Some churches are taking their time before reopening

Despite state guidance permitting limited-capacity services this weekend, these churches will be taking their time reopening

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 5/29/20

Pastor Burton Bagby-Grose of Bristol’s First Congregational Church has a familiar call-and-response that he enjoys doing with his congregation.

“I’ll say, ‘No matter who …

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Some churches are taking their time before reopening

Despite state guidance permitting limited-capacity services this weekend, these churches will be taking their time reopening

Posted

Pastor Burton Bagby-Grose of Bristol’s First Congregational Church has a familiar call-and-response that he enjoys doing with his congregation.

“I’ll say, ‘No matter who you are, where you are on life’s journey …’ and they will respond, ‘you’re welcome here!’ ”

“I miss that.”

Still, he won’t be hearing it live this weekend, when state guidelines have said that churches can reopen, with 25 percent capacity, enhanced cleaning, and social distancing guidelines.

“We’re going to err on the side of caution, and our denominational leaders have recommended not resuming in-person worship until Labor Day. So that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

“We have lots of parishioners in the at-risk category, so we are being very careful.”

The Pastor does have autonomy in determining whether to follow the advice of the leadership, and he is choosing to do so. “We have had a couple of parishioners test positive, so we are sensitive to that. Thankfully they are doing fine,” said Pastor Bagby-Grose.

“We do think the leadership’s advice is reasonable, prioritizing the safety of our parishioners,” said Pastor McLellan.

Congregation understanding

“I’ve been shocked. We had a couple of people who were sad about our not reopening yet, but people have been very understanding,” said Pastor Bagby-Grose. “It’s really hard — even if we opened our doors, with social distancing it’s just not the same. They do surveys about what church means to people; that it’s about God and Jesus goes without saying. But when they survey people in America, the number one reason they are involved in church is for community.”

Ultimately, for Pastor Bagby-Grose, it came down to communion and music, two of the most important elements of their worship. “We aren’t going to do communion if it’s not safe,” he said. “How am I going to do that from 6 feet away? I don’t have monkey arms.”

“And music — music is the central core of our worship. We can’t sing safely, even with 6 feet between us. Congregational churches are known for congregational music. To not have those two things was pretty much a deal-breaker.”

On the bright side, for Pastors Bagby-Grose and McLellan, technology has effectively enabled the connections that have maintained their sense of community. “Hilary and I have been surprised at how responsive people have been to our online worship, and Zoom fellowship,” said Pastor Bagby-Grose. “We do five Zooms a week, and one live service, and we have committee meetings, children’s Sunday School … We’re doing all that.”

“Pastor Burton has worked very hard to get everyone up on technology, so there’s not a sense that we’ve stopped,” said Pastor McLellan.

In fact, the Congregational Church has a dedicated technology team working to keep parishioners connected.

“There’s never been this sense that we are closed, although we do miss the larger gatherings and the intimacy,”she said.

Gradual reintroduction

A few blocks away, Canon Michael Horvath at St. Michael’s Church is taking a similarly cautious approach. The doors to St. Michael’s will be open at 8 and 10 a.m. this Sunday, but it will be by invitation only.

With a relatively large sanctuary, 25 percent St. Michael’s building capacity would allow most of the congregation to return. But the Episcopal diocese is recommending no more than 10 people at once.

“So that’s what we are going to do,” said Canon Horvath.

He has sent a survey to the congregation asking people to reply if they are interested in attending in-person services and, if so, at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m.

About 75 percent of the congregation said yes, they would like to return.

In order of response, he is inviting 10 people to the spoken-word service at 8 a.m. The 10 a.m. service will include music, but it will also be filmed and live streamed, so fewer parishioners can be accommodated.

“It may not be ideal, but it’s what made the most sense,” said Canon Horvath.

Other precautions include sitting on opposite sides of the aisle depending on the service, leaving doors to pews open, and leaving takeaway bulletins in the pews.

Canon Horvath is hoping to perfect a socially-distant method of passing out communion. “I will drop it into people’s hands,” he said. “And hopefully they will catch it.”

He’s also grateful for the opportunity to run through the new process with a limited congregation, at least until they have ironed out the kinks.

“Some people are probably not coming back for a while. That’s healthy,” he said. “People need to trust the process and the experience. I’d rather people be safe.”

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.