The COVID-19 pandemic has created havoc in countless ways, including in the religious community. Church leaders and their congregations are facing the difficult decision of when to reopen their places of worship for in-person services.
Many are taking a wait and see approach.
The Rev. Richard Vinson of Solebury Trinity Church, part of the Episcopal Dioceses of Pennsylvania, said the dioceses’ guidelines stress to not be in a rush to reopen.
“The first option is to remain safe, secure and only open when all the conditions are in place to protect our laity, clergy and those most vulnerable,” stated a letter to church leaders from the dioceses’ Bishop Daniel Gutierrez.
“We don’t plan to reopen indoors until at least June 21,” said Vinson.
Among the many considerations is how churches will enforce the state requirement that everyone must wear a mask and whether there will be masks made available to those who arrive without one. Another is having hand sanitizer, tissues and PPE that may be required and how those supplies will be replenished, Vinson said. A checklist from the diocese outlined some 26 questions church leaders need to review before holding in-person services
Solebury Trinity has an average attendance of 135 members, said Vinson and can hold up to 250. However, with the 6-foot social distancing requirement in place, the church can only accommodate 60 members, he said.
The church is gauging people’s sentiments about returning to in-person services through an online survey.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if one-third of folks want to hold back for a while,” the rector said.
The church will continue its virtual services and is considering holding outdoor services where the need for cleaning and sanitizing is less rigorous, Vinson said.
At Lenape Valley Church, the Rev. Anita Bell, said her New Britain church has been streaming services since March and will continue to do so for the time being.
“We’re still learning,” said the pastor, about the best way to move toward reopening. In adhering to the 25-person limit and social distancing, the church could only accommodate 10 to 12 members. “It creates a rather challenging environment,” said Bell.
“The biggest challenge,” she added, “is our older members who most want to come back, but are also the ones most vulnerable” to the virus.
The pastor credited her congregation with “being very creative,” in continuing to keep their religious community connected and engaged. Bible study and Sunday school classes have continued online, as have church services.
“In all things, God works for good,” said Bell, quoting the Bible. Lenape Valley is also surveying its members about reopening.
Music, a key part of church services, is also challenging religious leaders. Some scientists believe the tiny exhaled particles created when singing could transmit the corona virus and thus potentially infect others.
Choir members, say some researchers, are especially vulnerable to infection from airborne particles, as singers tend to inhale and exhale more deeply to sing and choir members typically stand close together and sing in poorly ventilated areas.
Given the health concerns, guidelines call for parishioners to be 30 feet away from singers. “That makes it almost impossible for choral work,” said Tim Harrell, the organist and choirmaster at Solebury Trinity Church. An individual organist can still perform, he noted.
Despite the difficult times, the Rev. Vinson said, he has never felt closer to his congregation. “In my 40 years as an ordained minister, I’ve had the most significant conversations on the phone – conversations that would never have happened at the church front door.
“We’re more than just physical beings … there are other levels of connection. For me, there’s been a deeper realization and I’m more aware of my spiritual being,” said the pastor.
Editor’s note: After a ruling by the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Doylestown opened for regular Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses last weekend, following safety guidelines. “When taking your seat, please honor all posted signs about where you may sit. Every other pew will be open to ensure proper social distancing,” the Rev. Msgr Charles H. Hagan, pastor, said in a letter to parishioners.
Members of the same household were permitted to sit together as normal but were asked to place 6 feet between the household and members of a different household. Communion was placed in the hands of communicants, unless requested for traditional placing on the tongue, at the end of the distribution.