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Churches Face Reduced Services Through Lent

Some look to online worship; others encourage ‘social distancing’

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
March 22, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Many churches will be empty during this Lenten season as concerns about the worldwide spread of novel coronavirus has led spiritual leaders to recommend the faithful limit large worship services. (File photo by E.I. Sanchez via Flickr)

For many Christians, the Fourth Sunday of Lent — 21 days before Easter Sunday — is known as Laetare Sunday, and is a day to rejoice during Christianity’s most solemn season.

But today, many churches throughout the Pittsburgh area were empty, or nearly empty.

Last week, the Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops of Pittsburgh cancelled all public in-person worship in their dioceses as part of their response to the worldwide pandemic of novel coronavirus. They encouraged worshippers to gather online or to pray in their homes.

On Monday, the Most Rev. David Zubik, Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, cancelled all public Masses in the diocese until further notice. All other activities — including Friday fish frys held by many parishes — also were ordered cancelled.

Zubik: Churches may open for private prayer only

Church buildings may open for private prayer, Zubik said, but social distancing rules must be in place.

“Although in many ways, it saddens me to make this decision, given the best advice from health experts on federal, state and local levels, I feel it is a necessary one at this time,” Zubik said.

He was joined by the Right Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Episcopal bishop, who cancelled all public activities in the Pittsburgh diocese through Easter Sunday, April 12.

“As the number of COVID-19 cases increases exponentially — and it will — so will the number of people who are carrying the virus without immediate symptoms,” McConnell said Wednesday. “Each contact, before coming to a service, and after going home, poses additional risk.

“Under these conditions, there is simply no ‘safe’ number for a public gathering,” he said.

Churches urged to use YouTube, Zoom, Facebook

Both Zubik and McConnell encouraged Christians to continue praying and reaching out to others via phone and email. They asked churches and priests to consider streaming services over the Internet using YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and other applications.

Other major denominations, including Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian leaders, urged their faithful to use extreme caution and consider moving worship online to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

On Sunday, Allegheny County officials said there are 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, with four people hospitalized. Many more cases likely have not yet been diagnosed, the county said.

A Clairton resident who was hospitalized last week with COVID-19 has died, city Mayor Rich Lattanzi said. The victim’s name was not released, but county officials said he was a man in his late 60s.

‘Business as usual’ not an option

Leaders of some of the Presbyterian churches around Pittsburgh “have already determined temporarily to cancel all meetings, including Sunday worship,” said Sheldon Sorge, general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, in a letter to  congregations.

“Please know that presbytery will support the decisions your session makes to shelter your community from the spread of this virus,” he wrote. “The only decision we would gravely discourage is to continue with ‘business as usual.’”

White Oak Presbyterians streaming service, posting online

If congregations want to have public worship, they should restrict how worshippers greet each other and avoid sharing hymnals, bulletins, offering plates or communion trays, Sorge said.

Otherwise, they should consider streaming worship services over the Internet, he said.

The Rev. Jessica McClure Archer, pastor of Sampson’s Mills Presbyterian Church in White Oak, said her church is now live-streaming its services at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays via its website.

“We are also posting a lot of our content online to substitute (for) our in-person gatherings,” Archer said.

Some Catholic services may continue

For Roman Catholics, regular attendance at Mass is considered an obligation. Zubik has asked all Catholics in Pittsburgh to participate in a special day of prayer this Wednesday (March 25) for the Feast of the Annunciation.

Baptisms may continue, but only with immediate family members present, the bishop said, and baptisms of multiple children at the same time from different families are prohibited.

Funerals and weddings also may continue, but with only immediate family members present, Zubik said.

First confessions, first communions and confirmations scheduled for March are to be postponed, Zubik said. Priests may offer anointing of the sick to individual patients, he said, but communal anointing services are suspended.

“My main priority and consideration with these decisions is for the safety and well-being of our priests, deacons, parishioners and, indeed, the whole community,” Zubik said.

Decision made ‘with a heavy heart’—McConnell

Many Episcopal churches practiced “effective social distancing” during services on March 15, McConnell said.

“I dearly wish we could continue to gather with little risk in this way,” he said. The decision to suspend public gatherings was made “with a heavy heart,” McConnell said, and came after a recommendation Tuesday from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

McConnell is asking Episcopal priests to continue holding Morning Prayer services or Sunday Eucharists in their churches, but with no more than three other people in attendance.

“Our churches are not closing,” McConnell said. “We are continuing to do what we have always done: To love, teach and heal in the name and power of Jesus Christ ... we are simply adapting the means by which we do these things to the needs of the present crisis.”

Facebook service for Elizabeth Twp. Lutherans

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church has “strongly recommended” that all congregations suspend public worship gatherings for two Sundays and said it will re-evaluate that recommendation at the end of March based on guidance from county, state and federal health experts.

Bishop Kurt Kusserow said local Lutherans should treat suspending in-person worship as a form of Lenten sacrifice and caring for their neighbors.

“We are in the season of Lent right now, and have once again committed ourselves to the practice of fasting,” he wrote. “The Church has a long track record of seeking to live in just this way. Which means that our congregations are well-prepared to face the season ahead of us with patience and with hope, even if that means being apart for a time.”

On its website, the Lutheran synod is maintaining a public list of churches that have cancelled events or which are holding services online.

Faith Lutheran Church in White Oak has suspended public worship through April 5 and is not streaming services at this time, according to an announcement on Facebook.

Peace Lutheran Church in Greenock, Elizabeth Twp., offered online worship via YouTube this past Sunday.

Methodist bishop: ‘Virus will not crush us’

Although the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church has not directed its congregations to cancel their services, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi on Tuesday asked clergy to “listen to our elected officials and public health experts.”

The conference has posted a list of Methodist churches in the Pittsburgh area that are now offering online worship.

In addition, the conference has asked churches that do hold in-person services to “pass the peace” without shaking hands, and presiders and servers are being asked to use hand sanitizer before distributing communion.

All six Methodist churches of the McKeesport Shared Ministry cancelled services for both March 22 and March 29, the ministry said. The shared ministry includes Beulah Park, Calvary, Christy Park and First United Methodist churches in the city and Kephart and Wesley UM churches in White Oak.

During the crisis, Moore-Koikoi said Christians should reach out to their communities to see if neighbors need food, shelter, child care or other necessities.

“This is our opportunity to demonstrate the steadfast love of God in the midst of the uncertainty of the coronavirus,” she said. “This virus might press us, but it will not crush us.”

 (E. I. Sanchez photo via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.)

Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published March 22, 2020.

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