December 9, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ,
While we are grateful to God for the progress we have made in keeping people safe from COVID infection, we are writing today to remind Episcopalians in the State of Wisconsin that the pandemic is not over. Indeed, we now know that the most recently detected variant, Omicron, has been detected in our state. The data is still being collected, but it seems clear that this variant is significantly more transmissible than Delta and that current vaccines and boosters do not prevent transmission in all cases. We do know that vaccinations and boosters still provide important protection against developing the most serious illness and hospitalization.
This is a moment to ask all of our congregations to continue to take the pandemic with due seriousness and care. Let us recommit ourselves to the responsible, careful practices we have learned over the past months. In order to keep one another as safe as possible, we strongly encourage masking and social distancing when we gather. We urge every eligible member of the church to be fully vaccinated and to receive appropriate booster shots. We commend the continuation of virtual options for worship and other meetings. And we commend the guidelines adopted in most of our churches regarding masking, social distancing, and the reception of Holy Communion.
These are challenging times for us all, but we are members of the Body of Christ who is the light of the world. In these Advent days leading to the Christmas Feast, let us renew our trust in the God who is with us in every circumstance, in every challenge or time of uncertainty or fear. Let us commit ourselves to be bearers of God’s light and love to one another and to the world.
The Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter
Bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac
Bishop Provisional the Diocese of Eau Claire
The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee
Bishop Provisional of the Diocese of Milwaukee
Diocesan pandemic guidelines in the Back to Buildings document are to be medically safe, theologically sound, and pastorally attentive. For most of the past year, these guidelines limited in-person worship attendance to 4 or 10 persons. With a continuing trend of fewer Covid cases, decreasing stress and our health systems, and a growing numbers of vaccinations, Bishop Matt Gunter has announced that starting the First Sunday in Lent, February 21, congregations may expand in-person attendance worship services to no more than 50 persons, or 25% of space capacity, whichever is fewer. Congregations may accommodate additional worshippers through additional services, provided safety protocols are followed for disinfection between services.
The Back to the Buildings guidelines notes the importance of continuing practices that reduce the risk of transmission, especially masking and social distancing. "While the future looks hopeful," Gunter shared recently with diocesan clergy, "we are not back to normal. For the care and safety of those who join in-person worship, we must continue to practice the other protocols outlined in the guidelines. Also remember not everybody feels safe returning to in-person worship. Encourage those who decide to not attend to join with virtual worship opportunities available throughout the diocese."
The Task Force will continue to monitor the situation based on measures of community safety. Each congregation is reminded to consider the risk factors of the local community as well as demographics and risk factors of its members in making its decision about in-person worship.
"We are not out of the woods, yet," Gunter shared. "Gathering to lift our hearts to God is what the Church does - so we adapt and grow. Hopefully, we will carry these lessons forward and someday worship may return to the familiar. Whatever the future brings, Jesus is with us, and prepares a way for us, even now."
Bishop Matt has released an update letter on the status of the pandemic and its impact on in-person worship in the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac
The Task Force has released a 15-minute video with an overview of its work in advising the Bishop in developing guidelines for the congregations of the diocese. The video explains how the Task Force works with three criteria: medically safe, theologically sound and pastorally sensitive. Hear from Bishop Gunter, Dr. Lauderdale, Fr. Arnold and Mthr. Burkert-Brist as they provide information on the response to the pandemic.
Each week, the diocesan Covid Task Force receives an informational update on the status of the pandemic in Wisconsin compiled by one of the Task Force's doctors. This report captures information from many sources. To allow comparison with other states and countries, the new case number is converted to cases per million. To help our clergy and congregations be as fully informed as possible, this report will be made available each week on the diocesan Covid webpage at diofdl.org/covid.
Following consideration by the diocesan Covid Task Force of the increased rates of infection along with a variety of other factors, Bishop Matt has determined a strengthening of pandemic related limitations for congregations. These changes go into effect on September 29, 2020, will be temporary, with details published in a revised Back to the Buildings policy document.
The significant change is in returning to the limit of 4 persons being physically present in congregations who offer in-person worship. Such in-person is limited to Sunday services only. "Returning to 4 participants at Sunday worship is intended to make the safest environment for our members while continuing to offer the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist," Bishop Matt noted. "As our Prayer Book notes, the Holy Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, and this small assembly is able to represent the whole congregation at the Altar."
Not all congregations may offer in-person worship and that is perfectly acceptable. In-person participation is strictly voluntary and no one, including our clergy, should feel, or be made to feel, obliged to be physically present. A number of diocesan congregations livestream their in-person services so praying with them is encouraged. Those who do offer in-person services are encouraged to integrate additional participants virtually, as able.
Another change is that all other in-person church activities are suspended. The church office may remain open as long as the guidelines in the policy document are followed.
An addition to the policy is being made. Permission is now given to Reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the form of consecrated bread. This allows clergy to be able share communion when it is pastorally appropriate, such as at the time of death.
Bishop Matt offers these words of encouragement to the diocese: "As we continue to grapple with the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, let us not become discouraged. Let us acknowledge whatever anxiety, frustration of loss we are experiencing. We can offer all of that at the feet of Jesus asking for his healing and peace. We know that he is with us. Trusting him and encouraging one another we can continue to make our way together through this season of challenge. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is with us. Jesus is with you. The way before us is not straightforward or altogether clear. But Jesus goes before us to prepare a way. If we keep our eyes on him, he will see us through."
The Covid Task Force of the Diocese of Fond du Lac released "Back to the Buildings" with guidance for congregations for in-person worship. The guidelines limit the number of participants to 10 with additional directions for reducing the risk of transmission to provide the safest worship environment we are able to. These include social distancing, face coverings, use of hand sanitizer, and one-way traffic to name a few. Some congregations have started in-person worship, many have chosen to wait, and some are still considering the course of action they wish to take.
When the number of new cases of Covid-19 in the State of Wisconsin trends down over a two-week period, the Task Force will determine if the number of persons for in-person activities will increase.
Why two weeks? Many factors impact trends, but based on past numbers, it appears two weeks is a long enough window to see a trend as compared to day to day variations.
Why Wisconsin (and not counties)? More data results in better reliability. County by county numbers can be helpful for determining hot spots, but not as reliable in determining trends. There are limitations for trend determination from population size and that people don't limit travel and interactions to those only from one county.
This criteria of a two-week trend does not mean we increase immediately. It means it is the point when the Task Force will examine the various factors to determine if moving is warranted. For example, if new cases doubled each week over 4 weeks followed by a slow decrease over 2 weeks, it is unlikely the limit would change because the total number of people with the virus would be much higher than it is today. Another example: if the rate declined over 2 weeks, but the death rate and hospitalization rate increased, these increased might lead the Task Force to decide not to change the 10 person limitation.
The Task Force recognizes there is a desire to worship in-person. It also recognizes doing so should not create unnecessary risk to the health and well-being of those worshipers. Please be assured that members of the Task Force consider these factors as it continues to deliberate the best course of action for the congregations of the Diocese of Fond du Lac.
The diocesan Covid-19 Task Force has released "Back to the Buildings" here. It provides direction and guidelines for the first stage of in-person gatherings for our church buildings. Congregations need to prepare, so vestries and clergy will need to review the document, determine if they plan to re-open when approved by the Bishop, then determine how to best implement the guidelines and directives in their local context.
No date of return to the church buildings has been decided, but will be no sooner than June 28. This target date allows vestries the time to do the homework, plan, and prepare (for example, getting a supply of hand sanitizer).
The goal is to have gatherings which reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible to create the safest environment for the in-person gathering of the Body of Christ. The document is downloadable here or may be viewed online below.
It was March 16, 2020 in response to the directives from the CDC and governmental agencies that Bishop Matthew Gunter suspended in-person public worship in the Diocese of Fond du Lac. Today, together with the diocesan Covid Task Force, he has released Celebrating Eucharist During the Covid Pandemic to provide direction during the current pandemic situation. The document provides direction by which the Eucharist may be celebrated in a congregation. Offering the Eucharist in this fashion is optional.
"The intent is to allow for the Eucharist, with a small community gathering in-person to represent the congregation as a whole" Bishop Gunter commented. "It is not a return to our regular worship, but the Church providing the opportunity to have Eucharist given our current circumstance." Conditions for the Eucharist include only 3 or 4 persons present for the service who maintain social distance. The directions are within Wisconsin's Stay Safe at Home order and are at least as safe as going to the grocery store.
It is expected that congregations who exercise this option may livestream or record it for online distribution. Those participating online may be using a form of spiritual communion in the Christian tradition: when one is unable — because of some unavoidable exigency — to participate in the Eucharist and/or to physically receive the Sacrament. St Thomas Aquinas once defined Spiritual Communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament and in lovingly embracing him as if we had actually received him.” St Teresa of Avila wrote: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.” St Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, wrote “A spiritual communion acts on the soul as blowing does on a cinder-covered fire which was about to go out. Whenever you feel your love of God growing cold, quickly make a spiritual communion.”
"We know God is present in the Sacrament. These directions allow the people of Fond du Lac to worship in a different way, but one recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world." Bishop Matt added. "This is not what we are used to, and it may be comfortable. However, we know the sacrifice and offering of the Eucharist, and with it “ourselves, our souls, and bodies” to God by the Church, even in a small assembly, is a spiritual good in itself."
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are now in the early days of an unprecedented disruption of life as we face the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic. As with the rest of society, churches are trying to help stem the spread of the virus. By now I expect you know that we have suspended gathering for in-person worship including on Sundays until further notice. We have similarly ceased all in-person meetings that are not absolutely essential. This is hard. And it will get harder in lots of ways. One of those is that we will not be celebrating Easter with one another in person. We will have to find other ways to celebrate. But we are faced with choosing between worshiping together in person and loving our neighbor by maintaining social distance. Indeed, I see this as an act of the neighbor-love to which Jesus calls us. It is an act of considered compassion to try to prevent others from being infected, particularly those most vulnerable due to age or existing health issues.
There is much that remains unknown about the virus and how long we will be dealing with the outbreak. What we do know is that it is highly contagious with the potential to be very bad. What we also know is that slowing down the spread is our best bet to not overwhelm the health system with too many cases all at once. That also will allow more time for hospitals to prepare to treat the more serious cases. Many of us are going to contract the virus sooner or later. For most of us it will be no worse than a bad case of the flu. For others it will be very serious or even life-threatening. You may have heard the term “flattening the curve”. Here is something Fr. Chris Arnold of Trinity, Oshkosh and chair of our Covid-19 Task Force has written to explain that:
If you pay $12000 a year in rent, you'd prefer to pay $1000 a month instead of having your landlord demand $12000 all at once! That's because your rent would keep pace with your income, and the demand for rent would hopefully always be lower than the supply of money. You don't want a big bill to hit you all at once and put you in debt. Likewise, we have a limited amount of medical resources: hospital beds, ventilators, and staff to help us. We don't want to have more sick people than there are beds for them.
It is to help flatten the curve that we have taken the extraordinary steps we have taken.
For the time being we have suspended our usual church activities. But that does not mean church is cancelled. We, all of us, remain the church, the body of Christ. And we are working and planning to find ways to be the church in this strange time. Among other things each congregation will be finding ways to stay connected. We are practicing physical social distancing, but we will find ways to be personally and socially connected by other means. I expect things will get harder before they get better. We will need one another for support and encouragement.
Please know that suspending regular public worship and most in-person meetings, etc. doesn't mean your priest and lay leaders now have nothing to do. Rather, they are working longer and harder to figure out how to do worship, pastoral care, faith formation, etc. remotely. Pray for them. And offer to help.
I would be remiss as bishop not to point out that suspending worship does not mean that our obligation to financially support the mission and ministry of the church is suspended. If you have made a pledge to your congregation, I urge you to continue honoring that by mailing your offering to the church. If you did not make a pledge but are accustomed to giving something, I urge you to also send your financial offering to the church.
To help us make our way through this and continue to be faithful as the body of Christ I have formed Covid-19 Task Force made up of clergy and healthcare professionals to advise me. I am also forming sub-groups to focus on providing ideas and resources for Pastoral Care, Prayer & Worship, and Christian Formation to our congregations. I will be in regular contact with clergy and lay leaders of congregations. And we will do what we can for all members of the diocese informed as things develop or change.
Know that the clergy and each congregation is in my daily prayers. Beginning this Sunday, I will be at Grace, Sheboygan livestreaming worship beginning at 10:15. I also invite you to a Lenten video retreat which I recorded yesterday “Keeping it Together When the World is Coming Apart: Praying with Julian of Norwich. It will be available for viewing beginning at 10:00 a.m. this Saturday, March 21 by clicking here. A booklet to go with the retreat can be found here. If you know of someone without access to the internet , who wants a booklet please contact the office.
We are entering a sort of wilderness as a church and as a society. But as followers of Jesus, we know that he is with us in the wilderness and trust that he not only walks alongside us, but he will go before us to prepare a way. I encourage you to draw nearer to him in the days to come. The Church and her members have in wilderness times before – persecution, war, famine, plague, etc. We might well wish that we were not facing the particular wilderness before us. But we know that God will not abandon us even as God did not abandon Jesus to the grave. Holy Week and Easter will be different this year. But the reality of Easter remains. The tomb is empty. And therefore, our hope never is.
So, let us roll up our spiritual sleeves and dedicate ourselves to being faithful witnesses to the hope that is in us. Sink your heart into the heart of God through prayer. Practice patience and compassion, even with yourself. Reach out to one another by phone or video or regular mail. Encourage one another. Pray for one another.
If God is for us, who is against us?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 37-39)
You are in my prayers. I ask your prayers for me.
Under the Mercy,
VIII Bishop of Fond du Lac