Expanding Options for the Summer (5/11/21)

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Logo for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania

“The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” —Romans 8:18

My siblings in Christ,

As restrictions continue to loosen in our state and across the region, we must always remember our care for one another.  Love for one another is not a suggestion, but a commandment from our Lord.  We must stand with one another, deferring to others and holding ourselves accountable for their wellbeing.  Therefore, it is important to continue to follow CDC guidelines for masks and to maintain distancing. 

As we have said all along and as the CDC announced in April, it is far safer to gather outside.  I therefore encourage you to hold as many services and activities outdoors.  If you gather indoors, in addition to all other protocols, please be sure to both maximize your ventilation and minimize the length of time you are together. I also strongly encourage everyone, especially clergy, staff and others in leadership, to get vaccinated as soon as possible.  If you would like to get vaccinated contact Canon Smyth at tsmyth@diopa.org to get scheduled. 

Beginning June 1, I am pleased to announce these new guidelines for worship, ministry and life together. These protocols are based on the latest science including significant updates from the CDC, updates from the Performing Arts Study, and other primary sources as well as input from the Health Committee.  I have held all this in careful deliberation and prayer.  These new guidelines, which also include a summary of recent protocols, can be found below. 

Please note that Philadelphia continues to hold more stringent limits on gathering capacity (currently 25% for indoors) which impacts worship, social gatherings and rentals.   We ask that all churches in the city continue to adhere to them.  When they update their guidance, we will be sure to notify you. 

I. Worship

Indoor capacity may increase up to 75% but must still include a minimum of 6 feet of distancing in all directions.  However, as noted above, any decision to increase capacity should be made only after it has been determined that there is sufficient ventilation.  Our guidance on ventilation can be found here.  Likewise, indoor services should be kept as brief as possible. 

All worship leaders may remove their masks when speaking but should put their masks back on as soon as they are done.  Masks should be worn when administering communion.  This applies regardless of location or vaccination status. 

Although it is still recommended that churches continue to offer all the service materials in their leaflets, you may reintroduce prayer books and hymnals.  It is preferable to avoid using them in such a way as multiple people may touch them within the same 24-hour period. 

Baptisms may take place with the following precautions:

  • Only the baptismal party should come to the font.
  • All parties should be masked (except for children under 2) and maintain distancing (except for those from a single household).
  • Small children and infants should be held by their parent or godparent for the duration of the rite.
  • Administration of the water should take place at as great a distance as possible.
  • To administer the chrism, the clergy person should keep as much distance as possible and sanitize their hands (with either soap and water or sanitizer) immediately before and after chrismation. 
  • After the service the font should be emptied and the water properly disposed of.

All are encouraged to continue providing live streaming even though we are returning to higher percentage of in person worship.  Any church wishing to upgrade their technology or improve internet connectivity in their worship space can apply for a technology grant For those who need training or advice, you can also request help from our Digital Disciples.


II. Singing

Choir numbers may increase from 8 to 12 provided that there is sufficient space to maintain a minimum of six-foot distancing, wear proper masks and otherwise adhere to the protocols on singing if not otherwise updated below. 

If they are indoors, these rules apply equally to all singers regardless of vaccination status.   If they are outdoors and fully vaccinated, choir members may sing (for worship or rehearsal) without masks provided they maintain 6 ft. distance from one another and at least 10 ft. from other worship leaders and the congregation. 

Outdoor choir rehearsals may expand to 60 minutes before a break is required.  Indoor rehearsals are still limited to 30 minutes before the choir must either break for 20 minutes to allow for a full cycle of air exchange or, alternatively, may move to a completely different room.

Children’s choirs are also allowed within specific guidelines which can be found below under the children and youth section.

As previously announced, singing by the congregation is permitted outdoors with proper masking and distancing.  Conditions permitting, indoor singing by the congregation may be possible in the fall. 


III. Fellowship

Food and beverage may be offered outdoors or indoors under specific conditions.  People may bring their own food and beverages from home but may not share beyond their immediate household.  Churches may also offer pre-packaged food and beverages, taking care to offer them in such a way as people can easily access them. Communal items like coffee pots, pitchers of water or bowls/trays of unpackaged food, may not be offered.

When partaking of food/drink people should be sure to maintain distancing from those not from their own household.  If a table is vacated, it should be disinfected before anyone else sits there.  This may require additional volunteers. 


IV. Meetings and Other Church Activities

Noting the preference for outdoors, churches may gather for in-person meetings, bible studies and other activities.  Recognizing that some people may not feel safe attending in person, you may wish to offer the option for people to join in virtually as well.  Masks and distancing should be maintained for all gatherings.  If you are gathering outdoors and all the participants are fully vaccinated, you may remove your masks but must maintain a minimum of six-foot distancing.  If you are not sure about someone’s vaccination status, then masks should be worn.  When considering gatherings, it is important to not present them in such a way that participation is dependent upon vaccination status.  


V. Pastoral Visitation

In-person pastoral visitation has been permitted for some time but can now be expanded, especially if all parties present are fully vaccinated.  Clergy and Eucharistic Ministers may visit people at home or in medical facility (subject to the facilities’ own rules) and clergy may meet to offer pastoral counseling in-person.  If the visit is indoors, masks and distancing should be maintained, even if everyone is fully vaccinated.  If you meet outdoors and everyone present is fully vaccinated, masks may be removed but distancing should be maintained other than to administer communion. 


VI. Children and Youth

Activities for all children and youth may resume under specific conditions.  This includes VBS/camp as well as the reintroduction of children’s choirs. It is important to remember several important facts.  At this present time, children under 16 cannot be vaccinated, therefore it is strongly recommended that all staff and volunteers who work directly with them are fully vaccinated.  Following the CDC advice for preschools and camps, children should be kept in discreet cohorts based on age or activity.  Each cohort should have their own dedicated spaces and adults.  They should not intermingle for activities nor share toys/objects between groups.  If a common area is used, it should be disinfected before it is used by another cohort.  As with the above guidance, activities should be moved outside as often as possible.  Hybrid programs that blend online and in-person, including those that alternate when groups are present in-person, may also be considered.  Children’s choirs are subject to all of the above guidance on singing as well as these protocols. 

Complete details on health and safety protocols for ministry with children can be found here.


VII. Ministry

If ministry takes place outdoors, you may increase the number of people you serve provided masks and distancing are maintained.  If you are offering food, guests may now eat outdoors provided that there is sufficient room for those who are not from the same household to maintain at least 6 feet distancing from one another.  Any surface used for dining should be disinfected prior to another guest being seated there.  This will likely require additional volunteers/staff to properly direct your guests and to ensure proper cleaning between guests.   All other protocols for ministry continue to be in force and can be found here.


VIII. Non-Church Groups

Non-church groups may continue to operate in church-owned space.  As before, they are subject to all applicable state and municipal regulations as well as any protocols from their appropriate oversight/governing bodies.  If a group wishes to resume/expand their activity, they must provide the vestry and clergy with a plan that describes their proposed activity and details the steps they will take to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

If a church rents its hall for a social event that wishes to offer food and drink, the event must conform to all state and local regulations.  If you have concerns about liability or indemnification, you should consult your attorney. 


IX. Cleaning

We now understand that the virus is spread primarily through aerosols.  Therefore, when determining your schedule for disinfecting spaces between uses, you may reduce the interval from six days to two. If the space is to be used again in less than 48 hours then high touch surfaces such as doorknobs, railings, bathrooms, etc. should be disinfected.  Full CDC guidance on cleaning can be found here


X. Fully Vaccinated Individuals

A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they received their second shot (or their only shot in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).  The increase in the number of fully vaccinated individuals and the inevitable mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals at church events raises medical, legal, ethical and theological issues.  The Health Committee and the Worship/Theology Committee are compiling a document to help guide you in addressing these issues within a theological framework.  This document will be released June 1.

If a fully vaccinated individual is exposed to COVID, they no longer have to quarantine unless they display symptoms.  More details can be found as part of the updated guidance from the CDC.


XI. Privacy Policy Around Questioning Individuals About Their Vaccine Status

Churches may ask both employees and volunteers working in high-risk situations (childcare, food ministry, etc.), whether or not they are vaccinated.  However, if they say no or don’t wish to answer, the church may not ask follow up questions as to why they are or are not vaccinated.  Especially in the case of employees, such questions would constitute an invasion of their privacy.  If the employee/volunteer who is reluctant to be vaccinated or disclose their status wishes to discuss the matter further, you may wish to direct them to the clergy for a confidential conversation.   

In the same way, churches may require employees, as well as volunteers in high-risk settings, to be vaccinated.  If they do not wish to be vaccinated you may consider ways in which they could work/volunteer in a way that does not put themselves or others at risk.  If an employee isn’t vaccinated due to a medical reason, then reasonable accommodation must be offered (under the ADA).

Each church should set its own policy in regards to vaccination, particularly for employees.   This is the responsibility of vestry though clergy should be involved in the process.  Guidance for setting those work place policies can be found at the CDC website for recommendations on workplace vaccination; they also have this FAQ for employers.


Next Steps

Looking ahead to the fall, assuming that the numbers allow for it, we will also be looking to expand indoor capacity, increase options for singing and consider allowing wine to be offered as part of the Holy Eucharist. I will also be resuming in-person visitations in September including confirmation, reception, and reaffirmation at individual parishes.

As I mentioned in my previous letter, we are working on a comprehensive guide to assist you in fully re-engaging worship, mission and ministry in new and creative ways.  This will be released in August. 

If you have questions, please contact Canon Wamsley (swamsley@diopa.org) or Canon Berlenbach (kberlenbach@diopa.org).  If you have a need that is not addressed by or exceeds this guidance, please email me directly, copying them when you do.  Please explain what it is you feel called to do, why it is important to your church, and what steps you would take to ensure safety for all involved. 

Praising the God that moves mountains,

Bishop signature

The Rt. Rev. Daniel G. P. Gutiérrez

XVI Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania