The provincial government of Ontario eased safety measures in mid-February as the fifth wave receded, to allow for larger indoor social gatherings and the lifting of capacity limits in settings where two metres of physical distance can be maintained. Accordingly, Bishop Susan Bell updated diocesan liturgical, ministry, and pastoral care guidelines, just in time for parishes across the diocese to celebrate Ash Wednesday services in-person.
Pointing to the loving sacrifice of parishioners who worshipped online through the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, Bishop Susan connoted in her pre-Lenten pastoral letter that a new season in both the Church calendar and in the ways we were allowed to gather was upon us: “By Ash Wednesday, every parish will be open across the diocese so that we can begin our pilgrimage of grace through Lent and toward Easter in person, together at last.”
Bishop Bell reminded parishioners that the diocese’s evidence-based approach has been exercised “out of an abundance of caution for the most vulnerable among us and in the hope that we will forestall any negative effects of a too-quick resumption of in-person gathering, as sadly happened last year at this time.”
Churches were closed for in-person public worship services just prior to Christmas due to the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant toward the end of last year. It is estimated that more than 2,300 people died with COVID-19 in Ontario during January and February this year, with more than 3,000 people hospitalized at the peak of the wave.
Though no single measure has kept the people of the diocese safe from COVID-19 over the past two years, the combination of screening, masking, physical distancing, and high vaccination rates among clergy and parishioners has limited transmission. The guidelines that came into effect on March 1 emphasize these practices, along with the use of good hand hygiene and ventilation and—of course—staying home if one feels ill or is otherwise immunocompromised.
While many of the primary ministry, building and property, and pastoral care guidelines remain the same as they have through much of the pandemic, the new liturgical directives have allowed worship attendees to once again gather, raise their voices (though quietly), and celebrate the Eucharist together. With vaccination for children over the age of 5 now available, significant programming for children, youth, and families will be permitted to resume.
Recognizing that the virus which causes COVID-19 continues to circulate in Ontario, the updated ministry guidelines continue to stipulate that no one should feel obligated to attend worship in-person while the pandemic continues.
Parishioners have “sacrificed a lot of individualism for the love of the Body of Christ,” as Bishop Bell intoned. The fruit of that sacrifice has been a joyous return to in-person worship across the diocese to face the pilgrimage of Lent together.