Bishop’s pastoral letter

February 22, 2021

 “[By Christ’s] grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”  Preface for Lent BCP pg. 379

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

February 3 last year, 2020, the United States declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency.  By March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. 

Over the past 12 months, COVID-19 has been an ever-present threat to the health of our communities and especially to those most vulnerable.  To this threat we have responded sacrificially and in the spirit of love for neighbor.  We have adapted our behavior, endured inconvenience, and changed the ways we do our daily activities all to protect the public health.  Our sacrifice, even our sacrifice of the ways we have engaged in public worship, has been in the best tradition of Christian Ethics.  As creatures of God–made in God’s image, we live in solidarity with all of God’s children.  Therefore, we cannot flourish alone (though the “world” would tell us we can).  We flourish only when the whole-body flourishes. 

Christ Jesus is the fullest expression of God in human form and in him we see the fullness of human flourishing.  As Christians, we are called to make Christ known.  Though without the Holy Spirit we are not able to do so, nevertheless, we are called to live and act in such a way that the world may see Christ’s life in our own.  Throughout this season of pandemic, our sacrifice; our commitment to love and care of neighbor; our solidarity with the most vulnerable; and our patient hopefulness in resurrection and new life are the ways we have made Christ’s life known to the world. 

With the growing number of vaccinations and the slowing pace of the pandemic, hopeful eyes are beginning to catch hazy glimpses of the post-pandemic horizon.  The joy these images stir in our hearts is palpable.  Hearts longing for a return to “normal” are aching for the dawn of the post-pandemic day, and some are ready to run to the horizon to meet it.  People are wondering with heightened anticipation about when we can “return to normal.”  When will the COVID-19 mitigation protocols be lifted?

In formulating an answer to that question, I recall the adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.”  Continuing to honor the image of Christ in our approach to the pandemic, I charge our communities to take a measured, cautious, “go far together” approach in planning a return to in-person worship.  We must continue to keep in mind the vulnerabilities and health limitations of all members of our communities.  We must keep in mind that many are yet to be vaccinated, and some remain concerned about the abiding risk of exposure to the virus.  These are reasonable and understandable concerns, and we should honor them and take care to accommodate them.  Likewise, treating the vaccinated differently by offering them opportunities or exceptions not available to the whole body is not keeping with our tradition of solidarity in Christ.     

We continue to learn about this virus and the vaccine.  We have learned that gatherings in enclosed spaces with mixed populations not of our households poses the greatest risk of transmission.  We have learned that the longer we remain in enclosed spaces with others the risk of transmission increases exponentially.  We have learned that wearing masks, washing our hands, and maintaining distance protects others and ourselves.  We have learned that no one can know for certain that he or she does NOT pose a risk of transmission to others—even those who have received the vaccine may still transmit the virus.  On the other hand, we have also learned that the risk of transmission from surfaces and objects like hymnals and prayer books may have been over-stated initially.  We are still learning, and we do well to continue to listen to science with care and patience.

Several of our congregations have been gathering in-person for months now while following carefully prepared mitigation plans.  Their diligence and willingness to follow their plan has prevented any super-spreader events or infections in this Diocese that can be connected directly to these gatherings.  Other congregations, recognizing the overwhelming challenges to developing a working mitigation plan or the greater risk posed to their community, have continued to follow alternative methods for worship and gatherings.  Given the encouraging data and the progress of the pandemic towards resolution; the increasing number of people vaccinated; the reduction in infection rates; and the absence of the virus in several of our rural communities; I am issuing a list of revised COVID-19 Mitigation Plan standards.  Until further notice, congregations meeting in-person must have a COVID-19 mitigation plan. That is not a new directive; however, the revisions to the original protocols may make it possible for more congregations to develop a plan or to revise their current plan.

No congregation should be pressured to return to in-person worship.  Moreover, we are NOT, yet, ready to return to “normal”—whatever that was or is.  The official recommendations from the Alaska State DHSS as of February 14, 2021 is to “minimize time indoors with individuals outside your household even if you can maintain a distance of six feet,” and to “avoid all gatherings, even small ones, with persons who are not in your household.”  

We have the opportunity to continue to adapt the way we are the church, the ways we do ministry, and the ways we make Christ known.  As we plan and hope for a new season of reduced public health risks, we should not let go of the many positive outcomes and growing edges that we have realized during this pandemic.  I remain overwhelmed by the good spirit that you all have revealed in the midst of this crisis, and your creativity and growth as people of faith, hope, and love.  I have enjoyed the many ways we have been brought closer in this season and I pray that continues long after the day of the post COVID-19 world dawns.

Included with this letter is a list of Revised COVID-19 Mitigation Plan Protocols.

In the way of Christ,

(The Rt. Rev.) Mark Lattime

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of AK

Revised 2-24-21

Diocese of Alaska Public Worship and Congregation COVID-19 Mitigation Plans

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”  1 Cor 8:9

The requirements listed in this document are based on the most recent CDC recommendations, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Guidance, and best practices discussed across the Episcopal Church and with our Ecumenical Partners.  The requirements in this outline are specific to congregations in the Diocese of Alaska and have been established by the Bishop.  Congregations may add further restrictions to individual Mitigation Plans as local needs require.

  1. Before returning to in-person gatherings, congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of AK must establish a COVID-19 Mitigation Plan addressing the practices and protocols to protect all participants in the worship service or gathering, including congregants, worship leaders, and clergy.  COVID-19 Mitigation Plans must be submitted to the Bishop for approval before in-person public worship and gatherings may occur in Episcopal Church buildings.
  2. Where applicable, congregations must consult with and have the support of their elders, chiefs, and tribal and village authorities before submitting a COVID-19 Mitigation Plan to the bishop for approval. You must honor your local leadership and tribal public health care requirements.
  3. Once approval has been given, signage must be posted conspicuously at the entry to the building notifying the public of the parish/congregation’s COVID-19 Mitigation Plan and stating clearly that any person with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may not enter the premises.
  4. A congregation located in an “isolated” community that has established public health protocols to protect the community and has determined that the community is COVID-19 free, may request of the bishop a waiver for specific requirements of these guideline.
  5. The bishop may approve specific accommodations to these guidelines.

The basic standards for developing an acceptable Mitigation Plan are:

-Maintaining 6-foot distancing as much as practicable

-The use of face masks by all individuals

-Careful hand hygiene

-Minimizing time spent in enclosed space with individuals not of your household

-Planning for those who are not able to fully participate despite a Mitigation Plan

1.  Gatherings are restricted in size and number only by the space available to accommodate the 6-foot distancing/separation requirements.  Outdoor gatherings are permitted with strict adherence to 6-foot social distancing between non-household members.

2.  Six-foot distancing must be maintained between non-household members throughout the worship service and at every part of the liturgy. Household members do not need to maintain 6-foot distancing and may sit together in a single pew.

3.  Individuals who have received a full vaccine for COVID-19 may be seated as a “household,” provided everyone maintains strict mask wearing protocols.

4. Cloth face coverings must be worn by all attending the service unless for medical or physical reasons a face covering cannot be worn.  Celebrants, Readers, Officiants, and other worship leaders may remove face coverings to speak; however, when doing so, they must remain 10 feet from any other person.

5. The Plan should describe how to prevent people congregating at the church entry/exit, or in small spaces like sacristies or offices.

6. The parish/congregation must provide hand sanitizer and encourage all participants to sanitize hands immediately upon arrival.

7.  The plan must provide for a supply of tissues in every pew and an adequate number of readily accessible lined waste baskets.

8.  Plan must describe a protocol for no physical contact exchanges for the Peace or any other greetings.  Household members may greet one another with appropriate physical expressions of the Peace.

9.  Congregational singing is still considered a High Risk activity for transmission of the virus.  While it is reasonable to hope that restrictions on congregational singing will be lifted in the coming months and based on the continuing positive course of the pandemic recovery, at this time, congregational singing should be avoided.  Soloists may sing as a “Worship Leader” if 10 or more feet of distancing is maintained.

10.  The plan should include accommodations for those who are not able to attend worship in-person.

11.  As eating and drinking require the removal of face coverings, it is strongly recommended that these activities continue to be suspended at this time. 

12.  Children represent unique challenges for establishing and enforcing mitigation protocols. Nevertheless, the expectation for following mitigation protocols should extend to children as well.  Mitigation plans locally adapted to permit ministries with children will be considered.       

Restrictions on the Administration of Holy Communion

  1. No priest may celebrate Holy Communion alone. It is certain that the Episcopal Church will be engaged in conversations about the meaning of “gathering” and “presence” in the context of online worship as a result of the experiences and experiments of this pandemic.  It is for the whole Church to make these determinations.  Until the Church has reached consensus on these matters, we will remain faithful to the understanding of “gathering at the Lord’s Table” to include those who are physically present.
  2. The Celebrant will visibly and thoroughly wash her or his hands with approved hand sanitizer before setting the table, and again before commencing the Eucharistic Prayer.  
  3. If bread is to be distributed, wafers must be used and placed in a closed ciborium/container throughout the Eucharistic Prayer.  Therefore, on the altar would be the Cup (not distributed), the Bread to be broken (not distributed), and the wafers to be distributed contained in a closed ciborium/container. 
  4. Only Communion in one kind, the Bread alone, may be offered.  The Cup/wine is not offered in any form or manner (including intinction).  The celebrant alone may consume the consecrated wine but should do so in a manner that does NOT give the impression that the celebrant is receiving the sacrament on behalf of the congregation.  (Only a small amount of wine should be poured in the chalice). 
  5. As each worship space is unique, a plan must be in place and described that maintains 6-foot social distancing throughout the act of receiving Holy Communion by communicants. This includes while coming forward, waiting, receiving, and returning to one’s seat or pew.  It is strongly recommended that a tape measure or 6-foot reference device be used to layout worship space.  See exception for Communicant and Minister at Distribution of Bread in Item 7 below
  6. All clergy administering the Bread must visibly and thoroughly wash her or his hands with approved hand sanitizer before serving Holy Communion.  Clergy will wear masks while distributing Holy Communion.
  7. Distribution of the Communion Bread must be done in a way that avoids physical contact even if maintaining 6-foot distancing is not practicable.  Clergy will provide direction and guidance on how Communion will be received at the time of distribution.  Members of a common household may come forward together to receive the Communion Bread.
  8. Communicants must keep the required face covering on until the Bread has been received into their hands.  They may then remove the mask to consume the Bread and immediately replace the mask to return to their seat.
  9. Communicants should use hand sanitizer immediately before receiving Communion.   
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