Two faculty members at Candler School of Theology have been looking ahead to the time when churches begin to grapple with how to reopen worship. They decided that the best way to support these efforts was to seek out and compile the best and latest thinking on how congregations can eventually move forward with worship— but do so safely.
Associate Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology L. Edward Phillips (top photo) and Bishop-in-Residence Larry M. Goodpaster (bottom photo) were two of the co-conveners of The Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacraments, an interdisciplinary consultation of theologians, scientists, doctors, bishops, pastors, and practitioners from multiple denominations who gathered online to develop medically sound and theologically informed recommendations for in-person worship and sacramental practice during the pandemic.
The Consultation’s recommendations—from how to safely pass the peace to how to conduct baptism to Communion and more—are outlined in a document entitled “Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic,” which debuted June 8. A Spanish translation of the document, “Reanudando el Culto Cristiano y la Vida Sacramental con Medidas Preventivas durante una Pandem,” was released to the public on July 15.
Both documents are available at the consultation’s Facebook page, and on the following websites: the General Board for Higher Education Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Discipleship Minstries of The UMC, and Ministry Matters from Abingdon Press.
Phillips, who initiated the project, cautions that with COVID-19 cases on the rise in many places in the U.S., now may not be the time to gather for in-person worship, but churches can begin planning so they are ready when the situation in their area meets the necessary qualifications for re-opening noted in the CDC guidelines for reopening.
“In most states, the rate of reported cases is rising. The first CDC benchmark for having in-person gatherings of up to 10 people is a clear downward trajectory in the number of reported symptoms, confirmed cases, and/or positive tests for COVID-19 for two consecutive weeks. Very few counties in the United States are meeting this benchmark for having any form of in-person worship gatherings indoors at this time.”
The consultation is unique in its interdisciplinary approach and its ecumenical and institutional range. “This is the first consultation to bring liturgical theology experts into conversation with public health experts,” Phillips says.
“It involved participants from The United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The Episcopal Church, along with representation from the Pan-Methodist Commission and the Catholic Church, plus scholars from Emory, Boston University, Vanderbilt University, and Southern Methodist University.”
For the Spanish translation, five members of the original consultation joined with an additional group of fifteen Latinx church leaders that included scholars from the Methodist University in Rosario, Argentina, Duke University, Drew University, Southern Methodist University, and Wesley Theological Seminary. This second consultation met virtually over three weeks to translate and adapt the protocols for Hispanic churches in the U.S. context.
Goodpaster, a retired bishop in the UMC, says that under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, church leaders know that resuming worship will take extraordinary measures. “We were keenly aware that this is a concern that cuts across denominational lines, so we wanted to include leaders from other traditions… The overarching concern was the safety of the community alongside the desire to gather as a community of faith and practice once again.”
Phillips notes that this is also the first such project to make visible its deliberations through social media, allowing the public to see the issues and angles discussed as decisions and recommendations were finalized.
Video of the discussions was originally shared via Facebook Live and is still available to watch on the consultation’s Facebook page, which also will continue to share updates as the pandemic evolves.
“As we talked about organizing the consultation, we were clear that we would benefit from a wide range of voices: pastors, musicians, practitioners, bishops, and theologians,” Goodpaster says. “Having those who regularly study and teach liturgical and sacramental theology added to the richness and depth of the conversations. We wanted the document to reflect the best of medical and scientific research related to COVID-19, and the best of liturgy and local church worship practices.”
The guidelines are clearly filling a need: within the first 11 days of being posted to the Ministry Matters website, the document had logged nearly 10,000 downloads. And the project is ever-expanding.
Phillips has met virtually with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services to discuss the resource as these government organizations have provided guidance to churches during the pandemic.
“The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the UMC is working on ways to use the resource and the interdisciplinary process of consultation with global Methodist partners,” he says.
And, Phillips says, “We are also working on support resources that discuss the social justice impact of church closing/reopening and the infection/mortality disparities among communities of color in the U.S.”
Goodpaster says being involved in the consultation was an honor and a learning experience. “It was a laboratory of insight and wisdom. My hope and prayer is that those who open and work through these guidelines will receive them as a gift and an opportunity to resume care-filled worship and sacramental life.”
The Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacrament is funded in part through a grant provided by Candler School of Theology.