Iowa Churches Weigh Decisions On Reopening

30 Apr

By PERRY BEEMAN, Senior Reporter | Iowa Capital Dispatch

Thousands of churches around Iowa, particularly in the 22 counties still under many coronavirus-related restrictions, face difficult decisions. Some have turned to online services with success, but are weighing when they can reopen their sanctuaries safely.

On Tuesday, a day after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced churches could reopen Friday, 21 denominational leaders from around Iowa expressed concern that Reynolds had allowed in-person services too early.

In a joint letter, the leaders of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa asked all churches to refrain from in-person services for now. “For the sake of the common good, we ask all congregations, their leaders, and their members to prioritize the safety and well being of each other, those at particular risk, and those in their broader community. Please love one another and your neighbor by continuing to be in community together from afar.”

The clergy members signing the letter included, among others, Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church; the Rev. Bridgit Stevens, general Presbyter of the regional United Church of Christ; Bishop Thomas Zinkula of the Catholic Diocese of Davenport, the Rev. Ian McMullen of the Presbytery of North Central  and the Right Rev. Alan Scarfe, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.

“Decisions to return to in-person gatherings in our congregations should be based on science, the best practices recommended by public health officials, and in consultation with the leaders of our faith communities,” the letter read.

In a separate letter to Methodist churches this week, Haller said she was changing her initial plan to follow Reynolds’ guidance on reopening. Reynolds has left reopening up to the churches statewide for First Amendment reasons, she said Tuesday.

“In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, I am strongly encouraging all United Methodist churches in Iowa to refrain from in-person worship until June 1, when I will reassess,” Haller wrote.

She added: “My reasoning is that our first priority as disciples of Jesus Christ is to protect those who are most vulnerable, which includes the elderly, the very young, and those with underlying health conditions. Even though we all want to return to our churches and be a part of the body of Christ in person, I believe that it is more important to assure the safety of our communities from further infections.”

All four Roman Catholic dioceses in Iowa will continue the suspension of Sunday Masses indefinitely, the bishops announced Tuesday evening.

“With the lifting of restrictions against certain public gatherings, including religious assemblies, byGovernor Kim Reynolds, members of the faithful are understandably renewed in their hope that they might safely return to church and resume some form of regular parish life. Yet the spread of the COVID-19 disease remains a real and present danger. In particular, the health and survival of the elderly and other vulnerable populations is still a grave concern. Many parishioners and priests fall within these
groups, the four Iowa bishops wrote in a joint letter.

“In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, we have decided it would be most prudent for now to continue to follow the liturgical restrictions we have in place, including the suspension of public Masses,” the bishops wrote. “Without an effective vaccine or widespread testing and contact data that justifies a change in course, we simply are not
at a place where we can resume our previous prayer practices.”

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