Grace and peace to you, in the name of the risen and ascended Christ!
Only three days ago, I and the other two synod bishops whose territories include California wrote to you with concern about what we saw as a premature declaration by the President of the United States regarding the opening of churches last weekend. Even as we wrote that letter on Friday, we knew that the Governor of California was planning to issue new directives today that would very likely reduce the level of restriction on gathering in offices and in places of worship. That has now happened, and the new directives from the state can be found at the link provided at the end of this letter.
These directives seem to be in effect as of today and will be reviewed by the state again in three weeks’ time (June 15) in light of the rate of contagion and mortality at that time. Then they will be continued, further relaxed, or made stricter again, depending on the situation. Los Angeles County, where the great majority of our congregations are located, may continue to have stricter rules than the other counties in our synod. I urge both rostered and lay leaders to familiarize themselves with the new regulations, both state and county, as they consider their own congregational timelines to resume worship.
The governor’s statement today makes it very clear: the permission to resume public worship is conditional on following the restrictions the statement puts in place—and is in no way obligatory. A congregation that is unable to follow the restrictions, or wishes not to open yet, is perfectly free to continue as it is doing now, until such time as the restrictions become less or the congregation is able to modify what it does to conform to the regulations currently in place. I believe that these first-level restrictions will be burdensome and some congregations may wish to wait until they are less difficult to accomplish.
Our faith and tradition call us to public worship every Sunday—the Lord’s Day—in worship that for us as ELCA Lutherans has come in normal times to presuppose a service of Holy Communion. We are also accustomed to speaking out our faith in liturgical responses and unison prayers, and to singing our praise with glad voices. Gathering in Jesus’ name, we expect to share with our siblings in Christ a greeting of peace. None of these things will be able to be done in the normal ways under the new guidelines, and many of these practices may not be done at all. A return to public worship now will not be a return to the way things were before.
It is very important to realize this: that resuming public worship is not “business as usual” for our congregational Sunday mornings—in fact, our worship may need to be modified in so many ways that will no longer seem very comfortable to us. It will be very hard not to shake a hand or give a hug; it will seem unnatural not to sing or to pray aloud. But to take advantage of the permission to gather given in the new guidelines, major modifications to our practices will need to be made. They are spelled out in the state directive; I invite you to study them and implement them in your congregation. Some of you have checked with your insurers already and have learned that failure to conform to the local public health requirements could make you liable for the consequences of any infection that occurs at your public worship. Outbreaks of infection in other California counties and in other states have been traced back to worship services; it would be a tragedy if that were to happen in our synod.
Of course we all trust most deeply in God; but we are also children of Creation and the natural order is still, in this time of pandemic, in effect—at church we are more, not less, likely to come into contact with the virus and be infected by it, than if we stay at home. Those in higher-risk groups (people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions) should strongly consider staying home for a few more weeks—as I plan to do—even if their congregations reopen for public worship soon.
A congregation that wishes to resume worship next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, will have to do considerable work to prepare. The requirements are laid out in the guidance document from the state, and you will need to do them in advance. They will involve planning, work, and expense. Each congregation wishing to resume in-person worship should probably organize a work team to ensure that all the requirements are met. And even then, the number of worshipers will be limited—no more than 25% of the official fire marshal limit for your worship space, and in no case more than 100 persons—will be permitted to gather at one time. For many congregations, resuming worship on June 7 or even later may be a more reasonable goal.
I personally believe that the governor may be moving too fast for us in LA; Los Angeles County is still a hot spot in our state, the infection rate is still high, and the number of deaths is the highest in the West. So I recommend caution and careful planning before resuming face-to-face worship. I also expect the need for online worship to continue even after in-person worship resumes—not everyone will be able to return at once, and for many it will be advisable to continue to stay away. Prepare also for the possibility that in three weeks the rules may change.
One of the most challenging aspects of a return to in-person worship will be the provision of Holy Communion. There are no ways to provide it that are entirely without risk; our normal ways of doing things are inherently risky and must be modified. The greatest danger comes in the near proximity of the communicant and the minister of communion, since the virus can be transmitted in the air we breathe; the presence of the virus on or in the elements of communion or the vessels that contain them is the second area of risk. A mask and gloves should be worn by the minister during communion; masks by the communicants. Tongs may be used by the minister to prevent contact with the bread or the hands of others and should be re-sanitized if such contact occurs. Keep in mind that communion wafers are simpler and more sanitary than other forms of bread, and if fresh packages are opened each week and not touched afterwards, wafers not touched by hands are probably the safest form of communion.
The wine of Holy Communion is more complicated; there are no easy ways for us to provide the Precious Blood safely. It is entirely permissible, therefore, to discontinue sharing the wine with the congregation for a time; our theology teaches us that the body and blood of Christ are completely and fully present for us both in the bread and in the wine. In that case, a sip of wine in the chalice for the presiding minister is sufficient to represent the fullness of the sacrament for all. Prepackaged individual grape juice-and-wafer packs must be touched to be distributed, just as individual cups of wine must be touched to be prepared, and though they may seem clean and may be convenient, they are not completely safe. Under no circumstances should a common cup be used, especially for intinction; that is a direct invitation to infection through touch and the necessary closeness of the communicant to the minister. I know these limitations seem difficult, but they are borne out by the public health guidelines and the experience of other churches. And I trust they will not last forever.
As I have communicated to our pastors and deacons more than once, I believe the next phase of our response to the pandemic will actually be more difficult for the church in some ways than the total shutdown we have been experiencing the last few weeks. It will not be easy to go “back” to church, only to find that the social aspect of common worship we so long for is hemmed in by restrictions on contact and proximity. I believe the inconveniences ahead will bring us to a new appreciation of the ways our rostered ministers have provided us worship in the weeks past—and for their imagination, resilience, and creativity I salute them. They deserve their congregations’ thanks for the remarkable work they have done.
Going forward, each of our congregations must make its own choices about what risks it will take; there are no absolute guarantees that following a particular program of sanitation will keep your congregation free of contagion. Each of our contexts and each group of members is different. I promise you to give you the best advice I can, and assure you that if I must, I will err in my advice on the side of your physical safety. Our spiritual welfare is in God, and nothing—not even the invisible threat of a virus—can stand between us and the God who loves us. But the virus is real, and our responses are shaped by the advice of medical authorities. We trust in God for our life in Christ; we trust in science for our public health.
Please know that I love and pray for you all: that you be safe from infection and sickness; that you do not lose the ones you love, and that our congregations not become places of danger. We will get through this together, and God’s future is promised to us all.
May God bless and protect you.