December 4, 2020
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Today the Ohio Public Health Advisory System designated 7 counties in the Diocese of Ohio as Level 4, the highest health threat alert - Severe Exposure and Spread. Every other county is at Level 3, save one.
Given the continuing surge in every metric - positive tests, symptomatizing patients, hospitalizations, Intensive Care Unit overcrowding, and COVID related deaths - it is time for all of us to take extreme safety measures for ourselves and others.
In common deliberation with Bishop Price in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, we have come to a common understanding of what this means for Episcopal congregations in Ohio.
To that end, all congregations will suspend in-person worship by Sunday, December 13, if they have not done so already, and return to worshiping by online services only on that day. This will continue until further notice, certainly through the end of the month and very likely into the new year.
As well, beginning no later than December 13, all other in-person gathering for purposes of formation, governance, and outreach will be suspended, save for feeding, clothing, and recovery ministries. It will be essential to work closely with leaders of those ministries and organizations to determine whether they can be safely continued.
Live-streamed and pre-recorded worship may be offered from churches, with a minimum number of participants, masked and at least 6 feet apart. I suggest a limit of 5 people in any room should accommodate any necessary liturgical roles and technological assistance. Holy Eucharist may continue to be celebrated, with only the Celebrant receiving the consecrated elements on behalf of all. Singing remains restricted to individuals alone in a room. "Drive-through" and "drive in" worship continue to be prohibited, as does any form of "virtual communion" (in which a minister "blesses" bread and wine through a phone or online connection or distributes pre-consecrated and packaged elements to the same effect). For any questions about the implications of these and other expectations, Canon Brad Purdom will remain the principal contact person.
Be encouraged, however, to reach out to me or any other member of the Bishop's Staff for assistance.
Every one of us will doubtless be disappointed not to be gathering in person with our parish companions as we make the Advent journey to the stable of the Incarnation and celebrate the birth of the Savior anew in our hearts, communities, and world.
To help address that loss, the Diocesan and Cathedral staffs are working to provide both a diocesan-wide Christmas Eve service of Holy Eucharist and an intergenerational Christmas Day service of hymns, scripture, and prayer, available beginning at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve and 7 a.m. Christmas Day, respectively. Both services will include participants from across the diocese, and included hymns by a "virtual" choir. Every congregation has been encouraged to provide choristers, and emails went out this week to all parishes with directions and necessary resources. The hymns will be available for congregations to download and use in their own online services throughout the Christmas season.
As a religious community, we may be afforded certain exemptions by our government. As Christians, however, we are never exempt from caring for our neighbor and putting the safety of others before our own needs and desires.
Taking these steps in this unprecedented emergency is, indeed, an act of faith and a witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus. I appreciate all that you continue to do in modeling and meeting the practical responsibilities demanded of us in this time of challenge, and thereby providing hope and companionship to those who are suffering illness, fear, and loss.
In spite of all of this, we will hear again the angels sing and proclaim joy to the world with unfailing confidence in the incarnate love of God, who is Christ the Lord.
Please know that you are in my every prayer.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr. Bishop of Ohio