Saturday, May 23, 2020

Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic: Review and Explanation


Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Review and Explanation

There are many concerns involved in responding to Covid-19 – public health, economic and personal financial health, emotional and spiritual health under “lock down,” and government’s competency in balancing the other three vs. potential governmental overreach. This is not the place to discuss where there has been governmental competence vs incompetence vs overreach. But I will address how we as a diocese and, more specifically, I as the bishop, have sought to address the church’s response to the pandemic.

Our response to the virus is only partly informed by what the government has directed. We began responding to Covid-19 well before any directives from the state government. As early as March 5, I gave directions for ‘Communion and the Coronavirus’. Our congregations met under those guidelines for two Sundays, including March 15, which was after both the Governor of Wisconsin and the President of the United States had declared states of emergency and one Sunday more than some neighboring church bodies. But it was clear by then, that a different kind of care was going to be needed if we were going to mitigate the spread of the virus and help keep our members and neighbors safe.

I formed the Covid-19 Task Force in the week before March 15 and began meeting with them to discern the most faithful and responsible way forward. On March 16, in response to directions “from the CDC and the White House” I suspended in-person worship in our church buildings. This was before Governor Evers’ March 26 ‘Safer at Home’ order. It is actually stricter on some points than what the governor directed. That has been the status quo for the diocese since and remains so at this point except for the recent allowance for more congregations to celebrate Eucharist under clear and strict guidelines. While that allowance goes further than any Episcopal diocese around us, it is still stricter in terms of how many may participate than the governor’s order allowed.

[The various statements from the diocesan office mentioned above can be found at https://www.diofdl.org/covid-resources.html]

I review all this to point out that decisions regarding worship in the Diocese of Fond du Lac have only partially been in response to what the government at any level has told us we should or should not do. Rather those decisions have been based on public health information from experts, including those on our own Task Force. They have been based taking the pandemic seriously and, given that, on our equally serious determination to love one another and love our neighbors.

We are enjoined in Romans 13:1-2 to,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”

While we generally submit to the governing authorities and are suspicious of calls to resist those authorities unless they contravene a gospel imperative, the Church’s ultimate authority is not what any earthly government – whether local, state, or federal – says. Or, for that matter, any of the various interpretations of the Constitution. Nor is our ultimate allegiance and loyalty to any of those. Ultimately,

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

And we seek a better country, the City, the New Jerusalem God has prepared for us:

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

We put our hope in no governor or president or nation for, as the New Testament declares, ‘Jesus is Lord’.

Jesus is our authority and it is his directives we are trying to follow. His commandment is that we love one another as he loved us (John 13:34) and he promises to free us to do so. Thus, our most fundamental right and freedom is to love God and love our neighbor. So, we seek to, “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). And it is that direction we are seeking to follow in our decisions regarding whether, when, and how to open our church buildings. Based on the best knowledge to which we have access regarding the threat of Covid-19 and given our determination to follow Jesus’ directive to love one another and our neighbors, what is the most faithful, most responsible thing for us to do? It is with that question we are grappling. Whatever we do will based not on fear, but on care.

Believe me, I wish as much as anyone we could just simply go back to worshiping together in our
church buildings. We have beautiful church buildings that evoke wonder and a sense of the holy. They are soaked with decades of prayer and memory. It is right for us to miss them. Even more, it is right that we miss gathering. And I miss regular worship together in the presence of the gathered body of Christ. At the end of every Eucharist with the dismissal we disperse our members so we can be the body of Christ in the world. But we are meant to be ‘re-membered’ week by week. This long, enforced dispersal is not natural. I do not just not like it; I think it is problematic. I want us to resume gathering as the body of Christ in worship because it a fundamental vocation of the Church.

But it is not clear that it is safe to do so at this point. The state supreme court’s ruling expressly did not deny the ongoing seriousness of the virus. Even with masks, physical distancing, and other precautions, it is our understanding from public health experts that the length of time shared in the same space, breathing the same air, makes worshiping in groups too unsafe. I appreciate that many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus in order to participate in worship in your church building. I would be willing to take that risk as well. If it was just about me. But I do not want to risk giving the virus to someone else if I am infected unknowingly. I do not think you do either. That is why we are being extra careful. We will continue to make our decisions based on the best medical and public health information we can glean as we seek how best to go forward faithfully.

We will begin a phased resumption of gathering for worship in our buildings, possibly as early as the middle of June. But that will largely be determined by the rate of infection and other public health factors. Directions for the first phase of regathering in our church buildings will be published next week.

There is a lot of talk now about the Church being essential. I absolutely believe it is. It is important to note that while we have not been going to our church buildings, we have not ceased to be the Church. We have found creative, faithful ways to worship and pray and connect with one another and serve and bear witness in spite of the constraints imposed upon us by the pandemic. In that sense, we, as the Church, have continued the free exercise of religion as per the First Amendment.

I ask your patience and forbearance as we discern the next steps. And I ask your prayers for me, the Task Force, our clergy, lay leaders, and all members of the Diocese of Fond du Lac. It is my firm conviction that God is faithful and will see us through this challenging time. And God continues to lavish grace upon us even now.

Under the Mercy,

Bishop Matt

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