March 17, 2020
Greetings in the strong name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in whose fellowship we, by the grace of God, are most richly blessed and favored to abide. Peace, hope and love in Christ Jesus!
As the coronavirus COVID-19 has increased its spread we have all received from local, state and national authorities ever more restricting guidelines for gatherings and social distancing. There is something hauntingly biblical as the guidelines have narrowed from 100 to 50 and now to 10 persons for public gatherings. And, of course, we remember St. Paul’s teaching, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1)
In the 12 plus years I have been your bishop, I have known my share of joyous hours as well as those heavy of heart. These last few days since cancelling our Diocesan Convention have fallen in both categories. Giving a further directive to our clergy yesterday to cancel on-site worship services for the next two weeks has been troubling to them and to me. However, it has also been quite encouraging—alive with possibilities. As I talked with our rectors in the Charleston deanery and with the deans of our diocese yesterday, I was heartened as they shared ideas and ways they are pastoring and caring for their parishioners during this season. What a godly and sacrificial group of clergy serve our congregations. Throughout this week, I will continue to have conference calls with the clergy in our deaneries to share ideas for ministry and support.
The church down through the centuries has faced many crises. During the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 Christian clergy and laity distinguished themselves in caring for sick; the plagues that visited London and other cities and towns of Europe during the Middle Ages and later, became the things that saints were made of. During wars and rumors of war, on battlefields and through bombing raids, the church continued to gather, lifting high the cross of Christ. Missionary doctors and nurses, military chaplains, parish clergy, nuns, and mendicants, like St. Francis embracing confidently the leprous, caring for the sick and dying, have been hallmarks of our history that we as believers rightly celebrate.
Nevertheless, I suggest that faithfulness in an age of pandemic means a church united and confident enough not to meet, at least not in the buildings we normally call the church. To live out our faith in our homes and with our families offers us an opportunity to grow deeper in prayer and in the fruit of the Spirit. This time of social distancing, worshipping and keeping in touch with others online and through small group fellowships provide us an opportunity to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude, journaling and reading and mediating on Holy Scripture. Increasing our family time and personal devotions might make this the most fruitful and memorable Lent ever. For the busy parent with children out of school and restless, Brother Lawrence’s little classic, Practicing the Presence of God, might be just the perfect Lenten reading!
As Anglicans, part of our heritage has been to maintain a sense of care and engagement with our community at large, including a sense of national responsibility. Ours has not been a separatist tradition. Our history traces back to having been a national church as the Church of England. One of the strengths from this heritage is that we have had a sense of sacrificing for the common good, of laboring for the betterment of society, and for contributing and preserving the richness of our culture and civilization. I believe it is time to draw upon that now.
Quite simply we need to think of the good of our community, bearing witness that by moving our worship services online and practicing social distancing we are protecting our neighborhoods, towns and cities, our nation, and our world. As the Rev. Dr. Greg Snyder put it in a letter to his congregation, we are like a forest fire crew fighting a wildfire by cutting a swath in the forest, creating a fire break in order to prevent its spread. As the saying goes, we all need to do what we can to Flatten the Curve.
The President designated last Sunday a Day of Prayer and our Archbishop Foley Beach encouraged us to participate. Perhaps your church did. May I encourage you to continue with his call. You can find it here.
I also ask you to pray for our clergy and parish leaders as they look for creative ways to minister to our people and explore technological ways to shepherd the congregations under their care through live stream services and gatherings during this unusual season.
On a diocesan level, we are working to assist every congregation in exploring live streaming or online worship for their parishioners. Our Canon to the Ordinary, Jim Lewis, forwarded a listing of resources to the clergy yesterday for training in that technology. In addition, churches offering livestream worship services in the Diocese may be found here. You and your family may want to follow the service in the ACNA prayer book.
As a lowering in on-site attendance lessens financial giving, remember to be faithful in your offerings and, for those able, to give additionally to help your church meet needs of those who will experience extreme financial difficulties as a result of the coronavirus restrictions. The Diocese is working to assist congregations who have not yet developed online giving, to do so.
Allison and I will be praying for you, your family and congregations daily that we will be more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us. We love you and, more important, God loves you!
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24)
Yours in Christ
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence
Bishop of The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina