Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:39
It’s hard to believe we’re standing at the threshold of August! Summer is flying by; fall will be upon us before you know it. I’m grateful to our Fr. Bob Fitzpatrick and our Project Resource Staff who, in conjunction with C.C.S. Inc will be presenting a four-session course each Tuesday evening in August titled Everything You Wanted to Know About Stewardship. The four sessions will address spiritual and practical aspects of annual giving with particular attention to the challenges congregations face in these COVID19 times. I encourage clergy and lay leaders of all our churches to be sure to check this out.
Susan and I returned from our vacation time in North Florida last weekend. It was good to be away. We had time both in St. Augustine and, prior to that, at the Jersey Shore and were able to spend time with all our children and grandchildren, for which we are deeply thankful.
During our time in St. Augustine, the entire state of Florida became an epicenter of the COVID19 spread in the United States. ICUs at Baptist Health, a major hospital system in Jacksonville, became full and the hospital began limiting elective surgeries. Hospitals in other parts of the state are in similar circumstances.
Simultaneously, COVID19 cases, especially of the “Delta variant,” began to rise across the country including in New Jersey. Soon after our return, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for “fully vaccinated people” recommending “fully vaccinated people to wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.” Understandably, this caused concern—and some confusion—for many. Canon Dr. Phil Lewis and The Rev. Canon Valerie Balling, Co-Chairs of our diocesan RRR Task Force, which has played a vital role in leading us through the COVID19 pandemic, contacted me, feeling that the CDC’s guidance called for a statement “recommending” a return to mask use for indoor worship and other indoor church activities. I agreed with them and they issued a statement this past week.
Subsequently, we have learned that the CDC’s concerns were elevated by a recent internal report that indicated, “The Delta variant is much more contagious, more likely to break through protections afforded by the vaccines and may cause more severe disease than all other known versions of the virus.”
The report is clear in stating that the vaccines that have been distributed thus far are highly effective and that people who have received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines “can participate in many of the activities that you did before the pandemic.” Hospitalizations nationwide are overwhelmingly for those who are not vaccinated.
We cannot forget, however, that children under 12 across the nation are still not vaccinated, nor are many persons whose immune systems are compromised. Moreover, so-called “break-through” cases—that is, persons who contract COVID19 even though they have been fully vaccinated—are also on the increase and persons with “co-morbidities” are at high risk of serious illness and death. Consequently, the C.D.C. Guidelines of July 27 stated:
Wearing a mask is most important if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated. If this applies to you or your household, you might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission in your area [emphasis added].
Under a heading that reads “Mask Up in Risky Situations,” an e-mail I received from NJ.gov offering a COVID19 update was even clearer, stating:
Due to increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and new data suggesting that the COVID-19 Delta variant is more transmissible among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, New Jersey is now strongly recommending that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear face masks in indoor settings when:
The space is crowded
There is close contact with others who may not be fully vaccinated
The vaccine status of other individuals is unknown
Individuals that are immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease are present
This, it seems to me, makes clear why the RRR Task Force’s recommendation that churches return to masks for indoor worship and activities is not only prudent, but necessary:
- Churches are public spaces that can be crowded; in which people are in close proximity to one another; and in which we don’t know the vaccine status of all individuals
- Church communities often include children and infants under 12 years old who have definitely not yet been vaccinated.
- Our churches include large populations of the frail, elderly, some vaccinated, some not, many of whom have underlying conditions and co-morbidities that place them at increased risk of contracting COVID19 and having a significant medical/health event.
As members of the body of Christ and as a diocesan community, we have a sacred obligation and holy commitment to care for the most vulnerable among us. When considering the health and well-being of human beings, if we are to err, it should always be on the side of care and caution. Sadly, in our culture today, a distorted understanding of individual rights and liberties seems, in too many instances, to have overshadowed Christ’s commandment for us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (see Matthew 22:39) resulting in unfortunate and, frankly, unnecessary conflict.
Our guiding principle throughout the COVID19 pandemic has been, and will remain, the rule of love. Wearing masks in the current environment is a sign of love and care for others. As your bishop, I not only recommend all to wear masks during indoor worship and other indoor activities, I urge all to wear them. I will be wearing one whenever I participate in indoor worship and church activities.
With you, I long for the day when we can dispense with mask use in our church buildings. It appears that day is not yet here.
May God hold and protect you and all those you care for in the arms of love and mercy.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, D.D.
12th Bishop of New Jersey