(RNS) – Some Americans may behave as if the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer preventing them from socializing with friends and family, many of whom may not have seen in months.

But the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and the Sacraments, a group of clergy, scientists and other experts, advised congregations to slow down in places of worship, where people vaccinated and unvaccinated can occupy the same space.

Its outcome document, released Tuesday, June 8, recognizes that “staying the course” can be difficult if the faithful complain about continuing to hide and walk away, but the limits, “with the power of the Spirit, can become a source of creativity “.

The group suggests limiting touching except when Christian rituals, such as the laying on of hands for confirmation, require it; avoid group singing and playing wind instruments indoors; wear masks when preaching indoors – or outdoors within 16 feet of listeners. Singing, which has been shown to spread the virus particularly effectively, should be limited to soloists or ensembles kept at a safe distance.

Indoor worship, the group warned, should be shorter than outdoor gatherings.

“Care-filled worship and sacramental life in a lingering pandemic” is the latest direction from United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic leaders, as well as representatives of other traditions. Its first such guidelines were published in June 2020.

A Spanish version of the latest guidelines is expected to be released in mid-July.

Experts in congregational responses to the pandemic often say they cannot give universal recommendations. And the consultation took the same approach.

“Different congregations will determine different approaches to what they consider safe and the levels of risk they are willing to take,” said Reverend Ed Phillips, co-organizer of the Ecumenical Consultation on Worship Protocols, fellowship and sacraments.

The 35-page guide takes a “relatively conservative approach,” Phillips said, as its authors believe it is safer to continue wearing masks until federal officials say it is safe to remove them. , regardless of vaccination status.

“We will have people for a while who are not yet vaccinated,” said Phillips, associate professor of historical theology and Christian worship at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. “And what we don’t want to do is engage in any form of stigma or public shame towards people who are not vaccinated for whatever reason.”

“Staying on course” can be difficult if the faithful complain that they continue to hide and walk away, but limits, “with the power of the Spirit, can become a source of creativity”.

So while outdoor gatherings can last an hour or more, indoor worship services should last 30 to 45 minutes, “depending on the rate of air exchange,” the guide recommends, noting that, although that its recommendation for “maximum indoor time assumes at least 4 to 6 air changes per hour”, many buildings do not come close.

Brian Hehn, a member of the consultation, separately suggested consulting with heating and air conditioning suppliers for advice.

The administration of the sacraments presents particular challenges. The guide describes the procedures for handling the elements during pre-Communion prayers – which should be said with a mask inside. For baptism, one of his more than a dozen suggestions is to have a parent or guardian hold the child during the rite.

The guide also offers tips for weddings and funerals and for communion servants to “extend the Lord’s Table” by visiting people at home, topics covered in previous versions of the counseling guide.

The guide also urges addressing clergy mental health by providing renewal opportunities for congregation leaders who may be physically and mentally fatigued after adapting new practices during the pandemic.

Advice on congregational care amid COVID-19 has been in high demand, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not updated their “Considerations for Communities of Faith” page since February 19.

Advice on congregational care amid COVID-19 has been in high demand, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not updated their “Considerations for Communities of Faith” page since February 19.

“While CDC guidelines released in late April 2021 consider indoor choral singing safe for vaccinated people wearing masks, they still classify indoor choral singing for those who are not vaccinated as” the least certain “”, notes the guide.

Over 750 people attended a “Back to Congregational Song” webinar on June 1 hosted by Practical Resources for Churches, a non-profit, non-denominational organization that provides workshops and resources to congregations.

Hehn, director of the Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song, noted in the webinar that CDC guidelines in mid-May that fully vaccinated people could resume their activities without wearing a mask pertained to individuals, not organizations.

“As a church we need to ask additional questions, not only, for example, is it safe for most people,” he said. “It’s a question that might work in other circumstances, but as a church it leaves out a critical theological question of who it’s not safe for? And is it okay for us not to stand up for these people? “

In a May 20 blog post published shortly after the new CDC guidelines, the Hehn center said, “We do not currently recommend that congregations sing.

“Congregations can help end the restrictions by encouraging all of their qualifying members to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” the guide said.

Attendees fulfilled the webinar’s chat function with comments and questions on how to handle everything from air quality to musicians who refuse to get vaccinated.

“Our categorically unvaccinated and unmasked conductor / accompanist is still zooming in from our home, although more and more of us are attending in person,” wrote one participant. “Most of the devotees don’t want her to come back to the building just yet.”

The editors of the guide seemed familiar with such scenarios. “You will want to have a plan to gently remind people of such requirements to participate in activities in person, and to invite them to come back when they are ready to follow them,” he said.

The guide also anticipates a question that many devotees ask themselves: “When do these limits end?” “

“Congregations can help end the restrictions by encouraging all of their qualifying members to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said.



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