In a directive to the clergy of the Eastern Diocese dated May 21, 2020—the Feast of the Holy Ascension—Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan laid out new policies and guidelines for a cautious, phased re-opening of church functions, as individual state and municipal authorities begin to loosen restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As our Diocese continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we hold the physical and spiritual well-being of our people as our highest priority,” the Bishop’s directive begins. “Individual parishes, in compliance with all local regulations, must adhere to these guidelines if and when, at the discretion of each parish, they choose to restore church services.
The directive titled “Restoration of Church Functions in the Eastern Diocese” was prepared by the Primate and Diocesan Vicar, in consultation with specialists in infectious disease and public health from the Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO), as well as with the clergy members of the Diocesan Council, and clergy representing the respective regions of the Eastern Diocese.
The guidelines are set to take effect on Sunday, May 31, 2020: the Feast of Pentecost. However, the Primate offers some general cautions at the outset of the directive. “These guidelines are notintended to compel individual parishes to conduct any church services,” he writes. Furthermore, even with the guidelines in place, all people considered as having a high risk for infection, and all who feel sick in any way (not simply with the symptoms of COVID-19) are prohibited from participating in activities during the initial phases. The directive strongly recommends that the same restrictions should apply for those over the age of 60.
The two-phase process is digested for a general audience below, following a brief review of present policies undertaken in response to the pandemic. The complete directive sent to Diocesan clergy can be read and downloaded by clicking here.
A Phased Re-opening
The policies currently governing activities throughout the Eastern Diocese were outlined in directives from the early days of the pandemic crisis. In issuing those directives, the Primate and Diocesan authorities were guided by medical and other professionals, the practices of sister churches, and His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Since that time, the faithful have not been permitted to enter the church sanctuary; while Sunday services continued to take place behind closed doors (often broadcast over the Internet), participation has been limited to the priest and at most two deacons and two singers, with social distancing and masks used. Holy Communion remains limited to the celebrant priest, who receives it on behalf of all the faithful. Baptisms, weddings, and other services have been prohibited, with funerals strictly limited to private graveside ceremonies. Outdoor prayers and “drive-by blessings” are strictly regulated; and clergy are prohibited from entering homes, hospitals, or nursing facilities.
The May 21 directive presents guidelines for a “phased” approach to resuming many of the sacred functions of the Armenian Church in local communities. The first phase allows for the re-opening of church facilities for individual prayer and counseling with the pastor. In the second phase, liturgical services and certain sacramental ceremonies may be opened to the public under prescribed restraints.
Due to variations in the legal and medical environment of individual localities, Diocesan parishes are left to determine which phase, if any, is most suitable to their circumstances. The Primate’s directive gives guidance on how to approach such a determination.
PHASE ONE will permit short visits to church,and applies only to parishes where local regulations allow people to leave their homes, and where individuals feel comfortable doing so, understanding the risks involved.
Under Phase One, visits can include coming to the church for personal prayer or candle-lighting, during publicly-announced hours on weekdays, Saturday, or Sunday afternoon (not during the badarak), as determined by the pastor in consultation with his parish council. These brief visits may be made by one individual or one household at a time, with social distancing, mask-wearing, and prohibitions against touching physical objects all observed.
Phase One also provides for private confession and spiritual counseling, where individuals may meet with the pastor by prior arrangement, with the observance of social distancing and mask-wearing.
Liturgy in Phase Two
PHASE TWO will extend church functions to include the Divine Liturgy and Sacraments, and applies only to parishes where local regulations do not prohibit church services, and where public gatherings with limited attendance are permitted. Social distancing and mask-wearing rules apply, even to members of the same household, and church attendance will of necessity be limited. Where possible, parishes are encouraged to continue live-streaming their Sunday services through this phase.
In Phase Two, Holy Communion will still only be partaken by the celebrant priest, on behalf of the faithful. Full Holy Communion of all the faithful will be restored in subsequent phases.
Under these conditions, Phase Two allows for outdoor celebrations of the badarak and jashou services, in a suitably dignified manner, as an extraordinary and temporary arrangement in a time of crisis.
Because singing and chanting have been associated with increased risk of transmission, choir members are directed to maintain even greater-than-usual social distance from each other, and worshippers are strongly advised to sing only in a whisper.
Similarly, the Kiss of Peace must be conducted with a distanced bowing of the head, and without the usual physical approach. Likewise, the collection plate will not be passed, but faithful will be invited to make their offerings in a special container designated for the purpose. Fellowship hour must be omitted.
Under Phase Two, badarak may also be held in the church sanctuary—with all the stipulations mentioned under outdoor celebrations. Because of indoor space limitations, the need for distancing, and municipal regulations on public gatherings, pastors (in consultation with their parish councils) are asked to devise an equitable system for allowing parishioners to participate in a given celebration.
Sacramental services such as Holy Matrimony and Baptism will resume under Phase Two, but with special considerations for those ritual practices that would ordinarily bring the priest into physical contact with the ones receiving the sacrament. While the instructions are intended to minimize the risk of infection, all participating in the sacrament must understand and assent to the fact that some risk remains; otherwise the service should be postponed. Other people attending all such ceremonies must be strictly limited, masked, and distanced.
In the case of Wedding services, Phase Two gives special directions for performing the Joining of Hands, the Blessing of Rings, and the Crowning ceremonies in accordance with pandemic observances.
Baptisms are restricted to adults only in these initial phases—in consideration of counsel from medical authorities that infant baptism remains a high-risk activity during the pandemic. (Gravely ill infants will remain an exception to this policy, as is the case currently.) Even for adult baptisms, however, special cautions must be observed for the blessing of the cross/narod, immersion, and anointing.
Finally, Phase Two gives direction for non-liturgical church functions, such as meetings, which can only convene under various strictures.
Since local circumstances and official regulations vary across the jurisdiction of the Eastern Diocese, the Primate’s directive includes a section on how to determine the phase that best applies to a given parish.
Encouraging a “Unity of Spirit”
Early in the directive, Bishop Daniel gives voice to the uncertainty involved in emerging from the extraordinary circumstances of the past two months.
“Our people are reminded that perfect solutions do not exist for the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic presents to us as a Church and Diocese,” he writes. “Above all, we must protect the unity of our people in Jesus Christ, as the Body of Christ. As we make varying provisions for the various regions of our large Diocese, we must avoid any inflammatory actions, comments or thoughts that would endanger the sacred unity of our Church, rooted in our love for one another, and for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, from which nothing can separate us.”
The Primate’s directive ends with encouraging words about resuming the full sacramental life of the church: “As conditions improve throughout the geographic expanse of our Diocese, further instructions will outline additional church activities that will become possible in subsequent phases, including: distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful, celebration of other sacraments/services, fellowship with food and drink, home/hospital/nursing home and other visitations, classes and other group meetings.”
Bishop Daniel concludes with a blessing from Scripture: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
Click here to read the full text of “Restoration of Church Functions in the Eastern Diocese.”