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COVID-19 Update: January 26, 2021

To our diocesan family –

I come before you to provide an update on the diocesan policies regarding in person worship.  Last week, the Shelby County Health Department issued a new directive which lifted the more restrictive measures contained in the Safer At Home Health Directive No. 16.  These steps were taken because of the lower rates of COVID transmission as well as increased availability in the ICU units of local hospitals.

Given these promising numbers, on Sunday, January 31, we will return to the diocesan guidelines in place prior to the December 20, 2020 directive which temporarily suspended in person worship.  So long as conditions warrant, congregations can resume in person worship pursuant to the written protocols submitted to the diocesan office last fall.  As a reminder, we can administer communion in one kind but indoor congregational singing is not permissible.  Indoor athletic activities, formation opportunities and outreach ministries can be conducted.  For any indoor liturgy or activity, please practice social distancing with at least a 6 ft radius between family groups and individuals and wear masks.

We will continue to monitor local conditions and are keeping track of the COVID strains from the United Kingdom and South Africa.  There are indications that the UK strain, which has been confirmed in Tennessee, spreads more quickly and may be more deadly than the strain we have been dealing with in Tennessee.  Our churches should be prepared for more stringent guidelines to be quickly implemented if there is a significant increase in cases or if the UK or South African strain shows up in West Tennessee in significant numbers.

Several of you have asked for guidance on Lenten programming.  Unfortunately, we won’t be able to have Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers because it is not safe for groups to be in an enclosed space where people are not wearing masks.  We can gather for the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy, but it is not advisable for clergy or anyone else to administer ashes to the foreheads of multiple people.  There is no guidance included in the instructions or rubrics of the Ash Wednesday liturgy regarding how ashes are to be imposed.  I recommend providing a small container of ashes to each person so that individuals can impose ashes on their own forehead at the appropriate point in the liturgy by using a mirror or the selfie function of your cell phone.

During the Lenten season, if your congregation wants to host a book study or speaker series at your church, please ensure that people are socially distanced and wear masks for the entire program.  Some faith communities have decided to offer virtual Lenten programs because they anticipate more attendees than the number of people permissible if they are in person and seated 6 feet apart.  Emily Austin, our diocesan communicator, is compiling a list of all Lenten offerings from faith communities throughout the diocese.  She will circulate this information via the weekly diocesan email.  If you would like to share what your congregation is doing for Lent with our diocesan family, please contact her at eaustin@episwtn.org. We will inform you of any special provisions for Holy Week and Easter in the next few weeks.

In conclusion, several Episcopal clergy persons and parishioners have tested positive for COVID-19 since in person worship was temporarily suspended during the Christmas season.  This reiterates the importance of continuing to be vigilant about wearing masks, regularly washing our hands and practicing social distancing. We continue to hold everyone who has been impacted by this deadly pandemic in our prayers.

Peace,

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