Pandemic to reshape how congregations worship as dioceses prepare to resume in-person gatherings

By David Paulsen
Posted May 11, 2020

The Rev. Angela Cortiñas is seen in a Facebook video of a recent online service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in College Station, Texas. Photo: Angela Cortiñas

[Episcopal News Service] Get ready. The pandemic could change everything that Episcopalians once took for granted about attending church.

A reservation could be required to worship in person. Services might not even take place in the church, if the parish hall or an outdoor area can better accommodate social distancing. “No” to handshakes at the peace. “Yes” to wearing masks. Singing is a conflicted “maybe.” Communion – if offered at all – could be received as wafers dropped from above into cupped hands, with hand sanitizer always close by. And don’t expect coffee at coffee hour.

Another option: Keep watching the livestream at home and continue to forego attending church in person, while the deadly coronavirus is still spreading.

With more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases daily and around 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 each day in the United States, Episcopal dioceses are proceeding cautiously, even in states that have eased their stay-at-home orders to restart their economies. At the same time, church leaders have begun discussing and planning for the day they reopen, with tight limits on attendance. In some dioceses, churches can resume some form of in-person worship as soon as this month.

“Government officials have different standards than we do. Their metrics are keeping the health care system from getting overwhelmed and keeping the economy going,” the Rev. Alex Dyer, canon to the ordinary for the Episcopal Church in Colorado, told Episcopal News Service.

In Colorado, one of the states partially reopening, the diocese won’t resume any in-person services until certain public health criteria are met, such as a sustained reduction in COVID-19 cases, sufficient capacity in the health care system to test and treat all patients, and the ability to track patients’ contacts. Church leaders there, as elsewhere, say their caution is partly fueled by demographics: Older Americans are more vulnerable to severe coronavirus symptoms, and more than a third of all Episcopalians are 65 or older, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent Religious Landscape Study.

“Our standards are different,” Dyer told ENS. His diocese’s actions are based in love, not fear, he said, and following that Christian framework, “the number of acceptable deaths as a result of our actions is zero.”

Most Episcopal congregations across the United States haven’t gathered publicly in their churches since mid-March, when governors and health officials began urging residents to stay mostly at home and to take other precautions, such as social distancing and wearing face masks in public. Such efforts were meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Many congregations now only come together online, but that hasn’t meant a loss of liturgy. At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in College Station, Texas, the schedule actually has expanded during the pandemic: Every weekday morning, Morning Prayer. Every weekday evening, a brief Compline. Every Sunday morning, the Liturgy of the Word, sometimes followed by Communion.

What parishioners have lost isn’t the liturgy but rather the experience of worshipping side by side in the pews. They miss each other’s physical presence, said the Rev. Angela Cortiñas, rector of St. Thomas, but they know it’s best to wait. “The majority of them, as much as they long to get back together, they understand the seriousness of what’s going on,” she told ENS in a phone interview.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church in College Station, Texas, has offered live worship services every Sunday through Zoom, though on special occasions, such as Easter Sunday, it has recorded a service in the church and hosted a watch party on Facebook. Photo: Angela Cortiñas

Cortiñas understands as well. She is a survivor. After returning from a group trip to Scotland on March 14, she fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19. “It hit me pretty hard,” she said. “I was down and out for almost two weeks with all the symptoms, but another two weeks before I felt normal again.”

She has fully recovered, but the experience shapes her thinking about how St. Thomas will resume in-person worship. “It makes me even more cautious because I got it,” she said.

In two months, more than 1.3 million Americans are reported to have contracted the virus, and nearly 80,000 have died. The country’s early surge in overall coronavirus cases has plateaued, according to The New York Times database, but local outbreaks continue to raise alarm with the virus likely to remain a threat into 2021, or at least until an effective vaccine is developed and disseminated.

“The hard truth is that we will not be able to welcome all people into our places of worship for the foreseeable future,” the bishops of Maryland, Virginia and Washington said in a joint statement released May 4. Instead, they and other bishops around the country are urging their congregations to think now about what it would look like, possibly in the near future, to hold smaller in-person services during the pandemic.

More and more state governments – some under pressure by citizens – have begun to resume some social and economic activities in recent weeks, and those developments have provided the backdrop for the cascade of documents issued by dioceses to provide guidance for gradually reopening churches. The bishops’ terminology for the “phases” of reopening includes a range of variations. The Episcopal Church in Colorado describes its phases as “seasons.” The Diocese of Dallas seeks to progress from Step A to Step B. Kansas Bishop Cathleen Bascom invoked John 14:2 as she envisioned the “dwelling places” that congregations will move through as they reopen.

All guidance, however, comes with the caveat that plans are subject to change, especially as coronavirus outbreaks flare up, so with every step forward, bishops caution, prepare to take a step backward.

“If the coronavirus resurges, we may again have to shelter-in-place,” Bascom said in her May 2 letter to the diocese.

Dallas Bishop George Sumner’s guidance allows congregations to move to Step B – gatherings of up to 10 people – by May 17 except in Dallas, Denton and Collin counties, where higher numbers of coronavirus cases have been reported. Bascom said churches in her diocese, which encompasses the eastern half of Kansas, may resume in-person worship on May 24.

The Diocese of Texas has asked congregations that wish to resume some form of in-person worship to develop and submit plans to their regional bishop for approval. A case-by-case approach is being considered in the Diocese of Oklahoma as well.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny told ENS. Some rural congregations in Oklahoma are just 10 people, all of whom may be family members, he said, while several of the diocese’s largest congregations top 1,000 members.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt allowed churches to reopen starting May 1, but doing so safely is a challenge for Episcopal congregations. “Inherently, as a Eucharistic body, we have physical contact, whether it’s through exchange of the peace or distribution of Communion,” Konieczny said.

The challenge of reopening is evident in the guidelines being issued by dioceses and in the deliberations underway by their congregations, starting with distancing requirements. To ensure individual worshippers or family groups sit at least 6 feet apart, church leaders will need to mark their worship spaces.

“You must figure this out in advance by measuring your church space with tape measure in hand before taking this step,” Sumner said in his message.

Worshippers likely will be asked to wear masks to lessen the risk of transmitting infection. The Diocese of Maine’s guidelines recommend providing masks, as needed, to people when they arrive. The traditional Sunday morning greeting won’t be the same as before either.

“Worship leaders cannot greet people at the back of the nave with hand-shaking and hugging,” according to Maine’s guidelines. “Consider what this means and how connections can still occur.”

Passing offertory plates is another practice that may disappear during the pandemic. The Diocese of Maine suggests finding an alternative that minimizes contact, such as a central basket where offerings can be dropped.

“The world around us has changed. We are changed. If we think of the next couple months as simply resuming what we did earlier this year, we will be disappointed. God calls us to give thanks for what was and to move forward in trust and gentleness,” Maine Bishop Thomas Brown said. He has asked his diocese to spend May planning, and if conditions allow, churches could begin to reopen in June or July.

Church leaders also are rethinking their bulletins and how they are distributed. For example, printing a comprehensive bulletin could allow congregations to remove prayer books and hymnals from the pews during the pandemic.

The threat from the coronavirus initially could prevent choirs from returning as well, and churches may need to advise worshippers not to sing along with the hymns, due to concerns that singing could spread the virus farther than 6 feet. Cortiñas, the Texas rector, may limit music to one or two strong singers, without the congregation’s participation.

Some dioceses are asking congregations to develop plans for recording the names of people who attend church, for use in contact tracing if a worshipper becomes sick with COVID-19. Church leaders also must clean and sanitize facilities after services.

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas, is considering resuming in-person worship in its fellowship hall rather than the church because it would be easier there to arrange plastic chairs 6 feet apart and clean them afterward. The Rev. Andrew O’Connor, rector at Good Shepherd, told ENS that a socially distanced setup in the hall might allow 30 to 50 people to attend services – much fewer than the 150 or more who typically attended before the pandemic.

The congregation understands that in-person inevitably will look and feel different, O’Connor said. “People want us to make sure that we are doing this in a safe and a proper and appropriate kind of way.”

The proper way likely will involve some sort of sign-up system. Worshippers will have to reserve one of the dozens of seats during service. That raises the possibility that people could be turned away on a Sunday if the service reaches capacity, O’Connor said, “but how do you manage that conversation?”

Cortiñas isn’t sure when St. Thomas will resume in-person worship, but when it does, she thinks the congregation will limit attendance to 20 people at first. As she and the St. Thomas vestry evaluate and adjust their approach, they could gradually expand to about 50. And like O’Connor, Cortiñas expects to implement a sort of reservation system for attendance.

What won’t change is the availability of St. Thomas’ online worship. The church’s plan may involve two services, a scaled-down in-person service that will be livestreamed on Facebook and a second service on Zoom, so the rest of the congregation can participate. Other dioceses and congregations around The Episcopal Church have continued to stress the need for online options during the pandemic because not all Episcopalians will feel comfortable attending church in person.

“Virtual worship will still be necessary in all congregations to accommodate vulnerable populations and larger worshipping communities,” Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton, Virginia Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff and Washington Bishop Mariann Budde said in their recent guidance on reopening.

Kansas priests may decide it simply isn’t safe for them to reopen at this time. “No church is required to resume worship in their building, and I will support whatever a church decides is in the best interest of its members,” Bascom said.

In some dioceses hit hard by COVID-19, resuming in-person worship is still far in the future. In the New York area, seen as the epicenter of the virus’ spread in the United States, the dioceses of New York and Long Island issued parallel statements May 1 announcing that gradual resumption of public gatherings wouldn’t begin earlier than July 1, though local leaders are discussing how they eventually will handle the return to their churches.

“The science and medicine are clear, and our first and most serious consideration must be the safety of the most vulnerable around us,” the Diocese of Long Island statement said.

The Diocese of Los Angeles, too, faces uncertainty about when it will be ready to gather in person again. Bishop John Harvey Taylor said in a May 4 newsletter that he and the heads of the diocese’s 10 deaneries are deliberating on that question, following the lead of state policymakers.

When churches reopen, Communion will be “our biggest challenge,” Taylor said.

“We don’t want people to fear the sacrament or their neighbor,” he said. “No single subject is receiving more attention throughout The Episcopal Church. … Since some opportunity to be together again for worship is likely to precede clarity and confidence about serving the physical elements in a safe and theologically sound way, we will give consideration to using Daily Office liturgies at first,” Taylor told the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Other dioceses are making a point to “fast” from Communion at this time. In dioceses where the full Holy Eucharist continues to be celebrated, guidelines typically specify that only the bread will be offered and Eucharistic ministers must sanitize their hands before and after distributing Communion.

In Wisconsin, Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter issued a statement April 29 saying in-person worship was not resuming, but he offered guidelines for ways congregations could celebrate Holy Eucharist “with a small community gathering in-person to represent the congregation as a whole.” Gunter advised congregations to limit these services to three or four people, and each congregation must fill out a form to receive prior approval.

An “isolation group” of clergy and lay leaders livestream a Sunday worship service from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Valrico, Florida. Photo: Bryan O’Carroll

Following that model, some churches already are experimenting with in-person worship. In the Diocese of Southwest Florida, Bishop Dabney Smith never fully suspended in-person worship but told his congregations they must limit gatherings to 10 or fewer.

Just east of Tampa at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Valrico, the Rev. Bryan O’Carroll, the church’s rector, has led an “isolation group” of six church members who have committed to limiting their personal contact only to each other so they can gather every Sunday in the church to livestream services on Facebook, including Communion.

O’Carroll told ENS he hasn’t yet faced pressure from his congregation to expand those services to allow a larger group of worshippers to gather in person on Sunday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began reopening the state on May 4, allowing the public back into some businesses with reduced capacity. “I see that society around us has a much bigger urgency for this return,” O’Carroll said, while parishioners at his church aren’t in such a hurry. “They’re much more cautious than that.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at