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Maryland houses of worship scramble to offer services in wake of Gov. Hogan’s ban on large gatherings

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did not specifically mention houses of worship during a Thursday news conference at which he announced new protocols and restrictions in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic. But in using his emergency powers to ban gatherings of more than 250 people, he threw the plans of faith leaders across the region into almost instant disarray.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which took the lead in risk reduction among faith communities last week by encouraging limitations on person-to-person contact during services, announced late Thursday that it would close its 117 churches.

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Major synagogues, including Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, completed the transition from a state of heightened awareness and intensified sanitary practices to closing their buildings until further notice, suspending on-site schooling at the same time.

And Archbishop William E. Lori, who had already relaxed the religious obligation to attend Mass for older and less healthy worshipers, announced that Catholic schools would be shuttered and attendance at services in the Archdiocese of Baltimore would be limited to 250 people, a move that was likely to affect dozens of churches.

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“In light of the order today by Governor Hogan that all public schools be closed for the next two weeks, I have similarly instructed that all archdiocesan schools be closed during the same time period, March 16-27, 2020, and that all school-sponsored activities be cancelled during that same time frame,” Lori wrote in an email to clergy and parishioners Thursday. "In addition, I have instructed all parishes ... to comply with the Governor’s order by limiting attendance at all Masses and parish-sponsored events, regardless of location, to no more than 250 people until further notice.”

In one indication of the suddenness of Hogan’s announcement, archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said the practical means by which attendance would be limited was “yet to be determined” and would be handled on a case-by-case basis, particularly during the moratorium’s first weekend.

Faith leaders across the area have been meeting with staffers for weeks to assess a range of complicated questions: What is the importance within given traditions of meeting in person? How should practices be altered? On what basis should decisions be made, and how can faith communities serve congregants if conditions should worsen?

Caine seemed to speak for many when he talked about the need to weigh spiritual and liturgical needs against public health concerns.

“It poses a unique challenge to churches that seek to balance the safety and welfare of their communities while also recognizing that people want and need spiritual care, especially during Lent and in these times of fear and uncertainty when people are clinging to their faith for comfort and support,” he said. “For Catholics, the Eucharist is at the center of our spiritual lives, which makes Mass attendance a special priority. We will be looking at how best to comply with the Governor’s order, which we believe to be a just and responsible and necessary step, while also attempting to meet the spiritual needs of our people.”

Sutton issued a statement last week urging priests to discourage the tradition if “intinction,” or dipping the communion bread into a communal wine cup, during Eucharist, and advised parishioners not to shake hands while “passing the peace.”

He stepped those recommendations up this week by banning the use of sacramental wine and mandating that wafers, not bread, be used during communion.

At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, mosque officials formed an all-physician task force, Healthy ISB, to recommend safety protocols.

This week, the community planned to lay protective paper on the mosque’s carpeted floor during Jum’uah, the mandatory Islamic prayer service held every Friday, and to dispose of it between services, as well as to shorten the service “semi-dramatically” from its usual 60 minutes, according to society president Dr. Ed Tori.

Now there won’t be services at all — a decision Tori said has “not necessarily made me very popular” among those who advocated holding worship services in shifts of fewer than 250 at a time.

The logistics of such a possibility were too complex to work out on such short notice, Tori said, and they promised more chaos than the alternative.

“It might even be riskier [to hold them than not], the way people would get in each other’s faces,” he said.

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Islam mandates attendance at Jum’uah prayers, Tori added — the Arabic word means “congregation” — except in circumstances that endanger health, and the faith does not allow for remote services, but the mosque planned to livestream instruction regarding the coronavirus and steps the community will be taking.

Beyond that, Tori said mosque leaders hoped that worshipers would hold prayer services in smaller groups in private homes as the community consults with other Islamic leaders around the state as to how to move forward.

Amid the disruptions, representatives of each other faith tradition said they were well prepared to offer congregants the chance to take part in worship services via livestream, radio or teleconference.

The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of Maryland’s Episcopal diocese, told parishioners in an email that the denomination’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, would preach in a virtual worship service Sunday, and that Sutton “will livestream worship for our diocese" the following Sunday.

“I encourage all congregations to let our communications team know if you are hosting live streamed prayers, formation or other activities that we may share,” he wrote. “In addition, let them know if you need help with technology in order to share the love of Christ ... We are a community of love."

Chizuk Amuno had decided earlier Thursday to close its building and cancel in-person classes, meetings and services starting Friday. Its leaders, too, framed the decision in spiritual as well as public health terms.

“When it teaches the mitzvot, the Torah commands us, ‘Ve Chai Bahem’ — ‘and you shall live by them,'” rabbis Joshua Gruenberg and Rabbi Debi Wechsler wrote in a email to congregants. "We are living in extraordinary times, and out of a love for life and our fellow human beings we are making the difficult decision to close our building as of Friday ... and move to ‘Chizuk Amuno online’ until further notice.

“How fortunate we are that we live in a time when technology will allow us to gather and be close to one another even if not face to face,” they continued.

Howard Libit, director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the remote-worship option was not available to the area’s Orthodox Jews, for whom use of electronics is forbidden on the Sabbath. Libit said that probably means at least some synagogues with fewer than 250 seats would continue holding services.

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Two veteran Baltimore pastors, meanwhile, said gathering in person is so important to their congregants that they have been reluctant to make the move to close.

The Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt of Epworth United Methodist Church and the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway have been taking precautions, from making sure pews, prayer rails and doorknobs are wiped down to encouraging interactions at arm’s length, and like most of their counterparts have been taking their cues from health authorities.

Hunt, whose church lists 700 active members, said Thursday that he’d be canceling services Sunday and conducting two prayer sessions via Zoom and teleconference.

Hathaway, who estimated that 60 percent of his members are over 70, putting them squarely in the group most vulnerable to the coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19.

His plan this week: to come to church with music minister, who will play the organ, and a deacon, who will stand at the door and make sure no one comes in.

Hathaway will deliver his sermon before a video camera, and it will be streamed live on Facebook and later posted on YouTube, techniques he says have already been attracting more viewers than those who attend church in person.

He sounded somewhere between inspired and resigned.

“I’ll ask the music minister to play a song. I’ll give a prayer and the message. He’ll close with a song. And we’ll wash our hands and go home,” he said.

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