The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue addressed the 199th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia from the Diocesan House on Friday, November 6, 2020.
Beloved in Christ,
We gather online this evening in a convention unlike any of the 198 meetings which precede us. Yet we are here to further the work of the Gospel in our corner of the vineyard just as in every single meeting of the Diocese.
My charge by the canons of our church is to share the state of the diocese with you in this address, including how I have spent my time in the months since my ordination. I will also chart the future for the months ahead before a vaccine or broad immunity permits a return to the new normal.
On March 13, Governor Brian Kemp, himself a faithful Episcopalian, said it was appropriate for faith-based organizations and other groups to consider canceling public events as he worked through the steps to declare Georgia’s first ever public health emergency. Bishop Benhase suspended gathering for worship for the next 14 days in the congregations of the diocese.
With a smartphone, a cell signal and a prayer, 8 in 10 of our congregations went online in some form within the weeks that followed. But all of our contexts are different: in some cases the immediate work was setting up phone trees to check on parishioners. In others, it was determining which faithful lay people would be willing to learn about Zoom and Facebook Live before making a move online. One priest began offering a written meditation delivered on paper under a rock by the church door, and another set up a weekly telephone conference call to help the congregation pray and worship together.
All across Central and South Georgia, you worked faithfully to stay in contact with parishioners week by week. In many places creative work kept food pantries and other critical ministries operating so that Christ’s love could continue to be felt in your communities. Two weeks of sheltering in place extended and my ordination as your bishop that seemed well in the future in mid-March came and went. We didn’t even get to give Bishop Scott and Kelly Benhase the big, loving send-off we hoped to offer for their faithful care for this diocese in more than a decade of service.
And yet, I personally found the ordination with 11 people in the nave of the church so very meaningful. With more than 100 people taking part in the online worship through processing a banner or singing and more, the liturgy came together in a way that gave me a real sense that the Holy Spirit remained as active in our midst as ever. Our God is living and real, present and powerful.
On my first full day as Bishop of Georgia, I learned from clergy of a planned protest in Savannah following George Floyd’s death. The mayor wrote to clergy, saying, “I am asking you to join me, City Council, [Police] Chief Minter and other clergy in being present in the moment and peacefully show support to communities across the country and the human family that are hurting and in pain. We can make it through this – together.” Episcopal deacons and priests and I attended training in deescalating violence that morning and then we assisted in ensuring a peaceful protest. As I will talk about later this evening, the work Bishop Benhase began in racial healing continues in the same call Bishop Stuart offered in the 1960s, as he helped this diocese navigate ending segregation. I am grateful for the group leading our racial healing ministries and I support them as we focus on Becoming Beloved Community as part of how we are the Body of Christ in our unique settings.
While the pandemic has prevented my making formal visitations, Victoria and I have been enjoying our travels across the Diocese. Thanks to a generous gift from Steve Roberts, parishioner at St. Peter’s, and his dealership Savannah Toyota, I have a new Camry Hybrid that already has 7,900 miles logged in order to lead worship from Albany, Hawkinsville, Honey Creek, Thomasville, Augusta, Swainsboro, Darien, Moultrie, Douglas, Dublin, Sandersville, Fitzgerald, Rincon, Louisville, Valdosta, St. Simons Island, Kingsland, Pennick, and Savannah. Since my ordination at the end of May, I have led worship and preached every week, but the one Sunday when I was on vacation.
And while I officiate and preach on Facebook and YouTube for the congregations that have no priest in charge, these trips have also given Victoria and me the chance to be with clergy and lay leaders around the diocese on their property, seeing and hearing first-hand about their joys and sorrows in the midst of this most unusual summer and fall. My report on the state of the Diocese of Georgia is based then not on the view from here in my office, but from being in the field.
I am blessed with an amazing team on our diocesan staff, and we all know that a diocese only matters to the degree that it keeps Jesus at the center of our common life while supporting the local church. Our congregations are where our ministry happens and lives are transformed by the Good News of Jesus. The diocese exists to support that ministry. The health of this diocese is the health of its congregations and their people.
Bishop Rob Wright and I worked closely on guidance for in person worship for Episcopalians in the whole state of Georgia that went into effect on July 1. Following that guidance first meant that a vestry needed to assess the outbreak in their region and could state they “feel a return to in-person worship following the Phase 1 guidelines is safe in our context.” By September 1, slightly more than a quarter of our churches were worshipping in person. Now more than half of congregations are doing so in some form.
The Phase 1 Guidance is going through a modest revision now. As with the initial guidance, we have drafted the document and are getting feedback from leaders and will go back to the experts to see how to balance a desire to worship in ways that feel more normal with the need to mitigate risk of transmitting the virus. I anticipate we will publish this coming Wednesday.
The slight changes are based on the science as we learn more about the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. We will describe how masks and a little more distance will allow a congregation to sing outdoors and how with testing, masks, and greater distance a soloist may sing indoors.
Having served on the bishop’s staff for a decade before becoming bishop, I am privileged to know the 69 parishes and aided parishes of the Diocese of Georgia. Wherever you worship, I am deeply concerned for your individual congregation. My call is to serve all 14,250 of our parishioners as I look toward guidance that mitigates risk for our worship.
Canon Loren Lasch and I have both heard your longings for a return to normalcy and we have spent time with the subject matter experts, physicians who not only know the latest studies on the virus, but who have also spent months treating COVID patients. Even if it is not making headlines, behaviors like singing inside a church correlate to higher cases of the virus. Tragically, church leaders and pastors have been hospitalized, put on life support, and even died.
A given congregation might not experience sickness and even death if significantly less cautious guidelines were to be put into place. But since July 1 we have experienced cases where we later learned someone worshipping with one of our churches did have COVID-19 while in worship. We have clergy and lay leaders who have done contact tracing resulting in attendees going into quarantine while waiting for test results. To date, none of these instances has resulted in a spread of the virus in the congregation as best we can know. Our carefully crafted plans cannot completely prevent the spread of the virus, but our hope is to mitigate risk as much as possible.
This pandemic is calling on each of us to think not only of our own longings for worship, but also of the needs of others. We have had dear friends, family members, fellow parishioners die from the virus. Many congregations have so far been spared that particular grief, but none of us has been left untouched. This has been demanding. Everything is more difficult.
In some cases, this difficulty extends to parish finances. 3 in 10 churches report that giving is down significantly, and when any of our congregations suffer, we all suffer, as we bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. Diocesan Council considered and granted waivers in some cases to the diocesan assessment for those congregations that are most severely impacted. However, we are glad that in many cases, our parishes are faring well financially. 70% of our congregations report that their income is better, about the same, or only slightly less than in previous years.
As I look to the future, it seems very likely that the current guidance will remain in effect, with slight changes the science and experience make possible, into next year. That is why we are working now to imagine how we can offer Christmas worship with some singing. Yet as we look toward more months of some in person worship with many rightly concerned for their health and not returning to the church grounds, we need to follow Jesus in our daily lives.
I want to focus on sharing the Gospel to people outside our red doors, but a challenge we all need to work on is that a quarter to a third or more of our parishioners have not engaged with their church since mid-March. This is what has been keeping me up at night, knowing that not all of our people have been able to find ways to connect, not all of our people have been thriving during this difficult season. The life of faith in pandemic does not mean getting better at online worship or abandoning it for in person options alone. The challenge is to care for those who are hurting, and to deepen discipleship. The call is to follow Jesus through daily prayer, scripture reading, and other spiritual practices that provide solace and nurture us. I have been blessed to see the creative ways you have helped people do this in your congregations and communities over the last eight months. My prayer is that together we can provide opportunities for even more people to be nurtured by their faith in the midst of these most challenging of times.
My call as a bishop is first and foremost to stay connected to Jesus, for apart from him, I can do nothing. Everything else I do as chief pastor to support our deacons, priests, and lay leaders in every congregation flows from that. The same is true for each Christian.
The months ahead will not be easy, but we are not alone. We have each other and we have our gracious, life-giving God, who is working out the reconciliation of all creation with or without us. The grace is that we get to take part in that reconciliation. I remain hopeful, not out of some false optimism, but out of the deep conviction that God is faithful and trustworthy and will never leave us or forsake us.
When we gather at this time next year, I have no doubt that we will be able to look back and see that God has done more than we could ask for or even imagine. I am deeply grateful to be on this difficult journey with you.
The Rt. Rev. Frank S. Logue
Bishop of Georgia