Pastoral Directive: A Bishop’s Call to a Lenten Fast from Public Worship

March 13, 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,

Today, after consulting with clergy, lay leaders, public health officials and fellow bishops, I ask that each of our congregations gather this coming Sunday as a Day of Preparation for a Fast from physically gathered, large group worship until April 5, the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. We pray that this time of abstaining from public worship will not extend beyond this, but the circumstances relating to the COVID-19 outbreak may dictate otherwise.

The power of Christianity is found in its astonishing capacity to turn the worse news into Good News. This is the message of the Cross after all: a means of humiliation, degradation and death becomes the means of Life. Now, even as we contemplate and prepare for a time of physical distance, I am now convinced that it is for such a time as this that all of our talk in the past years about how we can actually be the Body of Christ in the world can happen in even more liberating and healthful ways. Now is an urgent time when we, instead of looking out only for ourselves alone, can reach out in love, albeit by phone or digitally, or in small and hygienic groups with news of faith, hope and love and with spiritual companionship.

As an Episcopal bishop, I cannot supersede the canonical authority a local rector may have making available the sacraments and worship of the Church. However, our canons clearly did not foresee the public health emergency we now face. What seemed even a week ago as a safe distance between those who have been infected by the COVID-19 virus and our own population is now rapidly shrinking.  Therefore, I am calling upon us to act in solidarity with one another to suspend our in-person public worship, beginning the week of March 17 th .

I sincerely and faithfully urge us all to see this peculiar time not as a catastrophe that instills fear, suspicion or shame among us, but as a spiritual fast and a civic duty, the reclaiming of a venerable and powerful spiritual tradition through which, like Jesus in the wilderness, we are called to renew our trust and our awareness of how God is blessing us, yes, blessing us, in this season of abstinence from physical touch and even, for a time, from corporate public worship. I believe that the church’s ongoing work to be reinvented, strengthened and renewed will be accelerated and deepened during this time. Heartily, I pray that we can share an Easter Communion like none other we have experienced in our lifetimes, when we can come together after the wave of infection passes.

There is precedence for this. In November 1940, St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England was destroyed by bombing during the German bombing invasion. Suddenly finding itself without its historic gothic building, the congregation formed small ‘foyer’ groups in their homes to continue to pray and care for one another. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international movement of peace and forgiveness, remains a tribute to the power of God’s love to turn horrible adversity into Gospel life.

It is now incumbent upon us to show Christ’s love and compassion for our neighbor and ourselves by practicing physical distancing (a preferable phrase to “social distancing” we’ve heard so much about.) Such respect for our physical space to lessen infection is how we can display our love for one another, even as we are bound together in the Body of Christ.

This Sunday, I urge our congregations to offer special prayers as we prepare for a suspension of public worship until at least April 5. If you have not already done so, please use the coming Sunday and the days after to create phone trees and form prayer partners by which you can stay in closer touch during this time. As we are being strongly discouraged by health officials to assemble in larger groups, let us be creative about forming smaller groups that allow sufficient physical space between you (the doctors recommend 4-6 feet or two arm spans), share bible readings and prayers. We can make good use of technology such as Zoom. Some congregations have excellent live-streaming of their worship services and we will list the links on the diocesan webpage dedicated to the Church’s response to this health crisis:

www.nhepiscopal.org/covid19

I plan to stream worship services from here, our humble Chapel of All Angels in Diocesan House, beginning next week. We will need to make new provisions for those who have limited or no access to digital technology so that our siblings in Christ will not find themselves more isolated in this time. You can expect more updates and sharing as we journey together in this unusual Lenten period, a Lent that will lead us, God willing, to a glorious celebration of praise and thanksgiving for our Lord’s emergence from the tomb on Easter Morning! Of course, we cannot predict when this current crisis will abate, but this is my prayer today.

In the meantime, I close with my usual blessing, a blessing that seems even more apt now than at any time before.

Live without fear.
Your Creator has made you holy,
has always protected you
and loves you with a power and a presence
that is stronger than death.
And the blessing of Almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be among us now, this day,
and forever more.

Faithfully Yours in the Risen Christ,

+Rob

The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop