Beloved of God,
In these months following the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been working together diligently as a diocese to continue to “be church” in these unprecedented times, while upholding the safety of our people as our top priority. This priority has been the keystone on which we have built the diocesan guidelines for parish protocols. I want to re-emphasize that holding our worship and other meetings virtually is the safest way for our churches to gather at this time. For church leadership that elects to meet in-person, the safest option is to meet outdoors while following the appropriate health protocols (masks, 6 feet of physical distancing, etc). For churches that felt they were able to mitigate the added risks, our protocols had allowed for up to 25 people to gather in a building at one time—again, following the appropriate health protocols.
These guidelines have been developed in large part based off of the Governor’s guidelines, which are informed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. As we move into colder months, experts agree that the risk of contracting COVID will increase significantly due to the likelihood that in-person indoor gatherings will become more common. I urge the parishes of our diocese to continue to uphold the safety of our people as our top priority as we make decisions regarding our gatherings. That being said, the Governor’s guidelines now allow for indoor gatherings of up to 20% of a building’s capacity as defined by fire code, and we have updated the diocesan guidelines accordingly—allowing for this increased number as long as all other appropriate health protocols (masks, physical distancing of 6 feet, etc) are followed.
This does not mean that churches should automatically elect to begin meeting indoors or increase their gathering limits. Nor does it mean these updated protocols from the Governor can be regarded as safe at this time. For any church that is considering meeting indoors and/or increasing their meeting capacity, I ask that you diligently research what experts are learning about how COVID-19 is spread, and take their concerns about increased rates of transmission in colder months into account as you make decisions regarding your gatherings. Again, the safety of our people must be our top priority.
Keep in mind that if cases in Pennsylvania spike, and if there is no corresponding change in the Governor’s protocols, the diocese may have to adopt stricter guidelines than what the state suggests.
I know that meeting virtually can be challenging for some, and it can be tempting to allow our desire to gather together to celebrate Christmas to impair our judgement when it comes to meeting safely. Please know that I share in longing to celebrate the birth of Christ as we have done in the past, seeing people face-to-face and meeting together with those we care about within our church buildings. And yet now, more than ever, I believe that God is calling us to use this moment as an opportunity to step outside of our comfort zones—to adapt and find new possibilities to gather together, using both technology and traditional means such as mailings and phone calls to connect with one another, and to worship God in the beauty of holiness in innovative ways.
I am putting my trust in the leaders of our diocese, clergy and lay, to make wise decisions. Know of my support and my prayers for you and for all the people of our diocese.
In God’s love,
The Rt. Rev. Kevin D. Nichols
Bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem