The Rev. Thomas N. J. Synan: How is it safe to hold church service?

  • The Rev. Tom Synan of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst speaks in 2016 on the Town Common during a vigil held to mourn lives lost in the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando. gazette file photo

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Is Gov. Charlie Baker trying to harm my congregation? That question may sound dramatic and perhaps absurd, but it begs to be asked.

When I read the governor’s report for a four-phase reopening, I was shocked. Starting May 18, manufacturing, construction and houses of worship were given permission to commence their operations, while cinemas, theaters, museums and other venues where people congregate in ways similar to a house of worship are placed in Phase 3.

At the same time, families, friends and next-of-kin are still not allowed to visit loved ones in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. According to what I have read, even the Red Sox are not allowed to play baseball outside.

If the current conditions are such that it is not safe for a baseball team to play in a large stadium, how is it safe for my parish to gather indoors, in a single room, and be together for over an hour while an unchecked virus permeates our society, eagerly seeking new people to infect?

If so many components of our society currently are not considered safe, why are we so graciously being offered to go first? I honestly do not believe the governor intentionally desires or wants to harm my congregation. But what gives?

Are houses of worship in Phase One because our Republican governor serving the bluest state of the union is under political and religious pressure in an election year? Just because Gov. Baker says we can open does not mean we should. There is more for us to consider.

My understanding of church in society is that I and my parish have a moral duty and obligation to our local community of Amherst, the Pioneer Valley, western Massachusetts, and the entire commonwealth and beyond for the common good of all people. As a church we believe we are called to mediate and bear witness to God’s will, and that we are also called to be accountable to God, to one another, and to all of God’s creation.

Given the current conditions of our world today, in which the pandemic is not over, testing is insufficient, there is no vaccine, people are still getting sick, hospitals are closed to all visitors, and it is deemed not safe enough for the Red Sox to play baseball outside, reopening my parish simply because we can and we want to would be a moral failing for me as a priest and for my beloved flock as a church.

Did Gov. Baker make this decision on his own? I doubt it. A local television newscaster called my church, wanting a sound bite from me about this issue. I checked the station’s website, and no surprise, the station is broadcasting remotely. It’s not safe for a team of reporters to be in the same studio, why then is it OK for my congregation to possibly get sick, spread a virus, and possibly even die?

Maybe it would make for more interesting journalism for someone to find out who orchestrated, what I believe, is a terrible and dangerous decision: putting the lives of some of society’s most innocent and earnest people unnecessarily in harm’s way.

All major world religions provide the disciplines of fasting and self-denial — two concepts that are very foreign to the American ethos of the 21st century — but that is where we are today. At my parish, we are observing a fast and we are willing to sacrifice today much that sustains and feeds us in order for there to be a better tomorrow for all. Refraining from having in-person services, albeit temporarily for now, we see as an act of love — love for God, love for one another and love for our neighbors.

Who knows, with God’s help, it may even get the Red Sox out on the playing field sooner than later.

The Rev. Thomas N. J. Synan is rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst.