The local United Methodist conference sent out a COVID-19 update to all their pastors yesterday, and so our partner congregation where we’re sharing Christmas Eve service is evaluating needed precautions. The rector of a large Episcopal church down the road (who is one of my favorite Twitter follows) shared that he’d been in a meeting of clergy and public health experts just before sharing his church’s announcement that all their Christmas Eve services have been cancelled save the outdoor carol singing.
Omicron is incredibly contagious (like, experts are making measles comparisons), and the situation is changing by the hour. If you made your decision about Christmas Eve with last week’s data, or even yesterday’s, then your data is outdated and you should probably re-evaluate. Especially if you’re part of a congregation where there are many unvaccinated folks, or where you’re no longer wearing masks in worship, the risks are much higher than we thought a week ago. From all accounts, it looks like the next few weeks are going to be rough. For the love of God, can Christian worshippers at least TRY not to exacerbate that harm?
I am angry this morning, which I know is a front for deep grief. I’m angry at the virus, which is just living its life, totally unaware that we humans are grasping at straws in its wake. I’m angry at the US government, unable to provide care or advice in ways that keep people safe. I’m angry at my larger church bodies because, unlike my Methodist and Episcopal colleagues, I have received ZERO guidance on how to navigate gathering for Christian worship in a pandemic. Yes, there have been some helpful one-off webinars. Yes, I am blessed to have plenty of ecumenical relationships that clue me in to what other churches are doing and advising. I know that other districts in my own denomination have even created very helpful, data-based guidance on when to pause in-person worship. But here? We’ve been on our own.
My congregation is fantastic. We have navigated every one of these decisions with grace and patience. I have not received one single complaint about how worship has happened this entire time, and even when we disagreed about the best course of action, we have done so in ways that helped move the decision along. I honestly cannot convey the depth of my love for this community. And I know that this is not the experience other clergy have had.
But there has been zero guidance from outside our tiny congregation about what to do in the midst of a global pandemic that is killing millions and spreading in exactly the kind of setting that Christians use to worship week in and week out. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for that: our larger church is not equipped with staff to keep their finger on the pulse of every change. Our district is fairly divided on questions like “is COVID-19 real?” and “are masks symbols of government control?” I get that saying anything definitive in this context is dangerous. I’m not really angry at particular people, whose jobs I KNOW to be impossible; I’m angry that we keep perpetuating a system that makes those jobs impossible in the first place.
I’m angry this morning because I am grieving. And one of the losses I’m grieving is the loss of trust in a church institution. I woke up this morning feeling compelled to post a Facebook status that encouraged my fellow clergy and church leaders to re-evaluate the safety of their Christmas Eve worship plans. And then I got incredibly angry because I feel a *responsibility* to my colleagues to do that, since no one else is going to do it.
It might very well be true that I should just shut my mouth and mind my business and take care of my tiny congregation and leave everyone else to make their own decisions. Except that’s not how I was raised, it’s not how I was taught, and it’s not what Jesus asks of us. We belong to one another. So I will go write a dumb little Facebook post that might lead one more congregation to re-think their plans and keep a few people from getting sick. And I will be angry while I do it, all the while knowing that this immense anger is what’s holding my grieving spirit together.