On Tuesday morning, April 28th, almost all the Judicatory leaders of Iowa Churches met to discuss the Governor’s inclusion of gathering for “religious and spiritual events” across the state as part of her opening authorization. We were surprised at the Governor’s statement, having had no consultation with her as part of the decision, and all of us agreed that we could not go along with her optimism. I enclose the statement which we wrote in response to her action, being clear that as leaders of our respective denominations, we were not yet ready to let our congregations begin to gather in person. I reaffirm that position.
Each Tuesday afternoon I have been meeting on zoom with all the clergy responsible for congregations, and in the evening with non-clergy leaders responsible for congregations. They have been helpful occasions for us to express ourselves about the various issues raised by ministry in an age of COVID-19. Most recently our focus has begun to shift somewhat toward how we might best prepare for the opportunity to re-gather in face-to-face worship. I called for a Task Group to assist our thinking, and to help develop a plan of phased or seasonal re-entry. This involves many dimensions, including the thresholds important for safe and wise re-entry; the protocols to follow from public health guidelines as we gather; resuming conversation on how we worship (with some new safety protocols in place); reviewing what mission and ministry may look like as we continue into the next phases of the pandemic; learnings of being virtual Church and a more networked Church which we don’t want to lose; and discernment on what God is saying to us as Church and as messengers of Love in a globally interdependent community.
It has been the nature of the beast that “closure and re-opening” dates are moving targets. I had promised, in my Eastertide update, that I would review our policy by May 5 on staying home to worship and today am extending that policy through the end of May. I am aware of “kicking the can down the road” as we go along, and I sympathize with the frustration and impatience this engenders. We all look forward to the day when we can be safely gathered together in person around the altar to share God’s feast. And, in this time, our primary concern must be protecting the health and well-being of all of our communities.
My own Sunday schedule will remain online through May 31. And I ask us to remain in place until the Task Group can provide for us some clear principles and steps for the dimensions referred to above, and on their view of local conditions. By May 15, we may all have some more clarity about whether the Governor’s estimates are proven wise, sensible and appropriate.
Until the Task Group completes its work (also hopefully by mid-May) to develop guidelines for our diocese on the principles of a phased re-entry into our buildings, I ask you to continue to meet online only, and to continue the season of creative witness and ministry that we are seeing develop in different ways across our diocese. After the guidelines are in place, congregations can begin to assess how and when they will re-open safely, in consultation and coordination with me and our diocesan chancellor.
In Christ’s love and peace,
The Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe, Bishop of Iowa