Yet Once More

My Dearly Beloved in Christ,

The petition in the Great Litany for deliverance from “plague, pestilence, and famine” has always struck me as a quaint holdover from an earlier era—a time before knowledge about microbes, a time before the discovery of antibiotics, a time before structured financial markets that keep prosperity on track.

I have changed my estimation of this petition. It now feels very contemporary, very relevant. The COVID19 pandemic qualifies as plague and pestilence by any measure. All of our lives are disrupted, and some of our lives will be ended. And it qualifies as famine, I think, not because there are any actual food shortages looming on the horizon (the appearance of some grocery store shelves to the contrary), but because of the incalculable disruption to the national and world economy due to the anti-epidemic practices that have needed to be adopted. People’s livelihoods have evaporated overnight, and unexpected poverty will ensue. There will be chain reactions that affect all of us.

I am writing to announce the most agonizingly difficult decision I have ever made in my entire life. It cuts against the grain of the way the very atoms and molecules in my body are arranged. I am directing that public worship in the churches and chapels, and among the Eucharistic Communities,  of the Diocese of Springfield be suspended until further notice. I strongly urge that this directive be implemented immediately, but I am leaving some “wiggle room” for those who wish to hold public services for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. After this Sunday, it becomes mandatory.

I understand that this is not merely an annoyance or an inconvenience. For Christian communities that stand in the Catholic tradition, it is an existential crisis. It is the Eucharist itself that re-members the dis-membered Body of Christ at each celebration. The Eucharist confects the Church. It is in the Eucharist that we repeatedly “become who we are.”

I have resisted taking this action longer than most church leaders (some would say too long). It is scarcely even imaginable. A number of factors have prompted me to move in this direction, but they all converge on the commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves. I am not shy about exhorting the Christian people to be brave, to take risks for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of the mission of the Church. Only recently, I was reminded (by the Holy Spirit, I think) of the line from the hymn Stand up, stand up for Jesus: “Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.” I have held up as a positive example the witness of the Martyrs of Memphis—an Episcopal religious community of women who ministered fearlessly to the victims of a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1878, losing their lives to that epidemic as a result.

It’s one thing to be courageous in opening oneself to risk for the sake of others, as all disciples of Jesus are called to do. It’s another thing, however, to put others, who have not themselves volunteered for such exposure, at risk of serious illness or death. I am concerned about the not-insubstantial prospect of someone who is infected but asymptomatic attending one of our services, feeling completely well and healthy, and then infecting another communicant who is in the category of those who are most at risk if infected with COVID19. Knowledge of something like that happening would be more than any of us would want to bear.

The principle is the same as that which lies behind laws against drunk driving. Getting drunk may be a choice an adult has a right to make. Killing another person as a result of driving while drunk is not. Continuing to hold services that are open to the public during an epidemic could be considered the moral equivalent of drunk driving. Of course, it could be argued that we take serious risks, and put others at risk, every day, without giving it much thought. This is not untrue, and I won’t pretend to be able to make a slam-dunk argument about how one form of risk-taking is tolerable and another is not. I agree that we ought not to allow our lives to be ruled by fear. But the gospel calls us also to cultivate the virtue of prudence. For this season of the coronavirus, foregoing public worship is, I believe, the prudent course.

This will, of course, be a shock to our collective system. This is uncharted territory; we have no “corporate memory” on which can call for a time like this. There are no established “best practices” to guide us. What does our common life look like, then, in the near term?

First, the Eucharist can and must go on. To reiterate what I wrote in my St Patrick’s Day letter: I call on parish clergy to continue to celebrate the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day. But it must be done, as it were, privately, not at a stated time that is publicized. Attendance must be limited to five persons, with extraordinary precautions taken to maintain social distance and a microbe-free cleanliness. For the administration of the sacrament, I would commend the otherwise wholly inappropriate practice of leaving the consecrated elements at a “neutral” location—the altar or another table designated for the purpose—and inviting people to approach it one by one and communicate themselves. I leave it to local leaders to determine which four persons in addition to the priest are admitted to these liturgies.

Second, I further commend the practice of live-streaming these events so that the majority who are unable to attend can nonetheless participate in some way. The technology for doing this is not inordinately sophisticated—a smart phone with an internet connection and a Facebook account or some other app. Look at the diocesan Facebook page for a tutorial on how to do this.

Third, let me also suggest a procedure for “drive-through” administration of Holy Communion, which would be especially appropriate for those who have watched the livestream. With conscientious precautions for maintaining an antiseptic environment, consecrated wafers can be placed on an appropriate vessel, which the communicant accesses himself/herself as the vessel is held out, avoiding any hand-to-hand contact. The accompanying words can simply be, “The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in eternal life.”

Finally, I lift up the venerable practice of “spiritual communion” for those who are unable to either attend the actual celebration or receive via “drive through.” There is a resource for this on the diocesan website.

I am aware of some anxiety that some among us might become so accustomed to not coming to church on Sundays that, when the storm clears, they may have formed a new habit that will be hard to break. I suppose this is a possibility, but I prefer to be a “glass half full” kind of guy. COVID19 has delivered us a load of lemons. How can we make lemonade? Perhaps this ordeal presents us with a unique opportunity to strengthen the bonds of our life together. I am already aware that the daily office is getting prayed far more frequently among Episcopalians than it was a month ago! Clergy and laity are learning new ways to be in contact with one another, using technology. We may come out of this crisis not weaker, but stronger and healthier than we would otherwise have been

Barring an unforeseen positive development, 2020 will go down in history as the year without an Easter. Indeed, our beloved and customary observance of Holy Week and Easter looks like its not going to happen. But, you know what? Christ will be every bit as much risen from the dead! “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” Those eternal realities cannot be taken from us.

In the love of Jesus,

+Daniel Springfield

Feast of St Cuthbert, 2020
{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Thomas Harris March 20, 2020, 3:50 pm

    Thank you Bishop Martin for your wise counsel and leadership.

  • Arnold+ March 20, 2020, 4:29 pm

    God bless and keep you, sir. Beautifully done. I wept for you, for myself (one of your priests, albeit “in exile”), for Sharon, for all of us trying to know how to live for Christ .

  • Roy D. Anderson March 20, 2020, 5:13 pm

    This is a faith-filled and thoughtful pastoral letter. I am impressed with the level of intentionality displayed in your letters Bishop. Grace and Peace be with you and all the faithful in your care.

  • Jim Cravens March 20, 2020, 6:17 pm

    Glad you have taken this step for the good of the Body of Christ. It is very meet and right, so to do. We’ll get through this together/apart.

  • Jeffrey Dunnagan March 20, 2020, 11:39 pm

    You have made the right decision. May the Lord protect us all.

  • Edward Rath March 21, 2020, 7:47 am

    A beautiful and inspiring letter. Thank you. ED (Emmanuel Champaign)

  • George Werner+ March 21, 2020, 7:58 am

    Thank you for your very helpful message.
    Prayers & hope for you & your Diocesan family. George+

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