Some of you may have heard a sudden declaration from President Trump regarding in-person worship services. In Wisconsin, this does not change anything. Churches were already considered to be providers of essential services; only the size of our gatherings was limited to fewer than 10 people due to the deadly spread of the coronavirus.
The Milwaukee Presbytery will continue to respect the wisdom and expertise of our public health experts. As set out in the Presbytery's Reopening Guidelines, it is not safe to reopen at this time and certainly not without extreme precautions. Sadly, some congregations around the country that have rushed their decisions to return have experienced outbreaks and deaths in their membership. Our love for you and our neighbors is too deep for us to recommend reopening at this time.
While our buildings may be closed and in-person worship suspended or moved to online formats, the Church is not closed and cannot be closed... The church is not the building; it is the people. We are called to love and protect those people.
We encourage you to stay the course you have already set. We have been amazed at the energy, intelligence, imagination and love Sessions and churches have poured into their ministry continuation plans and online worship. Worship is happening safely, mission is happening as safely as possible. Church is happening.
Please don't feel pressured into a hasty reopening as a result of this announcement. Continue to discern what it means to be the Body of Christ in this unprecedented time. Continue to consider who comprise the members of the Body and the value of all their diversity, including that of age, health and ability. What does it mean to the Body if we choose to move forward knowing that many members of it have to opt out? What does choosing to do so say to the world?
Finally we call to mind these words from the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity which begin our Book of Order and ground us firmly in the reformed tradition of faith:
F-3.0101 God Is Lord of the Conscience
a. That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship."
b. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others. It is our Sessions, comprised of elected elders together with the Ministers of Word and Sacrament, who together make decisions regarding the life and worship of congregations as well as the ministries and mission engagement with the world. The Session is responsible to do so in ways that measure the congregation's fidelity to the Word of God, and well as to promote its safety and wellbeing. Politicians may (and will) say what they like, but Sessions lead the church. Please continue to pray for your Session, our congregations, communities, nation, and world as we continue to face the COVID-19 virus. All of us have been affected directly or indirectly, and we pray that we will not infect others by reopening too soon!