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Episcopal churches suspend in-person service

Prompted by a rise in the number of positive cases of coronavirus, the Rev. Audrey C. Scanlan, bishop of the Central Pennsylvania Diocese of the Episcopal Church, announced that all in-person worship in the churches under her authority would be suspended until 2021.

“The coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in our country and across the world. Infection rates are as high — and higher — now than ever and they show no sign of decreasing,” Scanlan wrote in a letter to members of her denomination.

She cited infection rates in two counties located in her dioceses, which are among the top 10 for virus transmission in the state.

“While there is hope of an effective and widely-distributed vaccine within months, we are not there,” she said.

“It has become increasingly clear that we must respond to this surge in infections with, again, a shift in our practices as worshipping communities,” she added.

Scanlan then stated that all in-person worship and parish meeting would be suspended beginning immediately.

Outdoor worship, weather permitting, with appropriate social distancing and mask wearing will be permitted. Churches in the diocese are encouraged to continue using livestream, Zoom and social media platforms for worship, fellowship and committee meetings, Scanlan said.

“I know that as we approach Advent and Christmas, two of our most beloved seasons of the Christian year, that this news will be painful,” Scanlan said, adding that the safety and health of everyone was uppermost in the decision.

“We grieve the loss of our traditions in this holy time of year along with you,” she shared.

A message from Bishop Jeremiah J. Park, of the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, echoed Scanlan’s sentiments.

Although his conference, at this time, is not planning to move from limited in-person worship, he reiterated the need to be vigilant in following mitigation guidelines.

“As a church we have to practice more rigorous safety protocols than the government directs for such a time as this,” Park said.

“As we watch the infection rate break records almost daily — which may grow worse as flu season continues — we must keep indoor gatherings to a maximum of 25 people, if at all possible. And we must be prepared to face the possibility that even stronger, short-term measures may be needed,” he added.

Locally, the Rev. James Wooster, pastor at Pine Street United Methodist, said that the bishop has urged local congregations to take as many precautions as necessary.

“We are going to remain open at this point. All precautions have been in line with what this new mandate says anyway, so we’re going to continue to wear masks. We’re going to continue to social distance and we are going to continue our livestream and radio broadcast for folks who aren’t able to join us,” Wooster said.

“I want to encourage everybody to stay safe,” he said, looking ahead to Thanksgiving next week.

With the possibility of families and church members being limited in their ability to be together for the holidays, Wooster offered words of encouragement.

“This year we have lost a lot. We’ve had to give up things we have cared about. We had to limit our contacts with our loved ones — to limit what we do and that has cost us a lot of traditions,” Wooster said.

“But, we are still here. The sun still rises and we are still blessed. One thing I would encourage us to do as we approach Thanksgiving is to remember there’s always a reason to give thanks,” he shared.

The Scranton Diocese of the Catholic Church also has no plans at this time to limit in-person worship services.

According to the Rev. Brian Van Fossen, of St. Joseph the Worker Church, the bishop of the diocese had sent an email out emphasizing that parishes need to adhere to precautionary measures issued by the governor this week.

Van Fossen said that the bishop encouraged members to wear masks, socially distance and for parishes to sanitize pews and doors and to provide sanitizer for members of the congregation to use when entering the church.

“He really strongly re-emphasized all the stuff we’re doing as precautionary measures in order to care for those who are coming to church,” he said.

“And also to remind people that the obligation of attending mass is still lifted, but the option of coming to mass is there as well. Making sure that those who are in a state of concern, like the elderly, should probably use some caution and discretion,” he added.

Addressing the upcoming holiday season, with some people choosing not to attend in-person, Van Fossen said, “One thing we really encourage are devotions. For the Advent season, get an Advent wreath. Just get a small green wreath for on your table. Light the candles as you go along. That’s a great way of praying together as a family.”

“Spending time and looking back at the past. With the families that we have here, spend time with each other. I think that’s one thing we got away from as we started opening up,” he added.

St. Joseph the Worker is also broadcasting masses on Facebook and YouTube.

Van Fossen urged everyone to allow the holiday season “to enliven us at this time.”

“It’s a season of light that scatters the darkness to allow those lights and the music and, really, the family to inspire us,” he added.

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