To mask or not to mask?
Church on Sunday was a different experience for many parishioners from church last Sunday — and for many it was just the same, with the new mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
On Tuesday, the head of the C.D.C. was insisting before Congress that masking was still necessary inside for most. By Thursday, she had issued a new edict — masking for fully vaccinated people in many cases inside is no longer necessary. And perhaps no one was more confused than the nation’s clergy.
“Clergy nationwide are reeling,” said Mary Nelson, the transitional conference minister
for Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ, overseeing the churches in Missouri, Arkansas and Memphis, said in a phone interview.
“Many clergy have spent the last 14 months being very careful about their churches and gatherings, whether that’s for worship or for any other kind of small group gatherings — Bible studies, whatnot,” she said. “A typical clergy person in a church often receives a lot of pressure from church members to return to worship or return to, quote unquote, normal. If the average church size is about 100 people, and there’s one pastor, that one pastor is working very hard to manage the expectations of 100 different people and try to keep people safe. That has meant not gathering in person for the last 14 months. That’s the background.
“Most churches that I’m aware of — now that probably more than half of their folks are vaccinated — are now talking about gathering for worship. They’re being very careful about what the parameters might be. They’ve spent a lot of time and energy, doing very careful, thoughtful work, to make sure that their congregations are safe. Limiting the size of the worship service — how many people can come, setting up some sort of registration system, so that they know who’s going to be there, marking out spaces in the sanctuary, or in some alternative room inside the church, so that people know how far apart they can safely be. Or setting up some space outside their church building, so that people can be together but outside. Usually, these conversations involve working with a team of people — the ‘Task Force on Worship Safety,’ or whatever they want to call it. They’ve spent months working on these plans and communicating them to their congregations.
‘Blindsided by this sudden change’
“Clergy all over the country are expressing that they feel blindsided by this sudden change in the C.D.C. recommendations that completely undo and upend months of work to encourage caution and care. Suddenly it feels like the C.D.C. is saying all that can just be thrown out.”
Nelson said she just started her role in Missouri, and is in the process of moving there. Reactions vary widely from church to church. She has heard from urban churches that they were working on or perfecting plans for some sort of hybrid worship — that some can be present in person, and some watch online.
“Some of the more rural churches that I’m working with have been gathering for months in their sanctuaries,” she said. “Many of the rural communities have not — I think due to a combination of political climate, but also just small numbers of people — been as consistent about everyone wearing masks. So some of them are feeling like, ‘Well, this is not a huge change.'”
We discussed a North-South divide briefly — have Northern populations generally been more observant of mask-wearing than Southern populations? Also, there is a Republican-Democrat divide — Republicans have been shown to be more mask-resistant since the beginning of the pandemic, and continue so to this day.
But church is often a place where the bitterness of the Republican-Democrat divide is lessened, she said.
“I’m not sure that we’ve seen as, as much of that virulence in the divide in the congregations I’m aware of,” she said. “In part because within the congregation, there is still a desire to be respectful of one another.”
The church is putting on a webinar later this week on “purple” congregations, where Democrats and Republicans worship together, she said. “But in general, I get the sense that in congregations where there is a strong political diversity, there’s still a tendency to be kind to one another — a sense that we still love each other, though we have different political opinions. That was true before the pandemic, and it will be true after the pandemic. Church is often one of the few places in our society where people are able to put aside some of those political differences and work together for the common good. Regardless of politics, we all agree that hungry people should be fed.”
The surprise for some of a Sunday event that’s very different from the last year of Sundays reflects again how Americans are all living very different pandemics. Many Americans no longer attend organized services, whether at a mosque, church, synagogue, Bahai center or anything else.
Nelson noted that American’s participation in organized religion peaked in 1964, “the year that the first big wave of baby boomers graduated from high school.” Despite the fact that many think this is a recent occurrence, she said, that’s not so.
On the ground, consulting with each other
What is happening on the ground? Clergy are consulting with each other, she said, attempting to find what others are doing to discern a good path forward.
“They’re checking in with one another — is this, is this going to change what you’re doing?” she said “How are you talking to your congregation about this? They are sharing ideas about how to frame the conversation. Also, they’re just expressing frustration with one another. ‘I feel like the rug been pulled out from under me.’ ‘Yeah, man, me too.’ So they’re commiserating. I get the sense that they are trying to help each other hold a line. So that there’s not there’s not an understanding that suddenly there’s a free for all.
“We’ve spent so long being so careful not to share germs. And, and being so careful to protect our people. And we’re going to keep doing that. Helping your colleagues think about that, and do the work — that’s what collegiality is all about.”
The sudden nature of the change was jarring, she said. Many churches she knows of had been laying plans for months for a return to some in-person worship. But the C.D.C. announcement came on a Thursday — a day when, by and large, plans for Sunday’s worship have been set: The sermon’s been written, the people who will be reading from the scriptures have been notified and other logistical elements have been settled.
“You know, I can imagine that there were a lot of clergy who didn’t get to take a Sabbath day this week. Because they’re fielding all the calls and all the emails from people saying, Well, how is this gonna change what we’re doing Sunday? And hopefully, their answer was, it’s not changing anything. We’ve planned what we planned. But there it wouldn’t surprise me if there are folks, clergy who were getting pressure to take you know, okay, then we’re just going to go back to normal, whatever that means. pressure to have services. Change on a dime.”
Foreboding, excitement, communal singing
So are clergy and congregations driving to church with a sense of foreboding, I asked? (We spoke on Sunday morning.)
“I would imagine that there are a lot of different feelings happening. Some foreboding, some excitement,” she answered.
“Church people, for the most part, do tend to love one another and enjoy being together. And the challenge all along has been how do we keep people safe, who really want to be together, who really want to hug each other. You know, for some people who live alone, church might be the only time in the course of the week that they have any physical contact with anyone else. You don’t shake hands or hug random people in the grocery store, but you hug your friends at church.”
“Church is also one of the only places where we have multi-generational community. And what’s really relevant pandemic-wise: Church is one of the only places in our culture where we sing together. And the mask mandate shift this week did not come with any guidance about singing,
“What does it mean that we are praying together in unison? What does it mean move around the space and move the air? Can we have the minister process down the center aisle? Or do they still need to come in from a side door and disturb the air as little as possible? We don’t have that information yet.”
Communal singing, too, is a big question mark. It’s been known since early in the pandemic that church choir practice can be a superspreading event: The Skagit Valley Chorale practice in Washington state was well documented in the early part of the pandemic. One person was apparently ill during the event; 52 others fell ill, and 2 died.
“Can we have choir practices?” she asked. “We don’t really know yet. There are some churches that are beginning to do that — and requiring that everybody who comes to choir practice must be vaccinated. But even then, there has not been clear scientific guidance about whether or not it’s safe to have any sort of choir practice at all — and whether or not it’s a good idea to wear masks.
“The C.D.C.’s new guidelines don’t say anything about that. Most people don’t even think about corporate singing anymore, because there are so few places in our culture where it happens.”
Parishioners on Twitter
Outside of the U.C.C., a quick sweep of Twitter revealed that parishioners nationwide are puzzled, or enthusiastic, or upset.
At Rainer Valley Church in Seattle, the administration Tweeted about its policy asking people to continue wearing masks. A statement read, in part: “After careful consideration and back-and-forth on the Elder Team, we have decided that we will still ask for all attendees at Rainier Valley Church to continue to wear a mask while attending services for the time being. We want RVC to be a place of worship that is free from distractions. We don’t want to create separate sections for those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, or create an environment where we are asked to check vaccination cards at the door. For those who are fully vaccinated, we ask you out of humility to continue wearing a mask while indoors at RVC. We know that wearing a mask is not a pleasure for anyone, but we also know that bearing this minor inconvenience is much better than creating disunity or a distraction for those at church.
“Our unity as a church is a precious gift and important to protect regardless of our health issues or political stances. We are consistently called to lay aside our fears, frustrations, and preferences for one another out of reverence for Christ and the unity of the church. We would encourage you to join the Elders as we pray and seek a God-honoring approach to our submission to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), a refusal to show partiality (James 2:4), and a humble submission to one another in laying down our preferences out of reverence for Christ (Philippians 2:3 and Ephesians 5:21).”
President Biden, on the other hand, wore a mask to Mass at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine.
On Twitter, Dominique Bonessi, a WAMU radio reporter, wrote about the “weirdest morning” in the pandemic. She went to church, “Entered church masked but most people were not masked. Then priest says, ‘well Governor says we don’t have to wear a mask anymore’ and promptly removed his mask.” She said she put her mask on to assist at Mass, and to make others feel comfortable. After church, she went to a nearby coffee shop, where everyone was masked. Then she went to a grocery store, where everyone was masked.
At Fresh Winds Community Church in Merrillville, Ind., a Tweet announced that masks are required.
“Northern Kentucky Roman Catholic parishioners who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear a mask while attending Mass, the Diocese of Covington announced Friday,” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
It’s not at all clear what the effects of this will be, particularly in churches where masks and vaccines are discouraged. One big question for many people is if — given the murky nature of the C.D.C. guidelines — unvaccinated people will choose to unmask because they prefer both. Many of those churches, then, might be full of people not following the C.D.C. guidelines, with consequences to be learned only later.
A Twitter member named Steve McQueen wrote: “This may have been my happiest service at church. Packed full of mask free Jesus followers singing!” The church appears to be Northview Church in Carmel, Ind.
A search of Twitter did not show results for synagogue and mask, or mosque and mask, or other places of worship. These may be issues, now or in the future, but no one appears to be tweeting right now.
A Twitter member named Clevefan1979 wrote: “Today is my Birthday and my church, starting today, finally ended their mask policy to optional. That’s a wonderful Bday gift. I see 2 people still wearing them. It’s nice to see faces!”
A Twitter member named CuzSheCan wrote: “Sooo crazy! My mom just told me her church doesn’t need to wear a mask anymore. And I’m like buuutttt what about the people not vaccinated? So the vaccinated people gonna save everyone? Woozy face” She followed that with this tweet: “I’m not vaccinated because I don’t trust the vaccine yet. But I damn sure will continue to stay safe. And that’s not because the president told me but because I refuse to be any less than safe.”
A Twitter member named Dick Brewbaker wrote: “No belligerence at my church. There’s a service that’s mask optional in the sanctuary, one that’s mask mandatory in the fellowship hall and a third outside in a tent. Who says you can’t be all things to all people?”
And a Twitter member named TClark_nurse wrote: “So bizarre that our Church Pastor announced yesterday at church to the congregation those who have been vaccinated may take their mask off but those who have not should leave them on! My husband and I almost got up and walked out of our church but instead we took ours off as well.”