Dear People of God in the Diocese of Vermont,
The diocesan Restart Team has developed the following five-phase plan for returning to in-person worship across our diocese. This plan takes into account the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for faith communities as well as guidance from the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
We are currently in Phase 1 of this plan, with our buildings closed and in-person worship suspended. But beginning today, congregations may begin to develop and then submit plans for Phase 2, which allows for building use by clergy, staff and wardens only. Once a plan for Phase 2 has been submitted, approved and implemented, a congregation may submit its plan for Phase 3, which allows for in-person outdoor worship. Essential feeding programs continue to be permitted at every phase of the plan. Other outside groups, such as 12-step recovery, may not take place in church buildings at this stage.
I will communicate with the diocese when we are ready to accept plans for Phases 4 and 5. This timing will be based on advice from medical and public health experts. As you are likely aware, Vermont is one of twenty-one states that recorded an increase in daily new cases last week. It is clear that the spread of this virus remains an active concern. While we may see other local institutions choosing a different or more accelerated approach to reopening, our Christian commitment to protecting the most vulnerable calls us to remain as vigilant as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and the Vermont Department of Health continue to advise people 65 and older, and those with underlying medical conditions, to remain at home. I endorse this advice for all Vermont Episcopalians, including clergy serving in congregations.
Given the age of many of our congregants and clergy, and the cost and effort required to meet the necessary cleaning and distancing requirements, I am aware that some congregations may choose to continue worshipping and gathering exclusively online until a vaccine has been developed or the virus is demonstrably under control. I fully endorse this decision.
I have been praying with members of our diocese during twice daily Zoom worship services since mid-March. This experience has demonstrated to me that online worship can truly be an experience of worshipping in community. When I sign onto Zoom worship, I enter church – it is as simple as that. I see familiar faces on my screen and hear the familiar voices of those who dial in from landline phones each day. We settle into the familiar pattern of our liturgy and we pray together for our loved ones and for the concerns of the world around us. While I know we would all prefer to be gathering in person in our buildings, these digital tools allow us to continue to experience Christian community in real and meaningful ways as a diocesan household and as individual congregations. Make no mistake — if you are providing online worship and remote gathering, your church is open.
When our churches first canceled public in-person worship in March, I wrote that I hoped we would continue to worship and minister together as the Body of Christ, to take special care of those among us who find themselves most isolated, to remain in touch regularly and to make sure congregants have their most basic physical and spiritual needs met. It is clear to me that you have done this and more during these last three months.
Whether your congregation submits its plan for Phase 2 as soon as possible or intends to remain in Phase 1 for some time, please know that we are all the Body of Christ and we are all still church. I thank you for your resilience and for your creativity in following Jesus and embodying the hope and love of God in this time.
Peace and blessings,