A LETTER FROM BISHOP BENFIELD
The governor of Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Health have issued revised guidance for worship as we enter the holiday period, with the goal of attempting to control the spread of the coronavirus. The governor’s latest guidance recommends that churches not use a choir, but instead use a soloist who stands at least twelve feet from anyone else. Additionally, the use of wind instruments is not recommended. Masking of the entire congregation is strongly recommended.
The governor’s original directive is consistent with the recommendations I have previously offered.Both the governor’s guidance and my recommendations relate to worship. Other meetings, such as those for staff, vestry, or visits with parishioners, need to follow safety guidelines that include masking, social distancing, and the best ventilation possible in spaces as large as possible. In any case, shorter meetings are preferable to longer meetings.
The diocesan recommendations for when to worship are as follows:
This office calculates the average active cases based on daily updates of active cases from the state of Arkansas. The levels of 14 and 35 are calculate to be consistent with similar “new case” cut-off levels as presented by covidactnow.com, a resource used by a number of dioceses and other entities.
The diocesan requirements for how to do in-person worship, whether indoors or outdoors, are as follows:
A Letter from Bishop Benfield
Sunday I made my first visit to a congregation since the pandemic began. It was to St. Peter’s Church in Tollville, where the congregation has done great job getting the church ready for in-person worship. On Monday I sent guidelines to congregational leaders across the diocese about how we reopen churches for in-person gatherings, for both worship and other meetings.
The guidelines ask you to look at the number of active cases in your county (online here) and make a decision on whether or not you think the risk is acceptable to begin gathering again. In counties where there is currently a large number of cases relative to your population (noted in red on the chart), the congregations need to continue to meet online.
In counties with a smaller number of cases relative to population, if you decide to gather in person, how you gather needs to reflect what we now know about the virus: The spread of Covid-19 is primarily respiratory driven and seems to have some correlation with the size of the group, the length of time the group is gathered, the use of social distancing and face coverings, whether or not the group is indoors or outdoors, and the willingness of people with symptoms not to participate in person.
Two issues remain to be worked out: when to restart congregational singing and when to resume distributing Holy Communion. As soon as I have some answers, I will share them with local leaders.
Please remember that if there is a substantial surge in cases across the state, we may need to return to online gatherings. I want to thank all of you for your patience so far—and for your continued patience in the coming weeks and months as we find new ways to worship during this pandemic. Your support of your local congregations and your continued focus on helping others through this trying time mean a great deal.
A Letter from Bishop Benfield
On Monday I sent a guideline for reopening congregations to our churches, stating that for about half of our congregations, it will be possible to begin some form of in-person worship on Sunday, May 31. Whether or not your congregation will choose to have outdoor, indoor, or online worship will depend in part on the active Covid-19 cases in your county. Many of our rural congregations are in areas where there has been little infection, while urban areas have been hit more severely. We will keep tracking cases in each county every week to help with ongoing congregational decisions. A surge in infections might require a return to online worship in some places.
Under no circumstances should your congregation begin in-person worship unless your leadership feels comfortable and able to do so, and congregations should find ways to accommodate individuals who remain at home because they are not ready to join a large number of other people in a worship service.
This is a new adventure for the church. For example, for the time being even our larger congregations with resident priests will get more experience with Morning Prayer than has been the case in the past. We need to figure out how to stay safe in the very act of gathering before we add the complexity of distributing Holy Communion.
We can find creative ways to continue to be active, worshiping, outwardly-focused congregations in the coming weeks and months. The church has endured and grown and changed through times of pestilence and plague throughout its history. We will do so again. I thank each of you for your continued support of the church—and especially for one another and the most vulnerable among us—in this challenging time. We can step forward with confidence in our mission and continue to serve the world around us.
A Note from Bishop Benfield
We face challenges as a church in this age of pandemic, but we are confident that the church is up to the challenge. Over the next few months we in Arkansas will find ways to bring our community back together in person, always mindful that we will look out for the health of everyone around us.
In anticipation of opening our doors once again, we will spend the next month preparing. During the month of May, we will continue to worship online rather than in person.
Please remember that how and when to reopen will depend in large part on public health guidelines in effect at the time and the success, or lack of it, in overcoming the pandemic. Estimates of infection, illness, and death change from week to week, making it impossible to give precise dates in early May 2020 on when churches can reopen. But we will do so as soon as we feel confident that reopening is the right thing to do for our spiritual and physical health.
Below is a link to a four-page pamphlet outlining what we need to do in May, complete with a list of questions each congregation needs to be asking now, and what we hope to be able to do in June.
A Letter from Bishop Benfield
When this pandemic began and we closed our churches, many of us were looking forward to the Sunday when we would all return to church and it would feel like Easter at last. That sense of anticipation is probably more palpable now that Arkansas's governor will allow certain businesses to start operations again on May 4.
What we now understand is that the reopening of our churches will take place in a much more measured, careful way than as a grand reopening event. My staff and I working on the best strategy to do so, and thus are working with the help of other church leaders across the Episcopal Church. We will look not only at the governor's directives, but also at guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and other public health entities. The last thing we want to do is take unnecessary health risks.
In the coming days I will work with our clergy and lay leaders on a set of focused steps for reopening churches. We will, for example, find social distancing as an ongoing reality for some time. It may be that our smaller, more rural congregations will be operating more normally sooner than our larger, urban congregations. It is likely that such events as small Bible study groups will be meeting in church buildings before Sunday worship recommences. And in the first phase of church re-openings, Morning Prayer is likely to be the Sunday morning liturgy rather than participation in the Eucharist.
What I miss most right now is making visits to congregations, confirming people, and sharing the Eucharist with them. Naturally, I have set aside my schedule as I wait to see when it will again be safe to visit congregations and what those visits will look like. In the meantime, while I cannot visit, I am presiding each Sunday at Trinity Cathedral's liturgy.
We have been through a challenging spring, but we have learned how to care of one another in new ways, and that is something that we will build on in the future. We are finding resurrection stories in our own lives, and in that sense every day is Easter Day; every week is still part and parcel of Easter season. I wish you continued joy in this season as we look into the future and the opportunities it will bring us.
A Letter from Bishop Benfield
The Christian Church across the world is preparing for a Holy Week and Easter unlike any we have known. We will not be gathering in person, either to observe the Passion or to celebrate the Resurrection. It does not mean, however, that we will not find ways to gather.
On Monday I had a Zoom meeting with members of the clergy to discuss the varied ways that we are going to lead our congregations this next week. Some of us are going to lead online worship, some will record worship, and some will encourage parishioners to virtually join other congregations.
We will not have “drive-by” or “in the parking lot outdoors” services. The health risk is simply too great. Neither will we attempt what some people call “long distance” consecration of bread and wine. We want to respect the essential traditions of the church that have seen us through other plagues throughout our 2,000-year history.
I encourage you to join in services online as you can, and also spend your own time in prayer in your homes. I also encourage you to find your own acts of compassion in the coming week, be it watching out for a neighbor, calling an isolated person, or donating to help others who are fearfully struggling with finances. The Holy Week and Easter messages after all, are about dying to one way of existence and being raised to a new way of life. This is the life we can live whether we are able to gather in church or not.
Bishop of Arkansas