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US dioceses close churches and cancel services to slow coronavirus

12 March 2020


Empty: Washington National Cathedral. Services will be held online only for the next two weeks

Empty: Washington National Cathedral. Services will be held online only for the next two weeks

MORE than 250 churches in the Episcopal dioceses of Washington and Virginia in the United States have been closed and services cancelled in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

So far, almost 1000 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the US, and 29 people have died. On Thursday, President Trump announced a suspension of travel to the US from 26 European countries, not including the UK and Ireland. The restrictions come into effect tomorrow.

The announcements came as the World Health Organization (WHO) classed the outbreak as a pandemic. A pandemic is a disease that is spreading in multiple countries around the world at the same time.

The Bishop of Washington, the Rt Revd Mariann Budde, wrote in a letter to the 88 congregations in her diocese: “Two things are clear: social distance is necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus, and the populations at greatest risk are highly represented among our congregations and the clergy. . .

“I am ordering that all public worship services and normal parish operations be cancelled in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and parish buildings be closed for two weeks.”

The decision, which had been made in consultation with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, the Most Revd Michael Curry, would be reviewed on 25 March, she said.

“Our hope is to reopen our buildings for Sunday worship services on 29 March. This does not belong to schools that operate within church buildings — they must determine their own response to current circumstances — nor does it affect ministries that serve vulnerable populations, such as those who are hungry or homeless.”

For the next two Sundays, churchpeople are invited to visit the Washington National Cathedral website, Facebook page, or YouTube channel to take part in “virtual-worship services”. Performing worship services over the phone is also being considered. Information on pastoral care, emergency financial assistance, and virtual meetings in the diocese can be found online.

In Virginia, although churches will stay open, all services have been cancelled for two weeks. The Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Susan Goff, promised to provide online services.

She explained in a letter to the 179 congregations in her diocese: “The Coronavirus is now a pandemic and we are responsible for one another, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Mathematical models show that the virus is spreading exponentially. We can’t stop the spread, but we can slow it, thereby saving lives and helping ensure that our health care system remains effective.”

Church services had been suspended before, she said. “One hundred and two years ago, bishops cancelled visitations and churches closed for two to six weeks during the great flu epidemic. As it was then, these are extraordinary and unusual times. They require extraordinary and unusual measures.”

PAA bouquet of flowers lies on the doorstep of Christ Episcopal Church, Georgetown, in Washington DC, on Monday

Earlier this week, in Washington DC, hundreds of worshippers at Christ Episcopal Church, Georgetown, were asked to self-quarantine after the Rector, the Revd Timothy Cole, was hospitalised after he tested positive for coronavirus. He was the first person to test positive in the state. He is in a stable condition. The church organist also tested positive.

Mr Cole had administered the sacrament to hundreds of communicants in the previous week. The church has now suspended all meetings and services until further notice. The assistant Vicar, the Revd Crystal Hardin, told CNN that the church had been following public health guidance. “We did the best we could under the circumstances.”

Bishop Curry, said on Tuesday that Christians should follow the example of Jesus by “sticking together” in the “human family of God”.

“In this time when we are all affected by the coronavirus, whether directly or indirectly, whether physically, biologically, psychologically, spiritually, and for many economically, it may be helpful to remember that we are in this together. . .

“We are all part of a big family. Bigger than our biological families, bigger than our immediate families, bigger than our congregations, bigger than our dioceses, bigger than our cities, our states, our nation. We are part of the human family of God.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) the European Union, and international leaders had all urged countries to share resources and information, he said. “So, look out for your neighbours, look out for each other. Look out for yourselves. Listen to those who have knowledge that can help to guide us medically and help to guide us socially. Do everything that we can to do this together, to respond to each other’s needs and to respond to our own needs.”

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has postponed its executive and central committee meetings, due to have been held later this month. It has also limited travel, and closed the visitors programme until April in an effort to limit infection.

The general secretary of the WCC, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, who will leave on 1 April, wrote in a letter to staff: “We are in a situation where we together have to handle the risk related to Covid-19. We have to protect those in our constituency who live in contexts with health systems that would struggle to handle such an outbreak. We also have to avoid that our work is blocked by absences and quarantine measures, here or elsewhere.”

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