Governor Raimondo and her staff are talking about plans to start relaxing restrictions here in Rhode Island and allowing more of us to return to a sense of normalcy. She described the process as more akin to “turning a dial” than to “flipping a switch”. It’s a good analogy. What happens next is going to have to be carefully considered and then watched to see what the consequences are of decisions to start relaxing restrictions on commerce and movement.
That’s going to be true in the Church as well. No one in leadership in the Episcopal Church has had to navigate a set of circumstances like these. When this began in March, a wise priest here in Rhode Island suggested that what we needed to do wasn’t that different than what we did when we were facing a series of blizzards. And that was true, for a month or so. But now, as we enter our 10th week of mitigation, and with all we have done, having just reached the place where we’re essentially treading water, it’s clear that this is going to be a much harder and more challenging situation than most or all of us imagined.
Re-opening our congregations for worship is something that will happen gradually. We want to keep our community and ourselves as safe as we can. And we’re not as pressured as we might have thought. Thanks be to God, Episcopalians have continued to worship weekly; clergy have gathered, taught and cared for their people; and the work of prayer and service that is our spiritual discipline has continued. We miss being with each other, we miss worshiping together around the altar, and we all desperately miss the sacramental sharing of the Lord’s table. But we are finding in our exile that God is still present, and life is managing to move along somehow.
What will our plan look like? I’m not sure yet of the particulars. Canon Dena and I are reaching out to people around the state to work with us on what the steps will look like. Other dioceses have announced plans, or have announced next steps, and we’re gathering all of those and looking closely at them. Some of them have good ideas that will work in our context, and within the restrictions that the Rhode Island Department of Health is placing on us in the short term. (Some of the plans are really meant for very different contexts and don’t have much that we can use for guidance.) I’m planning to have specific details ready to announce before the end of May.
But beyond worship and buildings, I want to ask you to be thoughtful about how we care for one another. I’ve asked clergy to be very careful about inadvertently spreading the virus by entering homes when there are alternative ways to care for people. I’m encouraging people to use phone or video calls to provide pastoral care, to lead conversations about funeral planning, wedding preparation etc. Some of our clergy are older and were already serving in ways that went beyond what we had a reasonable right to request. And in this moment, when their age becomes a significant risk factor (along with other factors in some cases) we need to care for the people who care for us. Please be understanding when clergy cannot join you at home. Please recognize that we are not able to make hospital calls in many instances (because of the medical guidance we are getting). Please understand that funerals will look very different for a season.
All of this will, we hope, be over by this time next year. And there will be, God willing, a season of restoration and resurrection for all of us. But in this moment, we will need to be careful, cautious and brave all at the same time. God is with us and will be with us as we pick our way through this difficult terrain — as we will be with those suffering and disheartened in our community. That’s our calling and our ministry together right now.