Aloha my dear Siblings in Christ Jesus,
I returned from visiting my Grandchildren in Rhode Island late Sunday to the new surge in positive COVID-19 cases here in the Islands. We are again faced with a difficult situation.
As with the broader community, there has a been a general relaxation of practices in our congregations over the past couple of months. The Customary in the time of Pandemic Updated 5 February 2021
is still the “official” word, but we are faced with a new situation. As the Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi, we must renew our vigilance.
As we consider the current situation, I assume all clergy, lay leaders (wardens, vestry/bishop’s committee members, members of Standing Committee and Diocesan Council, etc.) and lay church employees who can be vaccinated, have been vaccinated against COVID-19. I am aware that some individuals have not been vaccinated for medical reasons and that children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. Otherwise, I certainly hope all other Episcopalians in this Diocese have been vaccinated. I consider it imperative for our community and our moral responsibility to be vaccinated.
With the variant, we are facing additional concerns. Even those of us who have been vaccinated are susceptible to the Delta Variant of the Virus, though generally the impact on the health of the infected is significantly lessened. Those vaccinated, however, can still transmit the Virus. That means we can put children and the vulnerable at risk. We must again live into our responsibility to care for our neighbors (the Great Commandment: Mark 12:28-31). Being vaccinated, if able, is a moral responsibility.
With the Delta variant of COVID-19, masks should be worn by all at any indoor gathering. This includes indoor worship (or any small gatherings). For now, I also think masks worn by all at outdoor worship is important and a witness to our children and the vulnerable that we are in this together. With social distancing and plexiglass shields/screens, readers and preachers can still remove their masks to perform those tasks. I know some congregations have slowly introduced congregational singing with masks. I have asked the clergy to immediately reconsider that aspect of worship. I think the same is true of “Aloha Hour” (if there is such a short fellowship time after worship, it needs to be outside with masks and social distancing). Outdoor worship with masks and social distancing is still ideal. If indoors, everyone needs to be strict about social distancing and air flow must be maximized.
Keep in mind, even though most – if not all – parishioners have been vaccinated in any given congregation, we are again protecting the children and the vulnerable in our community, congregation and family. Masks, social distancing, and proper air flow are again a must.
Can the Church require vaccinations of Clergy and employees? The Chancellor is considering guidelines, but generally the answer is “yes.” The Bishop can require vaccinations of eligible Clergy who engage in direct physical contact with God’s people during sacerdotal ministrations. With appropriate accommodations, the Bishop can make it a requirement for eligible lay employees of the Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi and Organized Missions. Similarly, Vestries can make it a condition for eligible lay employees in Parishes who are in contact with the public. Again, there may be medical reasons Clergy and lay employees cannot be vaccinated. The Chancellor is exploring appropriate guidelines with other chancellors of the Episcopal Church. I do believe this is a pastoral situation. I am not inclined to move to “requiring” vaccination of the clergy and lay employees. I trust those of us serving in God’s Church are morally responsible people and are willing to do the right thing for the Common Good, and have already been or will soon be vaccinated.
Can vaccinations be required of volunteers (Eucharistic Ministers, food distributers, thrift shop volunteers, etc.)? Yes, as a volunteer, a person’s involvement can be limited to include reasonable requirements to keep others (and the individual) safe. That can include vaccinations and especially if there is direct contact with an at-risk population. A person does not have to be a volunteer or be allowed to fulfill a particular volunteer ministry. Volunteers are not employees. Again, I understand this to be a pastoral situation.
Should churches suspend worship right now? At this time, I think churches can provide the needed safeguards with masks, social distancing, and sufficient air flow (ideally outdoors). I recognize that can change. I trust the “Clergy-in-Charge” (Rector, Vicar, Interim, Priest-in-Charge, etc.) or the Senior/Bishop’s Warden in congregations without a current “Clergy-in-Charge” to make such a call, but, generally, I think we are learning to deal with COVID-19 as best we can. I have asked to be informed if a congregation moves to suspend worship and to share with me the criteria in making the decision as it relates to the immediate local community.
As God’s Church, we have learned how to adapt in this pandemic, and the current surge is one more bump on the way to the “new” normal. Again, please encourage everyone who is able and eligible to be vaccinated.
Please contact me with any questions.
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen