Episcopal dioceses ease COVID-19 precautions as churches greet CDC’s mask update with caution, cheer

By David Paulsen
Posted May 21, 2021
Bishop Ely in ND

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, bishop provisional of the Diocese of North Dakota, attends a service May 19 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo for four confirmations and the dedication of a new organ. The congregation lifted its mask requirement for vaccinated worshippers this week. Photo: St. Stephen’s

[Episcopal News Service] The partially obscured faces of parishioners in the pews greeted the Rev. Jamie Parsley as he celebrated Holy Eucharist on May 16. Their masks were a fact of pandemic life for the past year under the Diocese of North Dakota’s COVID-19 protocols, but Parsley sensed a change coming.

After the Sunday service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo, Parsley, the church’s rector, met with the vestry and discussed their plan to allow worshippers who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend services without wearing masks. The change was based on the new guidelines issued the previous week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similar discussions have taken place in the past week in congregations across The Episcopal Church in response to the CDC’s update and the subsiding threat of the pandemic. COVID-19 cases in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in nearly a year, and millions more Americans are receiving vaccination doses each day. The CDC still recommends unvaccinated Americans wear face masks in public, but vaccinated individuals don’t need to take that precaution. States, communities, businesses and churches followed up by lifting many of their remaining mask requirements.

At St. Stephen’s, the Wednesday night service on May 19 was the first time vaccinated worshippers were invited to leave their masks at home. “It was a unique situation, people coming in for the first time not wearing their masks,” Parsley told ENS. “It feels like we’re coming to the end of the pandemic.”

The CDC specifically said it is safe for vaccinated people to “attend a full-capacity worship service” and “sing in an indoor chorus” without wearing masks. In response, bishops and dioceses have issued a flurry of updates to their protocols, in many cases easing mask requirements and allowing a gradual return to normal congregational singing and fellowship time, such as coffee hours. They also urge caution, since not everyone has been vaccinated and vaccination eligibility has not yet extended to children under age 12.

“What wonderful news!” East Carolina Bishop Rob Skirving said in a May 14 message to his diocese in response to the CDC announcement. Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor said it “made our hearts leap for joy.”

But in California, public health precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 remain in effect, including mask wearing and social distancing. “State and local officials will soon have more to say about the local impact of the CDC statement,” Taylor said in an email newsletter. “If we end up sounding cautious, remember that many of our folks are in high-risk categories,” he said. “For now: Love your neighbor. Wear your mask.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper responded to the CDC guidelines last week by lifting his order that had required people to wear face coverings and maintain safe distances in most indoor settings. Skirving, while promising updated diocesan guidance by the end of May, urged congregations to craft reopening plans that respect all members and support the health of their communities.

“Not all of us are old enough to be vaccinated, not all of us can be safely vaccinated, and not all of us have chosen to be vaccinated,” Skirving said. “Will our congregations be places that welcome all people, or only some?”

And while pandemic conditions have improved across the United States in recent months, dioceses continue to assess the varying severity of local coronavirus outbreaks in determining how congregations can safely gather in person.

Only 38% of Coloradans had been fully vaccinated when Colorado Bishop Kym Lucas sent a May 14 message to the diocese about the CDC’s shifting recommendations for masking. The state also has one of the highest per capita coronavirus case rates in the country, though totals are declining. Lucas said she was not yet prepared to update her COVID-19 recommendations for the diocese’s parishes and missions.

“I encourage you to start/continue the conversations about regathering, but do not feel compelled to make quick changes; I encourage you to continue wearing masks and maintain appropriate physical distance indoors,” Lucas wrote. She promised to provide more detailed diocesan guidance soon.

On the other end of the scale, Oklahoma now has one of the lowest per capita case rates and is averaging fewer than 200 new cases a day. Even before the CDC’s update, Oklahoma Bishop Poulson Reed had been planning to ease restrictions on in-person worship in his diocese starting May 23. In a new message to the diocese, he advised that all pandemic precautions are now voluntary for congregations.

He also urged all eligible Oklahomans to get their COVID-19 shots. Only a third of the state is fully vaccinated.

“This pandemic is not yet over, but it is much diminished,” Reed said in his May 14 message. “It is time to rebuild our congregations in Oklahoma, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s get to work.”

The coronavirus has upended Episcopal parish life since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. That month, bishops abruptly suspended in-person worship services, encouraging congregations to use technology to stay connected remotely, including through livestreamed services. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a message to the church endorsing a temporary fast from in-person worship and Communion as “an act of love for God and our neighbor.”

Most congregations have since resumed some form of in-person gathering, often limited to smaller groups than their pre-pandemic attendance. Outdoor services have been a common alternative. Other pandemic precautions became widespread indoors, including distancing in the pews, hand sanitizer on the altar and masks on worshippers’ faces. Congregational singing was curbed because it increased the risk of spreading the virus. Communion, if distributed, generally was limited to the bread, sometimes with walk-up or drive-up options.

St. Luke the Physician Episcopal Church in Gresham, Oregon, holds an outdoor worship service in May. The congregation on May 23 will gather inside the church for the first time in over a year. Photo: St. Luke’s, via Facebook

Now, pandemic worship practices are changing again. Atlanta Bishop Rob Wright said May 14 he would allow vaccinated worshippers in his northern Georgia diocese to attend indoor services without wearing masks, and they can sing in indoor choirs. Unvaccinated worshippers should continue to follow previous precautions.

“While the CDC’s new guidelines are welcome news for us as individuals,” Wright said, “they represent continued complications for us a community of faith made up of vaccinated, partially vaccinated, and unvaccinated persons, as well as overwhelmingly unvaccinated young people and those of all ages who are immunocompromised.”

Some pre-pandemic practices may resume in the diocese, such as distribution of Communion wafers at the altar rail, but he advised that masks should continue to be worn by everyone “in settings when vaccination status of participants is unknown.” Wright also asked vaccinated Episcopalians not to shame those who have not been vaccinated, and he warned against developing “two tiers of membership in Christ’s church.”

The Diocese of Milwaukee alluded to similar concerns in issuing advice to its congregations. The CDC’s differing guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals “is problematic for a spiritual community,” the diocese’s Standing Committee said in a May 14 letter. Although it announced some revisions to worship guidelines in the southern Wisconsin diocese, the mask requirement remains in place.

In other corners of the church, congregations are cheering the CDC’s shift in guidance on mask wearing.

“We have reached a moment we have long waited for,” the Rev. Susan Sowers, rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Pensacola, Florida, said in a May 19 newsletter to church members. With pandemic conditions improving, worshippers no longer will have to sign up to attend services at St. Christopher’s, she said, and singing is now allowed.

Masks will no longer be required for vaccinated worshippers at the church’s Saturday evening and early Sunday services, though everyone still will be asked to wear masks at the more-crowded 10:30 a.m. Sunday service.

“From the beginning of this pandemic, we have graciously accepted restrictions in our in-person worshiping because we share the same commitment of protecting the most vulnerable among us,” Sowers said. “We have really hung in there these past 14 months, and I want us to cross the finish-line together!”

Just east of Portland, Oregon, St. Luke the Physician Episcopal Church in Gresham is preparing to return to indoor worship on May 23 for the first time in more than a year, and only those who have not been vaccinated will be asked to wear masks. A church Facebook post cited an internal survey of the congregation in which 95% of respondents said they had been fully vaccinated.

“We erred on the side of caution,” the Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield told ENS, but now the vaccination rates and CDC update give the congregation confidence that it finally is safe to return to the church.

Churches in the Diocese of Pennsylvania can begin holding indoor services at full capacity on June 6, except in Philadelphia, where the loosening of restrictions takes effect on June 13, according to a message from Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez also approved the resumption of congregational singing while recommending that all choir members be vaccinated. Coffee hour may resume, but congregations should still avoid communal meals with shared dishes. Past precautions for the Eucharist remain in place, with only the bread offered. Youth activities also remain under COVID-19 precautions.

“While there is great excitement in the expansion of our options, it is vitally important that each church proceed cautiously as you discern when and how to lift restrictions,” Gutiérrez said, noting that children younger than 12 still are not eligible for vaccinations.

The Diocese of West Texas is not yet celebrating the “full return” to normal church life, Bishop David Reed said in a May 18 message to his diocese, but he welcomed the new CDC guidelines as a step closer. The diocese will ease its mask requirements and allow resumption of wine distribution during Communion, by intinction only. Coffee hours and other indoor fellowship activities also may resume.

“After 15 months of limitations and restrictions, we are likely to experience some degree of discomfort, awkwardness, and anxiety as our guidelines are eased further,” Reed said. “How we respond, how we choose to treat one another, during this phase will have a lasting impact on the recovery and renewal of congregational life. Local circumstances and the well-being of the whole parish or mission must be taken into consideration.”

In Oregon, Cosca-Warfield said the updated mask recommendations aren’t as momentous as her congregation’s return to indoor worship at St. Luke’s, just in time for Pentecost. It “feels right,” she said, while describing the joyous atmosphere among parishioners.

“Everyone has been saying, ‘God, I hope I can keep my tears back. I hope I will be able to get through without crying,’” she told ENS. “I said, ‘Just cry, it’s fine.’”

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