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Update:  The date for moving to 50 people at a worship service has been pushed back by the government to June 7.

The news that Premier Blaine Higgs had moved the province to the Yellow (third) phase of COVID-19 recovery came with good news for parishes last week.

In the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton, Bishop David Edwards issued a letter in light of the announcement.
He noted that part of the provincial government’s recovery plan includes allowing religious services of 50 people or fewer — indoors or outdoors — as of May 29. However, strict guidelines have been laid out by the province that must be adhered to when a parish reopens its buildings.

A written operational plan must be in place and readily available, and social distancing must be respected. The bishop noted that the 50 gathered includes those officiating.

“Although church buildings can open for services, they do not have to,” he said. “I am aware that some have taken the decision, due to local circumstances, to remain closed at present. That is perfectly acceptable to me.”

The bishop went on to explain the difference between closed churches and closed buildings.

“I want to emphasize the fact that we’re opening buildings, not churches. Our churches have been meeting in all different forms. They’ve never closed.

“We’re able to open our buildings now and I’m glad of it,” he said. “But the Church has been open — some of it familiar, and some of it different.”

One aspect of the pandemic that has proven interesting is the number of new people accessing our online services.

“I’ve received significant feedback that through these different means, we’ve been able to engage with people we hadn’t before,” he said. “I hope we’ll be able to continue to do that.”

The bishop encourages continued prayer for the province, the country and the world as we navigate this pandemic.

As we enter this new phase, we talked to three parishes as they make decisions on opening buildings.

From the Rev. Chris Hayes, rector of the Parish of Salisbury & Havelock. He plans to hold a church service on Sunday for the first time in more than two months.
Coming back to church in the midst of a worldwide pandemic is no easy task — physically, strategically, emotionally, or spiritually.

Though we have been most fortunate here in New Brunswick, we are all exposed to too much news of suffering throughout the world. To this end, there is much more to prepare than buildings for the resumption of worship.

In our parish, we have done what every other parish has done — developed an operation plan to be able to show any who are interested what we have done to ensure social distancing, thorough hygiene, and other such requirements.

We have acquired hand sanitizer from people in trench coats in dark alleys (OK, that might be a stretch!), and have prepared as much as we can to make people as comfortable as possible when they return to their spiritual home to worship our Lord together.

But that can’t completely be accomplished. There is no way to enable everyone to feel “at home” when they don’t get their own seat, or when they learn we won’t be singing.

It’s hard to be at ease when parts of the nave are taped off, or when Communion doesn’t happen the way it always does.

Parishioners have been personally told that if they are too nervous to come, that’s OK. People are told that wearing a mask will not cause everyone to stare at them (hopefully most of us will be wearing masks!).

Though many of us have gone to church for many years, coming back now is almost like taking our first baby steps, trying to navigate new requirements with old and familiar habits. Or learning a new skill when we remember doing that same thing in the past with such ease.

For some, it hurts. As a priest, I hear the stories. I hear the frustration of being afraid to go to a place that is supposed to be so comforting. Yes, we know God is everywhere, and yes, we know God hears our prayers wherever and however we pray them.

But we remember that gathering together feels different; that worshipping with other like-minded friends and family fills a hole that nothing else can.

To such comments I plead patience; we will get there again, I believe, but just as so much in society shut down earlier this year, it takes some time to open up again; church is no exception.

The kinks — there will be some — will be ironed out over time. Familiarity and comfort will return. God’s peace of mind, of spirit, of body, given to us, can be had again.

From the Rev. Wendy Amos-Binks, priest-in-charge in the Parish of St James, Moncton. She has held three small services each Sunday for the past two weeks.
I felt more comfortable holding a service indoors rather than the outdoor drive-in option. Once we were permitted to have indoor services with a maximum of 10 people, I felt strongly drawn to try this option.

I felt excited at being able to offer the Eucharist in familiar surroundings. The wardens were supportive and were with me to help.

We decided to offer three shorter Holy Eucharist services at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. We emailed and called parishioners to let them know they could sign up. The response was very good.

I felt these smaller numbers would be more manageable in enabling us to adjust to the social distancing changes necessary.

I drew up an operational plan and discussed it with the wardens. We tied off every other pew for social distancing. We marked out spots on the floor in the vestibule where people enter, and in the aisles and at the chancel steps to help people distance.

People received Holy Communion in one kind (bread) only. A bowl of water, soap and paper towel were placed behind the altar so I could wash my hands right there prior to setting the table.

The entire service has been printed in the bulletin so no books are being used. Instrumental hymns on saxophone and clarinet have been beautifully provided by a parishioner, Chris Mutch. We also recorded two of our youth — Grace Lewis on flute and Ben Lewis on violin.

We have done this for two Sundays now. All went well! People appreciated being back ‘home.’ They observed social distancing and have accepted Holy Communion in one kind (for now) and no singing (for now).

This Sunday, May 31, we will return to our usual one service since we can now have a maximum of 50 people. We will continue the one-way flow — all entering through the front door and exiting through the side door.

There are some parishioners whom we may not see for a while due to health issues. We miss them, but understand! We are happy to open our doors, and for those who can, to worship together.

From the Rev. Steven Scribner, priest-in-charge of the Parish of Saint John
Prior to the opening of Phase 3 (Yellow), Trinity had decided that we would not be rushing to be first to open based upon the following facts and observations:

• The general observation of the increased movement locally when Phase 2 began. Within hours the city came alive and there was a lack of respect for the precautions set out.
• Trinity has a majority of ‘at-risk’ members in the congregation and it is our health primarily that is important through this COVID-19 crisis.
• I created an operational plan for returning to worship, including a “Back to Church” memo which provides each parishioner a perspective of what they will experience coming in.
• A short survey was sent out to our regular parishioners (about 55) last week with follow-up by our phone committee this week. From this feedback, future worship options will be developed.

Trinity Saint John will remain closed for at least the next two Sundays while we work through the surveys to chart out the near-term. Pentecost and Trinity Sunday will have complete worship services (Morning Prayer liturgy) recorded and uploaded on the Trinity YouTube channel.

When Trinity opens, we will reduce to one service only and will start with at least two Sundays with Morning Prayer to get accustomed to the new normal for worshipping in community prior to holding Holy Communion.

Trinity’s survey:
1) What bests describes your attitude toward returning to worship at Trinity (including no congregational singing or touching)
• I will return at the first opportunity we have, assuming good safety precautions are in place
• I will probably wait several additional weeks or more before I attend
• It is summer; I would look at returning in September
• I will probably continue to live- record stream worship until the virus danger has diminished

2) Trinity will be holding one service only – on Sunday morning during this active phase of COVID-19. What time of service would you prefer?
• 9 a.m.
• 10:30 a.m.

3) What has been your practice for Sunday Worship from March 22 to date since Trinity Services have been suspended?
• I have accessed Trinity’s YouTube Channel for weekly messages
• I have accessed other live-stream or recorded Services
• Other

1. Ash Wednesday seems like a very long time ago. This photo, of Bishop David Edwards and the Rev Canon Tom Smith, was taken Feb. 26 at Christ Church Cathedral. Parishes have not held services since early or mid-March. McKnight file photo

2. This photo from a recorded service features Chris Mutch, parishioner at St. James in Moncton, performing. 

3. The Parish of Salisbury & Havelock will begin services this Sunday — the first since mid-March.  McKnight file photo