Grace Episcopal Church has suspended all in-person campus events, activities, and worship services until further notice. Please visit our Grace@Home page to see ways we are staying connected to one another, to Grace, and to God during the days ahead.
422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
The clergy met with the bishop this morning, and then the bishop met with a group of seven rectors from the diocese’s largest parishes afterward. And since then there has been contact between bishop and clergy as we all realize the pressure we are under to adjust to this development very carefully and very prayerfully. I wanted to give you an update so we are all on the same page, and I can offer you information today that will lay out what our decision-making process will look like for the forseeable future, given the Governor’s decision to open up certain segments of the population and the reality that we have not, in our area, even reached our peak yet–as well as looking toward potential second waves and myriad details in that regard.
Let’s start with the short term.
At this point, the bishop is allowing for recording and broadcasting from the nave only by very small groups. While he is allowing this, he is explicitly not encouraging it, recognizing that clergy and musicians and such need to manage the risk they are taking on themselves–and how we should be aware that we are modeling behavior patterns for others.
Having allowed this, the decision-making on use of space of course lies with the rectors working with their respective teams to make sure this is done very carefully.
Given this information, I am allowing Will to go into the nave on Sunday mornings to play the organ. I think that element will add to our worship experience together; however, Cynthia and I will continue to call in from our home worship spaces for the time being. Soloists may call in from their homes, on Sundays when we have them help lead worship.
The timeline we are looking at, at this point, is the original May 24 date, although we recognize that the actual data on the ground will guide any lessening or restricting of access over the next few weeks.
This is what we can do at this point.
Within this timeframe, we have discussed as a staff, and vergers, and wardens, the possibility of using the May 17 Parish Picnic date as a day to celebrate our lives online. I’m going to work with the team to see about a special Zoom service that day that has us all eating a meal together during the service, as part of the service. This way, we can share the element of a meal together, albeit in a strange way.
In the weeks leading up to the May 24 marker, we will pay very close attention to the medical data that is so vitally important to us, and we will make decisions on next steps when we can make them.
Let me look now at how we have set up our discernment process as a parish.
The bishop and clergy discussed how the phased approach will affect larger parishes much differently than smaller parishes. With so many variables to consider when–down the road–we look at returning to in-person worship, there are many, many factors for us to consider very prayerfully.
Some of the questions we listed were these:
So, we have a lot to consider within our context that we will need time to process adequately.
We will not rush back, and we will not put anyone at risk. I will be honest about what we can do, and we will work as a team to hold all these parts.
I want to stress that we will have a hybrid model of worship from here on out, as best as I can see it, with an option always available for those to log on from home. Even when we return, it is a pastoral concern to make worship available to everyone, so Jeremy and we are already looking into potential options in terms of our AV capacity. (As a giggle, I always said I didn’t want to put a screen in the nave, so the Spirit made us put one in our homes instead).
The bishop was clear and I am as well, that we would rather be criticized for being too stringent at this point than take any risks that expose anyone and harm anyone. I want us all to worship together, and I want everyone to be there at Christmas. That is the frame I am thinking of at this point.
Now, looking a bit toward the point where we will be making decisions around transitioning back to in-person worship at some point, I want to stress that while I realize that everyone feels the need “to return to normal,” this is not possible at this time. It will be a long time before we can all consider ourselves back in the position we were, say, in February. We need to think in the longer-term, here.
To help hold all these decisions and pastoral concerns, the staff, vergers, and wardens met this morning to lay out a clear way to utilize our Ministry Clusters as key working groups around our parish’s major focus points. If you are not familiar with the ministry clusters, we can send you links so you can see how we have structured our life the past six years to foster a collaborative model. So, this is what we are looking at now:
The Administration Cluster will continue working around finance, campus support, staff coordination, and short and long term fiscal and community health. I cannot commend this group enough, with Reba, the Finance Committee, and the Vestry, in particular, for holding so many details.
I am asking the Liturgy and Creative Expression Cluster to focus as follows: I would like a small group of medical professionals to work alongside the vergers, Cynthia, Will, and myself to look at important recommendations as to what our worship life will evolve into over the next several weeks, coordinating with the Bishop and diocesan frameworks as well. Our worship decisions will follow medical data, not personal opinions. And I know there is grief around the distancing, and that is real.
To that end, I am asking Cynthia and the Compassion Cluster to gather a group of counselors and therapists and develop a framework for spaces that can hold these important conversations around grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. I want to commend Cheryl Kelly and Cynthia for their work with the seminar last Saturday, opening up a space for around 30 folks who logged on to look at these deeper conversations. The team is already at work with conversations around grief and fear, stress and anxiety, with social disruption, and we are looking at offering spaces for anyone to gain the support they need as we settle into this longer-term reality.
The Formation Cluster will continue its great work with online classes and opportunities for spiritual formation. This connects to the incredible work that Children of Grace has done with the teachers and Ansley and Meg moving to an online platform. I am proud of the resources we are offering. And I want to say here that I truly believe the Spirit was at work, given that we invested in 2019 in setting up a new website as well as moving our office functioning online, using the cloud. These two pieces have been absolutely vital for our transition to an online platform, and Jennifer Williams has been a wizard to utilize the website.
Finally, I am asking the Participation Cluster to have a particular role in this framework. This is the group who works to organize parish events as well as welcome in those who are new to the parish. I am asking them to be a space to brainstorm creative ways to foster connection in the parish. These extended days are going to ask us to be imaginative and creative, and I have no doubt that we will develop fascinating opportunities for parish life.
A couple of calendar items to be aware of:
I want to shift, toward the end, to this reflection point.
This morning on the call, we stressed with each other that we don’t have a lot of answers right now. We have many, many questions, and things feel uncertain. We feel a lot of things, and many motivations, concerns, anxieties, and such are bubbling up in all of us in different ways.
To that end, this is exactly what we have been talking about for years where we see the importance of cultivating a practice of prayer in our daily lives. I have been texting the bishop to explore ways to gather reflections from clergy around the diocese who are reflecting on their own practices of prayer, to share with the diocese to help strengthen the understanding of how crucial prayer is in our lives right now. When we talk about a contemplative posture, perhaps we see it more readily now than we did when we were comfortable: how can we prayerfully respond to the challenges we encounter, being aware of the Spirit’s indwelling presence in our lives?
How can we recognize the limits of what we can do, on one hand, with the opportunity for spiritual imagination, on the other?
What does our practice of faith look like today? In the next few weeks? In the months to come?
We actually discover, in the absence of Communion, how deeply we yearn to taste and see God’s presence in our lives. And we should pay attention to that.
The Spirit is transforming us as a community, inviting us into a deeper embodiment of grace that is rooted in wisdom and compassion.
I know these almost six weeks have been surreal for you. They sure have been for me. I had enormous anxieties when we first shifted to home on March 13, and while I still have some anxieties that I think are normal given the circumstances, I also find myself being enormously grateful–and even having a sense of peace that we are doing what we can, given where we find ourselves, and that we are all doing it together, grounded in prayer while being grateful for the Spirit’s guidance.
I know I’ve said this to you before, this quote that Fr. Thomas Keating offered: that the chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from God. And I add then that the chief thing that separates us from each other is the thought that we are separate from each other.
I think this is true, and I think we are finding, strange as it is, in our separation, just how real this union with God and each other is. The connections between our hearts are strengthening even more during these days, and I will forever be grateful for each and every one of you.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
April 22, 2020