A year after the COVID-19 pandemic sent Easter Sunday services online, congregants will join together Sunday to worship in person.
There will just be fewer of them sitting farther apart and wearing masks.
Most Central Virginia churches are slated to share Easter together as vaccinations and decreasing COVID case counts have led to eased restrictions on gatherings in general.
Congregants will still need to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks indoors but area churches are finding ways to incorporate those rules while keeping the services meaningful.
For some smaller churches, the usually heavy turnout during Holy Week has led to limited in-person access and pre-registration with online live-streaming for those who do not get a place.
Some, such as Center Church, which is holding a service at The Green at Stonefield Commons, are having outdoor services. Others have added services to accommodate more people, just fewer at a time.
For the Church of the Incarnation in Albemarle County, it meant making a few changes in the Holy Week plans, including two Easter Triduum services that mark Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
“We asked permission to do something we normally do not do,” said Monsignor Timothy Keeney. “Normally, you’re only allowed to have one of those and it would be bilingual, it would be the whole community and in both English and Spanish. With the need for social distancing, that makes it difficult.”
The Catholic parish also will hold a separate Mass specifically for those who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The church’s Our Lady of the Rosary Mission in Crozet is holding a 6:30 a.m. sunrise service at Crozet Park and a 1:30 p.m. Mass at its temporary headquarters in Crozet Baptist Church.
Church of the Incarnation has a large congregation of both native Spanish speakers and English speakers and often held bilingual Masses prior to the pandemic. For Easter, with a large number of people expected to worship and social distancing rules in force, there will be two separate Masses.
“We can do Masses at different times, but for the Easter vigil, we will actually gather together at the Easter fire outside and then process to two different places for simultaneous celebrations, according to language,” Keeney said. “We just couldn’t accommodate as many people as we knew would want to come.”
First Baptist Church Park Street in Charlottesville will hold two services to make up for fewer worshippers being allowed to gather together at one time.
“Our sanctuary normally seats up to 1,200 but we now have it capped at 350,” said the Rev. Rob Pochek. “We closed every other pew and put 6-foot sliding signs in the pews that we’re using for social distancing. That way we can still allow family groups to be together.”
While the congregation will sing hymns, members must keep their face covering on during the service, Pochek said.
“We never gave up singing and we do require masks indoors and don’t give people an option,” he said. “The Scripture commands us to sing and we’re going to obey the Scripture. But we have to acknowledge that it puts people at risk, so we require masks.”
Outside services do not require masks, he said.
“If you’re outside in the yard, we don’t [enforce it], but if you’re under a roof inside the building, we’re going to ask you to wear masks,” he said. “We’ve gotten very little pushback from that. Our services are as normal as possible with the exception of that.”
Church of the Incarnation also requires masks and social distancing. Church leaders’ views on singing are different, however.
“We just got word that we can open up a little bit. So long as members keep the proper distance from one another, we can have choirs of up to eight people,” Keeney said. “We’re still asking people to quietly mouth the words in terms of congregational singing at this point.”
Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam shut down most of society, including churches, from March to May. The restrictions led several churches across the state, including church members in Madison County, to take the governor to court, claiming he was violating their freedom of religion.
In September, most restrictions other than masks and social distancing were dropped for religious services.
“During the course of the shutdown, we had developed a plan about what it would look like to return to in-person worship and we set it out in phases similar to what we thought the state would do,” Pochek said. “One unintended benefit was live-streaming. That’s been a bigger blessing than I thought it would be for people who are homebound and for shut-ins. We always recorded our services and put them on YouTube, but it’s been different because live-streaming puts them there with us.”
“There are people who tell me all the time that they’ve been watching Mass online and we’ve done rounds of phone calls with parishioners to check up on them, but it’s not the same thing as seeing people from week to week,” Keeney said.
“One of the things we did early on and will continue is we now have daily confessions,” he said. “It is a way of allowing people to connect and it has been hugely successful. That is something that will be continued past COVID.”