meeting of the House of Bishops we have received useful presentations from staff of Episcopal Relief and Development and from a veteran epidemiologist with whom they have consulted. After prayerful consideration of all that I have heard, I am now writing to the members of the Diocese of East Carolina with these words, and ask that clergy and churchwardens find a way to share them with the members of each congregation.
Our very understanding of community is being challenged by the coronavirus. So long as we are still free to do so, I would encourage the people of East Carolina to continue with regular patterns of worship. While doing so, please be particularly conscious of those who will be absent, particularly if they are amongst the populations that are most vulnerable to this virus. Social distancing may lead many to stay away, and some of our congregations may wish to explore creative ways of leading online worship. Congregations might also watch for those individuals and families who will be impacted financially by the spread of this virus, and who may find themselves without income or healthcare. Stretch the walls of your communities to more fully include those unable to enter your churches to join with others in person. If the time comes that health department or other state officials require that we not gather in person, we will be in touch with you again.
Watch that you are receiving information about the coronavirus from reliable sources. By following the links below to our website, you will be able to access up to date information from Episcopal Relief and Development, from the Center for Disease Control, and from the World Health Organization. Use this information to modify your own personal actions in ways that will more likely keep you healthy, or will keep you from spreading the coronavirus if you contract it. The ERD website includes lots of good resources for congregations about ways to modify our normal patterns of behavior. You’ll find ideas about how to more safely share the peace, take up an offering and distribute communion. Many will be surprised to learn that it is actually less healthy to “intinct” during communion …to dip the bread into the wine …than to actually sip from the chalice. That said, it is always an option for us to receive only the bread during communion, in order to avoid any risk associated with receiving wine. Over the years, I’ve known many alcoholics who receive bread but not wine, and many others who receive only the bread of communion when they have been sick or when their own immune systems have been compromised. While our theological tradition teaches that communion is always to be offered “in both kinds” it also makes clear that receiving only the bread or only the wine is totally acceptable.
It is my hope that every congregation will give careful and serious attention to how best to modify their patterns of worshiping, meeting, and eating together as we face this growing health crisis. Rather than giving you more explicit instructions about what you should and should not do, I am providing you with the same information that I have received and trusting you to make good decisions from within the context of your own congregations and communities. In other regions of our country, bishops are making decisions to close congregations, to withhold the common cup, or to take other particular actions. At this time, and with the information that I have received from others whom I respect, I am not convinced that we need to take such actions in this diocese. Should circumstances change in eastern North Carolina, such decisions will be reconsidered.
While we do not presently have the capacity to eliminate the coronavirus, we do have the capacity to hear the words of Jesus, “Peace! Be still!” Let us hold in our prayers all scientists who work to understand this virus, and to develop cures or vaccines. Let us pray for all medical personnel, particularly as their energies and resources are drained. Let us hold all government officials in our prayers, that they may lead us well. And let us work as individuals and congregations to serve the members of our wider communities who become sick, isolated and fearful. By our actions, let us proclaim that we are followers of the One who rebuked the storm and brought peace to his companions on the journey!
Yours in Christ,