Places of worship can now reopen their doors — but some Hingham faith communities are holding off for now

Old Ship Church
May 21, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer

The update that places of worship would be allowed to reopen their doors starting May 18 during the first phase of the state's COVID-19 reopening plan -- with restrictions -- came as good news to some pastors and parishioners.

But whether or not to actually resume in-person services  -- and if so, how to do so in the safest way possible -- was a decision not taken lightly. Some Hingham faith communities plan to reopen soon, while others are continuing to hold virtual services. One thing is certain, though -- due to COVID-19 restrictions, the services will be different.

Faith communities that decide to reopen must comply with strict regulations. This means limiting capacity to below 40 percent of the building's maximum permitted occupancy. Attendees who are not part of the same immediate family must be seated at least six feet apart. Face coverings or face masks are required, as is adherence to hygiene protocols. Outdoor services are encouraged.

The Anchor reached out to local faith communities for updates on their plans this week and below is a summary from those who responded.

St. John's

The Reverend Tim Schenck, Rector of St. John's parish in downtown HIngham, decided now is not the right time to reopen.

"Just because we CAN open, doesn't mean we SHOULD open. Even with a limited capacity, it's just not safe right now and I would never put my parishioners at risk. We do not have a target opening  date in mind at this time," he said. "My basic guiding principle in this decision is Jesus' call to love our neighbors as ourselves."

A seven-member reopening task force is in place that is looking at state and diocesan guidelines.

We will reopen when the science and data tells us it's safe," Schenck said. "Further, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts has said that no churches will open for in-person worship until July 1 at the earliest."

In the meantime, St.John's  will continue to live-stream its services (which also are rebroadcast on the Hingham public access cable station). "Even when we do have some people in the building, we will be live-streaming to serve those who do not feel it is safe for them to be in large gatherings. In other words, reopening is not an on/off switch, but a dimmer switch, and we're in this for the long haul."

New North Church and South Shore Baptist Church plan to resume in-person services on Sunday, May 31, within the restrictions laid out in the state's reopening plan.

New North Church

At New North that day, parishioners will celebrate both the Resurrection and Pentecost, "the birth of the church," the Rev. Steve Aucella said.

"The Plan," he said, is to adhere to the guidelines in every way.  "Ours is a small congregation in a big building, so maintaining social distancing will be no problem, as we plan to close every other pew.  We will also dispense with hymns, so no worries about spraying tiny droplets [that could cause the spread of coronavirus]  into the air."

While services will resume normally for the most part, there will be no more passing the microphone around during New North's post-sermon conversation.

"Our online services have been pretty well received, and we reached more people that way," Aucella said.  "Technically, every week was and is an adventure, and we have learned a lot.  We plan to get out of the building more often now, not in terms of Sunday services but in making short videos we can post to fill in the gaps from week to week."

New North will continue recording the services and posting them for those who are not yet ready to get back to regular in-person services.

"For us, it’s an exciting time, but we are approaching it with extreme caution," Aucella said.

South Shore Baptist

South Shore Baptist will offer two services, at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. starting May 31 as well as an online livestream of the services for those who do not wish to regather.

"We are not gathering as a political statement, or out of a lack of concern for our people. We have taken the pandemic with the utmost seriousness and are being careful to follow the governor’s instructions," Pastor Cody Busby said. "We completely understand why many churches are choosing not to gather, and we respect their leadership and knowledge of their contexts. I have been inspired by the many ways I have seen fellow clergy care for their people during quarantine. I have no doubt that decisions to gather or not to gather are wrapped up in a concern to care best for their people."

That said, the information South Shore Baptist leaders have gathered "tells us there is a responsible way to gather while minimizing risk. We will be providing a gathering that exceeds the standards and sanitization of any of our local grocery stores," Busby explained.

The two services are being offered rather than the usual one Sunday service to ensure attendance  remains well below the 40 percent limit.

"We have mapped out our sanctuary with eight feet between households and two closed pews between open pews," Busby said. This will enable the seating of 175 people per service, which is less than 20 percent of the church's legal capacity. In-between services, which pews are blocked and which are open will change. That way attendees will always be sitting in an “unused” pew that has been sanitized.

Those who plan to attend the services are asked to RSVP in advance, and there will be a head-count as people enter the church.  The RSVP form tells those who have been symptomatic or around a symptomatic individual in the previous 10 days to remain at home.

Following the governor's requirements with precision means no childcare, mandatory face masks, no socializing in the building, members of the same household only sitting together, and a thorough sanitizing of the building between services.

"Our virtual services have been a positive but unsatisfying experience," Busby said. "Christianity is a 'with others' faith. We understand the [earlier] prohibitions against gathering, but it has left us hollow. Our phase one plans will still leave me wanting. My heart won’t be full until we are all together [safely]  in the same place."

Busby said he was encouraged after participating in a teleconference call Wednesday between  town officials and religious leaders. "There was a great sense of collaboration and care for our community," he said.

First Parish (Old Ship Church)

Joshua Ross Photography

First Parish in Hingham, known as Old Ship Church, has been worshipping virtually since mid-March and will continue to do so for the time being.  "Though Governor Baker's guidelines permit faith communities to resume in-person worship, it is only with stringent requirements," said the Rev. Ken Read-Brown.  "With the health and safety of our parishioners and visitors paramount, we at Old Ship will be taking our time to carefully consider when and how to begin in-person worship, likely no earlier than September."

Hingham Congregational Church

Hingham Congregational Church is in the process of making decisions. In the meantime, it's been decided that summer programs for children -- such as Vacation Bible School -- will be offered online.

Some form of service may be offered by early summer, but that has not yet been determined, according to HCC Minister of Christian Education the Rev. Sara Holland, who is also president of the  Hingham Hull Religious Leaders Association. The association "is sharing resources during this trying time," she said. "Each community seems to have its own approach while updating each other."


Second Parish

Second Parish maintains a "very cautious approach" to reopening, according to the Rev. Stephanie Kelsch. "Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association’s  headquarters advised all churches to plan for reopening sometime next spring [May 2021]," she said.  "Second Parish’s leadership board has not yet set a firm date for reopening given the fluidity of the situation."

Second Parish will continue to offer online services into June and then, as has long been their custom, the church will remain closed until the Sunday after Labor Day. "This year, this custom offers us more time to prepare for phasing back into 'regular' church," Kelsch said. "When we do reopen, we will follow  -- and perhaps exceed -- the social distancing guidelines.  We will be working out those details as we continue tracking the pandemic and recommendations from scientific experts."

Second Parish's online services have offered unexpected benefits, "despite our rather home-grown technology," Kelsch noted. A majority of the church's attendees have tuned in, as well as people from other states and Canada, some of whom have become regular attendees.

"All those attending have participated fully in the service even as they have missed the complete in-person interaction," she said. "In that regard, full interaction with our children and coffee hour are definitely missed."

Second Parish continues to offer its children's Sunday Adventures program, although not in person. "And we know that  Gov. Baker has nixed coffee hours for now. Still, having the online ability to join in our exploration and expression of our beliefs has served to remind us of the shared strength and hope found in a faith community," Kelsch said. "Everyone is working more than usual to stay connected with others, emphasizing how even as individuals we thrive as a part of something greater."

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