LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Ask Victor Cyrus-Franklin why his church will not be gathering indoors despite an updated county health order that again allows places of worship to hold indoor services, and he’ll tell you about a sermon he gave last May.
Cyrus-Franklin, senior pastor at Inglewood First United Methodist Church, said he preached on the 23rd Psalm, which reads: “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. … He keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.” His message to his congregation was that the Good Shepherd “will continue to lead us in the paths that keep our families, communities and congregations alive during the pandemic,” he recalled.
“Rushing too quickly to in-person and indoor worship does not exhibit care for our families and those who are most vulnerable in our community,” Cyrus-Franklin told Religion News Service.
He said Inglewood First UMC would continue to host online worship and only meet in person to distribute food and other essential services to the community.
Even as local hospitals’ COVID-19 units reach capacity and the rate of new cases crested 14,000 per day, Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health on Saturday (Dec. 19) announced it was lifting a ban on indoor worship services. But some parishes and dioceses in the county are advising the faithful that worshiping outdoors is still the safest option as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Under the revised county order, houses of worship that choose to gather indoors must do so “with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times.” Places of worship must also ensure that attendees can maintain 6 feet of distance between separate households, the county said.
The shift reflects recent court rulings involving places of worship, including one from the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that public health orders violate worshipers’ constitutional freedom of religion. In late November, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, barred New York state from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated hard hit by the virus.
After that ruling, the justices ordered a lower federal court to reexamine California’s restrictions on indoor religious services in light of the New York ruling. The high court’s unsigned order left those restrictions in place but threw out an earlier federal district court ruling that rejected a challenge from Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state.
While lifting the ban on indoor faith gatherings, the county health department recommends that places of worship continue to hold services outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings.
“Because Los Angeles County is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community is critical,” the county said.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which covers nearly 300 parishes and more than 4 million Catholics, is taking heed. In a statement, the archdiocese on Wednesday (Dec. 23) said Archbishop José H. Gomez sent a letter to priests and pastors advising “it will be safer to continue celebrating outdoor Masses.” However, if a pastor chooses to celebrate Mass indoors in counties that permit it, like Los Angeles County, “he may proceed accordingly” and “must observe all protocols,” the archdiocese said.
The archdiocese released updated liturgical guidelines for pastors who choose to host indoor worship in the wake of the county’s modified order. As part of these new directives, parishes must determine maximum occupancy in their church buildings based on a minimum 6-feet distance between congregants. Presiders and lectors must also wear face coverings unless speaking.
In a Dec. 22 message to parishioners, Gomez reflected on Pope Francis’ designation of the coming year as the “Year of St. Joseph.” In many ways, Gomez wrote, “we can look to St. Joseph as ‘the person for 2020.’”
“He can show us how to live with courage and confidence in Christ in this year when our faith and hope have been truly tested,” Gomez said. “As we hear it in the Gospels, Joseph’s life is a series of frustrated expectations, of plans and priorities he was forced to abandon.”
John Harvey Taylor, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, announced Dec. 21 on Facebook that the diocese would continue to refrain from indoor worship.
“We are in the midst of a devastating spike in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Taylor said.
“Following the teachings and example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our churches are putting the health and safety of their neighbors ahead of their own desires and preferences,” he added. “By doing all they can to keep tombs empty, they are making every day an Easter Day.”
Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, agreed.
“We will not be resuming indoor worship because we follow the Jesus who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and we believe in the science that tells us we’re safer at home,” Russell said.
While many places of worship followed county health orders by having outdoor worship, some pastors like John MacArthur of Grace Community Church have openly defied such restrictions. Since July, MacArthur has held in-person services with congregants singing and sitting next to each other without masks.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge in September granted a preliminary injunction against Grace Community Church, prohibiting MacArthur from holding indoor worship services. The church, however, continued to meet in person. A contempt hearing is scheduled Jan. 15.
At Calvary Chapel South Bay in Gardena, senior pastor Jeff Gill said indoor worship will resume for its New Year’s Eve service. Gill said the church is not yet ready to offer indoor services this Christmas or this weekend. He said leaders have to logistically prepare how social distancing will work indoors for their church.
Calvary Chapel South Bay, which has 10,000 members, has so far been been gathering for worship online and outdoors under strict social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. The church has not had indoor worship service since March 19, Gill said. He said the church invested more than $150,000 to provide tents, chairs, sanitizing stations, sound gear and wireless television cameras to provide outdoor services. The church hosts two Sunday services and about 2,000 congregants attend each one, he said.
Gill said the church community, which includes more than 100 nurses and 50 doctors who attend Calvary Chapel, has lost about nine people to COVID-19. To Gill, it is the church’s biblical obligation to abide by the government’s health orders in order to protect the community.
“We take it very seriously,” Gill said.