Get ready! Be alert! Stay awake!
The Advent themes of expectation and preparedness take on new meaning this year. Like most of us, I listen to the news each morning with a growing sense of anxiety about the COVID-19 variants and their exponentially rapid transmission. It’s discouraging indeed that we’re facing uncertainty and possible further restrictions with the Christmas season approaching. How we had hoped – when 2021 dawned with the blessing of the vaccine roll-out – that we would be in a different place by now.
Many people have asked me, the other bishops and diocesan staff if we think the province will impose another lockdown before Christmas. The truth of the matter is, we don’t know. The numbers don’t look good, and we know that the Ontario Science Advisory Table has called for an immediate “circuit breaker” to stave off the growing number of cases. How the government responds to this advice remains to be seen. It may be that we move toward a lockdown, or perhaps reduced capacity limits (either as a percentage or a hard number) before Christmas, or perhaps right after. Things are evolving by the day – sometimes by the hour – and while the faith communities haven’t yet been given explicit directions, it may be that by the time I press “send” on this letter, the situation will already have changed. Be alert, indeed!
The College of Bishops discussed this situation yesterday and have been consulting with other dioceses in Ontario and the wider Church all week. We have made the following decisions.
We are rescinding permission for anyone to remove their mask in church. All people present must be masked at all times. Although we had previously permitted a single liturgical speaker to unmask if they could maintain a distance of 4 metres from others, we are now requiring all persons present, regardless of function, to remain masked at all times.
We are not changing any other of our Amber Guidelines at this time, but we make the following recommendations:
- Choral and congregational singing may continue, but consider reducing the number of hymns, or number of verses, to minimize extended periods of singing.
- Capacity limits have not been changed at time of writing, but consider voluntarily reducing your capacity in order to spread people out around your space with greater distances.
- To that end, consider adding an additional service or two over the Christmas season to allow people to come at “off-peak” times.
- Finally, online offerings of worship should continue, as we know that many people will feel safest if they worship from home again this year. It may well be that your online services become your primary vehicle for worship this year, but we expect that there will be some provision, at least in every deanery, for those who wish to make their Christmas Communion in person. Please advertise well all the ways that people can celebrate the birth of the Saviour.
I personally know how hard it can be to make plans and have them upset at the last minute. We’re all tired of “pivoting.” And for those of us who make decisions and carry the weight of responsibility for the safety of the community, these are heavy times. The Diocese of Toronto has always tried to give every parish some degree of latitude to make careful decisions based on local context. Be aware of your local health protocols and adhere to their guidance; some parts of this Diocese are seeing spikes in their infection numbers. Believe me when I say I pray for the local leadership of each parish daily.
We are approaching the longest night of the year, the night when the darkness seems to overcome the light. But then, everything changes.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
May our expectation for the birth of the Christ-child, our Hope and our Salvation, bring you joy and gladness in the coming days ahead.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Asbil
Bishop of Toronto