Indoor religious services can resume, but many faith communities will wait
By Gillian Graham, Staff writer, Portland Press Herald, May 29, 2020
Maine religious organizations are now allowed to hold indoor worship services, the latest step forward in the state’s reopening plan.
But many congregations aren’t rushing to gather in person because of ongoing concerns about the transmission of the coronavirus.
After being closed for indoor gatherings for more than two months, Maine churches, mosques and synagogues can now hold services for up to 50 people with protocols in place to keep worshipers socially distanced.
Some churches, including local Baptist and Catholic congregations, will begin services Sunday or Monday. But many others are holding off for months or longer and continuing with online services.
The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said the decisions religious leaders are making about whether to resume in-person services are not easy ones.
“This is painful and sad and difficult. Nobody is making these decisions with glee,” she said. “This is hard and people are being so compassionate and prayerful and careful in their study and deliberation in making these decisions. None of them are doing it lightly.”
The state last week released a checklist for religious gatherings as part of its staged approach to reopening, and the new rules took effect Friday. The guidelines include limiting the number of people to 50, wearing masks when physical distance is not possible, and encouraging people at high-risk of COVID-19 to use online or other remote options for worship.
The checklist outlines ways to reduce physical distance between worshipers and to sanitize common spaces. It also says churches should modify rituals like taking communion or passing of the peace to limit contact. Choirs and communal singing are strongly discouraged because the activity has been associated with COVID-19 outbreaks, according to state officials.
Field said the various denominations represented by the council are taking different and cautious approaches to resuming indoor services, and none plan to return to in-person services this weekend. The Unitarian Universalist Association is not recommending services resume until May 2021.
The Lutheran bishop of New England has indicated he does not want congregations meeting for in-person worship at this point and will review that decision on July 1, Field said. Similarly, the Presbyterian church in Maine is holding off on in-person services and may review that decision later in the summer. Congregational churches in Maine are also likely to hold off on services inside church buildings for now, but those decisions are made by individual congregations, she said.
Field, who leads the Faith Lutheran Church in Windham, said denominational leaders, clergy and lay leaders have told her they feel that virus transmission is too high at this point, and that precautions needed to keep people safe would detract from the quality of their worship and exclude members.
Faith Lutheran Church has 42 people who regularly attend services, but two-thirds of them – including Field – are at high risk for COVID-19. They decided last Tuesday to continue online services and not meet in person until at least July 1.
Field said many churches in Maine have showed “incredible creativity and ingenuity” with online worship since March.
“It’s a safe way that everyone can participate,” she said. “We’re looking into people’s faces and seeing their smiles and tears and hearing their voices. Why would we give that up to go sit 6 feet apart and not be able to sing and gather together after services?”
But Field said she has heard pushback from a “small minority” who are angry or frustrated and want to resume indoor services immediately.
“I understand that,” she said. “But it wouldn’t be safe and it wouldn’t be worship in the way we think of worship.”
Many Catholic churches in Maine will resume indoor Mass on Monday, but streaming and parking lot services will also continue, the diocese said. All Catholic Masses in Maine were suspended starting March 18, though several churches started drive-in services when those were permitted beginning on May 1.
“We are, of course, anxious to return to our churches and have the opportunity to celebrate Mass,” Bishop Robert Deeley said in a statement last week. “We have been preparing for the last few weeks for a safe restoration of Mass in accord with the guidelines of the (Maine) CDC. There are a lot of things involved, but we want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep people safe and fulfill the mission of the church.”
Each parish will require people to register to attend Mass. Those attending services must wear masks and sit 6 feet apart. Holy water fonts will be empty, pews and seats will be disinfected between Masses, and hand sanitizer will be widely available, the diocese said.
Catholic churches will have communion with social distancing, but no wine will be offered. At the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, worshipers standing 6 feet apart will approach the front one pew at a time. They can take their mask off to receive communion, then put it back on. If a priest comes into physical contact with anyone, he will stop and clean his hands before proceeding.
The diocese will continue to livestream services on its website because the 50-person limit means many cannot attend.
The First Baptist Church in Portland will re-open for two services on Sunday now that “scientists think it is safe for us to gather again,” Senior Pastor Keith Moore wrote in a letter to church members. He said the church leadership team spent considerable time grappling with how to reopen safely.
The auditorium will be roped off in a way that allows participants in each service to sit on opposite sides to avoid spreading germs. Pews will also be marked to help people properly socially distance. Moore said church members may sit with members of their own households without socially distancing. He also asked that people wear masks as they arrive and leave the church because it is difficult to maintain physical distance at the entrance and on walkways.
Moore wrote in his letter that he saw the church closure as an issue of public health, not religious liberty.
“Jesus Christ is the head of the church. He wants us to be wise and socially responsible,” Moore wrote.
Moore said the church is willing to add services if needed, but he recognizes that some people will choose to stay home for now.
“As you consider coming back to worship this Sunday, May 31st, please be patient with us,” Moore wrote. “It could be a little awkward at the beginning. Just seeing you and being together again will be worth it.”
Ahmed Abdiraham, director of the Maine Muslim Community Center, said leaders are studying the risks and benefits of reopening the mosque for the congregation, which would happen no earlier than June 15.
“But we will keep studying the situation and we’ll be preparing before we make such a decision,” Abdiraham said in an email.
Abdiraham said the mosque has been offering remote services, but it has not been adequate.
“There are some services that cannot be replaced by online tools such as Friday prayers as physical presence is required,” he said. “Also, not all members of the community have access to online services.”
Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland moved to virtual services months ago and has no plan to resume in-person services anytime soon. Lynn Urbach, president of the board of trustees, said the board has voted to close the building through Aug. 31. One of their most fundamental tenets centers on saving human life, she said.
“That tenet trumps all other commandments,” Urbach said. “Making sure we make people safe is very high on our priority list.”
Urbach said Bet Ha’am has determined that outdoor services are also not appropriate for the congregation. Bet Ha’am has been using Zoom webinars for services and will soon enhance those by adding a half-hour social time to help people visit with one another.
Urbach said the congregation is still working on virtual plans for two major holidays in September, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which often bring 300 to 450 people for services.
“We have not made a firm decision about whether there will also be in-person services,” she said. “Clearly it will not be safe to have 400 people in a room.”
The Right Rev. Thomas Brown, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, met with clergy and lay leaders on Zoom earlier this week to recommend they continue online worship through June but explore options for worshiping outdoors. He told them there is “so much we don’t know” about the coronavirus.
“The risk we take by gathering in person not only takes a lot of energy, but it also puts us in a potential position of spreading the virus, causing illness and potentially death,” he said.
Brown pointed out that the in-person worship experience may be unsatisfying because of restrictions on singing, touching and on the celebration of the Eucharist.
“At the end of the day we have to acknowledge that it may not be safe, that we need more time, and that we are actually gathering and worshiping online,” Brown said during the meeting. “God is being praised, we are finding connections among each other and we’re adapting.”