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March 29, 2020
 
AN UPDATE FROM BISHOP THOMAS J. BICKERTON

 
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind,
consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the
testing of your faith produces endurance,
and let endurance have its full effect,
so that you may be mature and complete,
lacking in nothing”
-James 1:2-3

 
Dear Friends & Colleagues,
 
Grace and peace to you in the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Jesus the Christ.
 
I greet you today with the full knowledge that each of you are facing tremendous challenges in the work that you are doing to serve your people and remain faithful to the call that God has so firmly placed on your lives.  The countless stories that I have heard from so many of you attest to that reality.  They have blessed my soul as I know they have blessed the ones that you are serving.
 
Still, these days are difficult and the constant rise of the COVID-19 virus in our midst is what gives rise to this latest update.  I encourage you to find a comfortable place to sit and read this update with the upmost care and attention.
 

  1. Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter

On Friday, the Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, extended the closure of New York schools until April 15th and continues in his firm directives that people should stay at home.  The Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, has issued a ban on gatherings of more than five persons in any one setting.  Even though he has made an exception for religious gatherings, it is my intention to follow the more stringent guidelines rather than the more lenient ones.
 
Therefore, based on the continuing growth of the COVID-19 virus and the strict urging of people to stay at home and not gather in groups, I am closing all United Methodist Churches in the New York Annual Conference through April 12th.  We will re-evaluate the situation on Monday, April 13th, and inform you what our next steps will be.
 
There are NO exceptions to this directive.  As hard as it is for me to say this, and as hard as it is for you to read it, we must do all we can to enforce this directive. If there are any reports of non-compliance with this decision, I will hold my pastor’s directly responsible for this and will be forced to act accordingly.  This is for the health and safety of our congregations, especially those over age 65 who are the most vulnerable to the disease.

Several have made inquiries about Palm Sunday, suggesting that drive-thru services could be conducted where palm branches could be distributed.  This is not acceptable.  Many palm branches are shipped in from other countries and as they are handled by multiple persons, the distribution of palm branches presents a potential health hazard.
 
Others have made inquiries about opening the doors of the church for Prayer Vigils, limiting the amount of people coming through the doors.  This too is not an acceptable practice.  Persons entering the church who touch pews, altar rails, etc., present a potential hazard for the transmission of the virus. 
 
The doors of our churches are to be closed.  No services are to be held.  The only acceptable provision is for five or less persons conducting a live stream worship service from the sanctuary or video-taping a service for posting.
 
My direct language related to this directive has come because of the non-compliance in a few of our churches based on my last update.  Persons became infected as a result of that non-compliance, bringing harm to parishioners and others.  Some have suggested that it is a stance of faith to defy and assemble people for public worship.  I believe it is a statement of faith to love your people so much that you will do anything to protect them from contracting this killer virus.  We do what we do because we love, because we care, because we have faith that God will give us the courage to see this crisis through to completion.
 
For help in planning for online/live stream opportunities during Holy Week and Lent, you can refer to this excellent resource from, ResourceUMC,  Remembering Holy Week, Celebrating Easter at Home.
 
Finally, we are working on providing an online, live Easter celebration originating from the Annual Conference Center.  More information will be released later this week but we invite you to promote and join us for this celebration.
 

  1. Meetings of Other Groups within the Church Building

It has also come to my attention that some of our churches are still being used for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups.I would ask that you have direct conversation with the leaders of those groups to encourage them to go virtual in their meetings.
 
Many of our churches engage in “essential” services such as child-care facilities for essential workers (hospital staff, fire, and police personnel), feeding ministries, and homeless shelters.These are encouraged and celebrated but extreme caution including high sanitation and social distancing should be employed.
 
In places where lease/rental agreements have been engaged there may be legal matters that will impact a decision you might make to close the building entirely.In those cases, please review those lease agreements carefully and engage in honest conversations with those renters about the wisdom of closing your building.
 

  1. Weddings, Funerals, and Baptisms

This is an area where great emotions tempt us to do something that we shouldn’t be doing.There should be no weddings or funerals conducted at this time unless there are less than five people present who are engaged in appropriate social distancing.

There should be no baptisms until such time as we can gather as a church community once again.Our sacramental theology on baptism is very clear.We do not do private baptisms. Baptism is a celebration that is not just reserved to a family.It is a celebration of and for the entire gathered community.Be open enough in your planning to lead families to understand our theology and schedule baptisms far enough out to allow for the gathered congregation to be present.
 

  1. Holy Communion

This has been a lively topic of debate within our Council of Bishops, among seminary professors and between pastors.It is safe to say that the conversation is “all over the map.”In each of my conversations with the Cooperative Parish Coordinators, this question has been asked.
 
I too find myself, “all over the map” in terms of a response.In answering the question, I have three preferences, all in descending order:
 

  1. Delay until you are re-assembled as a congregation

During this season of Lent and Holy Week, we intentionally lead our people with intentional acts of fasting, sacrifice and penitence.With this kind of reflection, I begin to imagine worship services when we are able to re-assemble.Large crowds, vibrant worship, and Holy Communion! What a celebration that will be!My first preference is to not offer the sacrament until we are back together.
 

  1. Offer an online “Wesleyan Love Feast”

This is a very creative alternative to serving Holy Communion.This is a Christian Fellowship meal that recalls the times when Jesus shared with his disciples.On the it states:
 
The modern history of the Love Feast began when Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians in Germany introduced a service of sharing food, prayer, religious conversation, and hymns in 1727. John Wesley first experienced it among the Moravians in Savannah, Georgia, ten years later. His diary notes: "After evening prayers, we joined with the Germans in one of their love–feasts. It was begun and ended with thanksgiving and prayer, and celebrated in so decent and solemn a manner as a Christian of the apostolic age would have allowed to be worthy of Christ."
 
The Love Feast has often been held on occasions when the celebration of the Lord's Supper would be inappropriate—where there is no one present authorized to administer the Sacrament, when persons of different denominations are present who do not feel free to take Holy Communion together, when there is a desire for a service more informal and spontaneous than the communion ritual, or at a full meal or some other setting to which it would be difficult to adapt the Lord's Supper.
 
There are varieties of resources available to you as you consider this option:

  1. Offer online Holy Communion

If, after entertaining the alternative solutions above, you still feel compelled to offer online Holy Communion, I have come to the realization that this is an extraordinary and unusual time in our life as Christian leaders. Almost every natural pastoral instinct has been taken away from us during this crisis – visitation, hospital care, public worship, grief ministry, etc. I understand and appreciate the longings you have as well as the desires of your people to feel a connection with God and one another.
 
For that reason, I personally believe that it will be acceptable for you to offer online Holy Communion on a limited basis during this pandemic.
 
If you move in the direction of conducting Holy Communion in a live stream or video-taped format, I would ask that you observe the following guidelines: 

  1. Do not sacrifice or compromise our liturgy

There are four clear components to our liturgy for Holy Communion: Confession of Sin, Praise of God, Acknowledgement of Jesus Christ, and the Invoking of the Holy Spirit.Use our liturgy completely and thoroughly.

  1. Use this as a teaching moment. 

Keep in mind that during your live stream or videoed services, there are those who are visiting your site that don’t normally attend our churches.Be clear about what communion means, the symbols used, and the meaning behind it.

  1. Give clear instructions about what is to be used.

Bread or crackers, juice or wine would be acceptable.Discourage your people from using items that would have little or no semblance to what would be used if they were in church.

  1. Be clear that they do not have permission to administer the sacrament.

To lessen the importance of the sacrament violates the integrity of the act as well as those who are authorized to administer it.

  1. Finally, communicate clearly that once this crisis ends, the practice of online communion will cease as well.  
  1. District Conferences

The cabinet and I are working on the creation of a format for providing virtual District Conferences.The dates and format are yet to be finalized. We will inform you once details are completed.
 

  1. Annual Conference

Due to the ongoing crisis I have determined that our Annual Conference session, originally scheduled for June 11-14 on the campus of Hofstra University, will be postponed this year.
 
We have not finalized the date or the format but you can expect that Annual Conference will be reduced to a one-day meeting, sometime this fall, to conduct the essential business before us, including nominations, elections of the Conference Secretary & Chancellor, the approval of the budget, and the ordination of candidates.  A separate Clergy Session will be scheduled to care for the Board of Ordained Ministry report to the clergy.
 

  1. Prayers Requested

As I write this missive, word has come that Bishop Alfred Johnson’s wife, Sherrie, has died from the COVID-19 virus.Sherrie was a bright light for many of us and her loss strikes deep in the heart of Bishop Johnson and all those who loved Sherrie.
 
In addition, I can report to you this evening that, to our knowledge, three of our pastors have tested positive for the virus with two being hospitalized. Two of our pastor’s spouses have been infected as well. The number of laity who have been diagnosed positive is not known at this point.
 
Regardless, let us be sincere, earnest and intentional about praying for the health and healing of those most directly affected by this killer disease.
 
I pledge that I will continue to update you as to the developments that affect our work as well as decisions that will be made that determine the degree to which we can return to our normal operations.  Still, what I remind myself of each day is that we will never be quite the same as we were before.  Some of our old norms will cease to be relevant and new norms will become standard.  Yet, through it all, God will be at work through the Holy Spirit to guide our steps, inspire our words, and bless our lives.
 
I started this letter with a quote from the Book of James.  Later in that same chapter, the author writes:
 

You must understand this, my beloved:
Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
 
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who
look at themselves in a mirror;
for they look at themselves and, on going away,
immediately forget what they were like. 

But those who look into the perfect law,
the law of liberty, and persevere,
being not hearers who forget but doers who act –
they will be blessed in their doing.
-James 1: 19-20, 22-25

 
Along with this letter, I send my sincere thoughts and prayers for each of you.  Be safe, stay healthy, and know that you are appreciated and loved.
 
The Journey Continues, . . . 
 

Thomas Bickerton
Resident Bishop

 

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