The past fifteen months of living in a pandemic have changed and challenged us in ways none of us would ever have predicted. The fear, separation, and distancing has greatly affected us as human beings and people of faith. It has been incredibly stressful for so many of us. In March 2020, few of us thought that we would be living with so many restrictions, and for such a long period of time. As we approach the end of May 2021, the end seems to be in sight.
I am so grateful to all of you for the incredible work that you have been doing in your parish (or other worshipping community) during this time of pandemic. I have watched (and participated in many of) your worship services and I have been delighted with how you have offered and continue to offer rich and meaningful worship despite the trying circumstances. Your commitment and hard work during this time has been appreciated by people in our diocese, around the province, across the country, and in different parts of the world. We have found ways to meet, pray, study the Bible, gather in community, and all sorts of other things on Zoom and other platforms. We even elected a bishop and held a Synod!
On May 25, the Provincial Health Officer (PHO), Dr. Bonnie Henry, and other provincial leaders unveiled B.C.’s Restart: A Plan to Bring us Back Together. In that plan we heard about the four-step gradual opening from the current “circuit breaker” so that by September 7 we should be back to many more freedoms (if all goes according to plan). You can read more about this online or your favourite source for news.
But what does this restart mean for the Diocese of New Westminster? Let me outline the plan for worship in the diocese as linked to the four steps of the Provincial Restart Plan.
Step 1: Starting May 25.
Effective May 25, there is no change to onsite/in-person worship restrictions in the diocese. Currently the PHO has not made any changes to worship attendance protocols, and I am NOT giving my permission for any changes to take place between now and June 15. This means that for outdoor worship there can be a gathering of up to 50 people (with all required COVID protocols in place). There is no indoor worship allowed at the moment unless it is for recording online worship (with a maximum of 10 people). The PHO has suggested that there could be some changes to this Health Order in the near future but for now I do NOT give my permission for any indoor worship (except for recording or filming worship).
Step 2: Earliest Start Date June 15.
At this stage, the expectations for outdoor worship appear to remain the same. Indoor worship allows for 50 people. I do give my permission for parishes (and other worshipping communities) to plan to re-open for indoor worship starting June 15 (unless the PHO changes this date). This would mean that all the COVID protocols would need to be in place (masks, distancing, hand hygiene, contact tracing, etc) to ensure the safety of all. Eucharist (the bread or Body of Christ only) may be offered. At this stage the ban on congregational singing will remain in place. If your parish filed a Phase 3 COVID Protocol Plan last year, that will come back into effect during this period (no need to resubmit).
Step 3: Earliest Start Date July 1.
In this step there will be increased capacity for both indoor and outdoor worship. The COVID safety plan remains in place. The actual numbers allowed for worship will be posted later. The COVID restrictions needed in this step will also be posted later. Some social activities will be permitted.
Step 4: Earliest Start Date September 7.
Essentially in this step we are returning to pre-pandemic practices. There would be no restrictions but merely suggestions (i.e. wearing a mask indoors is a personal choice). More information about this step will be available at a later date.
In summary, we can see the light at the end of this tunnel, but we are not there yet! Thank you so much for your hard work in ensuring the safety of all the people of our diocese and those who live in this part of British Columbia.
Let me encourage you to manage your expectations: many parishioners may not be ready to come back to church, and you do not have to rush into this. Remember that no parish church will be expected to open for onsite worship at the earliest possible date (as of the writing of this Pastoral Letter that date is June 15). I give my permission for churches to be open for in-person onsite worship on this date (currently June 15) but I am well aware that this will take planning and preparation. I encourage you to start that now. Please set your opening date for a time that you will be ready. There will be many decisions that you will have to make about liturgy, distancing in the church, informing the parish, whether you continue to Zoom or livestream, etc. I encourage you to start planning now to be ready for the most appropriate date.
If your plans deviate from those that you have previously submitted to the Diocesan COVID Safety Group (the Reverend Tellison Glover, the Reverend Philippa Segrave-Pride, and me) then you will need to submit this new plan.
Please know that you are in my prayers as we begin this new phase of restarting onsite, in-person worship. I know that this time has been stressful and this time of re-starting will bring new stresses, but it does appear that we are in the final chapter of this pandemic and for that I am grateful to God.
O God of change and new possibilities, bless our diocese as we seek once more to reimagine how we live out the gospel as this pandemic starts to lessen its impact. We give thanks for those who have created vaccines and other ways to reduce the threat of this virus, for those who have worked on the front line of care, for those who have worked on the front line of serving people, for those who tried to bring light in some dark times. We continue to pray for those who have been deeply affected by this pandemic, those who have lost loved ones, those who have lived in fear, loneliness and dim hope.
We pray for our world that vaccines may be shared widely. We pray for those who live in poverty and are severely affected by living in a pandemic. We pray for ourselves in the ways that we have been tested and troubled. Guide us now O God to be bearers of your peace and bringers of your light. In the name of Jesus Christ the healing and holy one. Amen.