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Around the time of Pascha (a.k.a Orthodox “Easter”) this year, several bishops and ruling metropolitans in the United States announced the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in full, to take effect immediately if possible, and before September 1, 2021 if circumstances prevented individual parish temples from resuming normal services. Such was the thought of Metropolitan Joseph, the ruling Hierarch of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America in his letter, dated May 14th, 2021:
Of particular note, these excerpts:
In light of the announcement by the CDC yesterday saying that people who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear masks and social distance, whether indoors or outdoors, and in light of the reality that most every adult who wants to be vaccinated has had the opportunity to be vaccinated, we are lifting all requirements to wear masks and social distance in our churches in the United States of America…
Additionally, in light of the new CDC recommendations, choirs, church schools, coffee hours and social functions, hall rentals, meetings, etc. may also resume as each parish determines it is the appropriate time, but no later than the beginning of the new ecclesiastical year in September.
Metropolitan Joseph’s decision was echoed across a number of other Orthodox Christian sees, such as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)’s Diocese of the West, under Archbishop Benjamin, who was the top of much controversy in this piece we published some months ago. His letter dated April 20th, regarding COVID guidelines strikes a similar tone (selected excerpts):
It is with much gratitude to God that we write you concerning the lifting of some of the prior restrictions we have laid down across the diocese pertaining to the coronavirus. By God’s grace the vaccines that protect against infection and serious illness is now more widely available in most places. This is especially welcome as Pascha is around the corner.
Given that local restrictions are in constant flux and the size and diversity of the diocese, it is difficult to impose a “one size fits all” policy everywhere. Nevertheless, there are some adjustments that can be made should local conditions and law permit. I believe from Palm Sunday forward we can lift restrictions with regard to how many persons may be present in the temple should the local health policy allow. However, all those present should still wear face masks whether or not they have received the vaccine or not for the time being…
…keeping in mind the necessity for any parish to close its doors for 10 days should anyone present in church come down with COVID 19. It would be a great pity for it to become necessary to close the doors of any parish or monastery because someone could have involuntarily exposed others to the virus.
Finally, I want to express my personal thanks to you and your flocks for your prayerful support as I deal with my Parkinson’s diagnosis and to wish you a blessed and bright Pascha.
I left this remark about Archbishop Benjamin’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease here to remind us that while we may yet disagree with this Bishop’s point of view (which I personally still do), he is nevertheless a very good man, he is someone I have considered a friend, and he has been very helpful to me personally. To see this diagnosis is truly sad news, so he needs prayers.
This guidance was also applied in other OCA dioceses such as the South, and Midwest, all with similar language. The reader is invited to see for himself by going to this page.
It is certainly a good thing that the parish temples are reopening.
But in most, if not all of the dioceses in the United States, whether open or not, the hierarchs appear to be making the exact same mistake they did when the pandemic started, and because of this, while the parishes may be opened, the problem is not fixed.
If you want to find out how this is so, the answer is presented in the next part of this series.