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From John H. Taylor, Bishop of Los Angeles - May 4, 2020
Health and Strength in Community VII
By Bishop John Harvey Taylor
Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”John 14:5-6
Just think of what we have accomplished in the weeks since March 17, when I suspended in-person worship in the Diocese of Los Angeles. We have discovered the capacity to worship on-line, and not just on Sundays. The Book of Common Prayer, embodying the rich Anglican tradition of non-eucharistic worship, has again become our daily companion. Long, nuanced phone conversations have replaced quick coffee hour chats. The diocese and many of our churches have continued and even expanded our food service ministries. Though none can know what the future holds, thousands are offering unstinting financial support to our churches and the diocese.
You have been magnificent. Yet while our shared spirit of Resurrection hope has enabled us to rise to the challenge, it hasn’t been easy for anyone.
Changes in our church practice mirror the new reality of individual and family life, from the complexities of shopping to the harrowing effects of deepened social isolation, especially for those who live alone or in convalescent facilities and are hospitalized without being able to receive visitors. Health care and essential workers who attend our churches, along with teachers and working parents with children at home, are under extraordinary pressure. Bearing the brunt of the economic downturn are essential undocumented workers with no rights or benefits and millions in our diocese who have been thrown out of work.
Our church families are our base camps for the work we do in the world, glorifying God and caring for God’s people. In a world transformed by the virus that causes COVID-19, the work will be plentiful in each community and neighborhood we serve. The Holy Spirit is also calling the church to unity of witness, together with all people of faith, on behalf of government policies that lift up all those who have be hurt the most by the health and economic crisis – locally, nationally, and globally.
With all this work to do — worship and praise, service and witness — our thoughts naturally turn to questions about how and when we will be able to return to our churches. Gathering in worship and fellowship before being sent out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit, is our defining ritual. We miss it, and we need it. Our virtual worship is diaspora worship. At this stage of the pandemic, it is vital — our gift to those who are at greatest risk of illness. For their sake, for the sake of the whole body, we must continue as we are for as long as necessary even as we yearn hungrily for the sight of the places and people we love.
We must continue, but it is hard. My siblings in Christ, our pilgrim work in the season ahead is to live faithfully and abundantly between the public health imperative of separation and the theological imperative of return.
As for when and how we return, we cannot know the way except by following Jesus Christ’s way of love, as enunciated last week by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in his word to the church. Watch and read it here. As he reminds us, the source of everything the faithful do is self-sacrificial, Christlike love. While states will differ about when to open their economies, love is constant. Politicians have to balance competing interests, but love outweighs them all. Our crisis could last for six months or two years, but love is forever.
To advise me about best practices for in-person worship in the shadow of COVID-19 and the light of love, I have asked the deans of our ten deaneries to serve as a council of advice. Bishop Bruce and Canons McCarthy and Satorius will join us in our deliberations. To guide their work, I have given them these principles:
Diocesan policy will conform strictly to State of California policy. The safety of the people of God is our paramount value.
Gov. Newsom said last week that he will permit in-person religious services, with adaptations and limits on size of gatherings, in stage three of California’s reopening. The timing of stage three, which could be weeks or months away, depends on our progress in testing, contact monitoring, protection of those most at risk, keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed, and other factors. The policy we adopt will depend on what the state says about size and other limitations.
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.
Holy Eucharist is the foundation of our weekly worship. A few of our churches now offer virtual Holy Eucharist services according to the presiding bishop’s teaching about spiritual communion. Most are using Daily Office liturgies. But for nearly two months, almost none of us has had the physical sacrament.
The bread and wine are the outward signs of an inner, eternal truth. We are still and always the body of Christ, united and consecrated by grace. But we are hungry. We need food for the journey.
As we come together again, Eucharistic practice will be our biggest challenge. In a word, we don’t want people to fear the sacrament or their neighbor. No single subject is receiving more attention throughout The Episcopal Church. I am confident the Holy Spirit will guide us well and ensure that we continue to be fed for the work ahead.
Even if smaller churches in less dense communities could open the soonest, using the same timeline for all our churches will be healthiest spiritually for the whole body of the family of God in our diocese.
Our diocese’s geographical diversity is like that of a small nation – from the sea to the Colorado River, cities and suburbs, mountains, farmlands, and deserts. We don’t know yet if the governor’s rules will vary by region. Even if they do, here is a question for each pilgrim walking the way of self-sacrificial love: How do you feel about returning to church if your siblings elsewhere in the diocese can’t because they attend a larger church or live in a denser neighborhood? We will discern prayerfully about these and related questions.
In recovering what we love, we should be sure toclaim all we have learned.
Historical change and crisis have often transformed and enlivened the church. They can help us clarify the purpose of our vocation. They drive the anxious and spiritually hungry to our door. They offer opportunities for people of faith to proclaim an alternative to the ways of the world when they are not rooted in equity, justice, and love.
We would not have wished for these days. And yet they are teaching us new ways to be church and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ by acts of praise, service, and witness. This our Resurrection promise. This is our Eastertide work. Staying together, discerning together, walking the way of love together, we will be stronger in Christ, mission, and ministry long after these days have passed.
Please pray daily for us, your diocesan servant leaders, as we pray for you. May our God in Christ continue to bless you and those you love.