In the Pastoral Message on the Diocese’s Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) of March 12, 2020, and the Advisory on Upcoming Liturgical and Other Church Functions of March 14, 2020, the Armenian Diocese of Canada informed our beloved faithful about the measures adopted throughout the Diocese to keep members safe and to manage risks prudently.

Since that time, the faithful have not been permitted to enter the church sanctuary; while Sunday services continued to take place behind closed doors (often broadcast over the Internet), participation has been limited to the clergyman and few singers, with social distancing used. Holy Communion remains limited to the celebrant priest, who receives it on behalf of all the faithful. Baptisms, weddings, and other services have been postponed, with funerals strictly limited to private graveside ceremonies.

Given that the authorities will eventually grant permission to hold indoor public gatherings, we must prepare now to ensure that each parish that opens its doors and resumes liturgical activities will do so in the safest possible manner.

We hereby would like to inform our faithful about the new policies and guidelines for a cautious, phased re-opening of church functions, as individual provincial and municipal authorities begin to consider loosening restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual parishes, in compliance with all local regulations, must adhere to these guidelines if and when, at the discretion of each parish, they choose to restore church services.

The guidelines are set to take effect upon authorities’ permission to reopen places of worship with due consideration of variations in the legal and medical environment of individual localities.

PHASE ONE will permit short visits to church, and applies only to parishes where local regulations allow people to leave their homes, and where individuals feel comfortable doing so, understanding the risks involved.

Under Phase One, visits can include coming to the church for personal prayer or candle-lighting, during publicly-announced hours on weekdays, Saturday, or Sunday afternoon (not during the badarak), as determined by the pastor in consultation with his parish council. These brief visits may be made by one individual or one household at a time, with social distancing and prohibitions against touching physical objects all observed.

Phase One also provides for private confession and spiritual counseling, where individuals may meet with the pastor by prior arrangement, with the observance of social distancing.

PHASE TWO will extend church functions to include the Divine Liturgy and Sacraments, and applies only to parishes where local regulations do not prohibit church services, and where public gatherings are permitted. Social distancing rules apply, even to members of the same household, and church attendance will of necessity be limited. Where possible, parishes are encouraged to continue live-streaming their Sunday services through this phase.

In Phase Two, Holy Communion will still only be partaken by the celebrant priest, on behalf of the faithful. Full Holy Communion of all the faithful will be restored in subsequent phases.

Under these conditions, Phase Two allows for outdoor celebrations of the badarak and jashou services, in a suitably dignified manner, as an extraordinary and temporary arrangement in a time of crisis.

Because singing and chanting have been associated with increased risk of transmission, choir members are directed to maintain even greater-than-usual social distance from each other, and worshippers are strongly advised to sing only in a whisper.

Similarly, the Kiss of Peace must be conducted with a distanced bowing of the head, and without the usual physical approach. Likewise, the collection plate will not be passed, but faithful will be invited to make their offerings in a special container designated for the purpose. Fellowship hour must be omitted.

Under Phase Two, badarak may also be held in the church sanctuary-with all the stipulations mentioned under outdoor celebrations. Because of indoor space limitations, the need for distancing, and municipal regulations on public gatherings, pastors (in consultation with their parish councils) are asked to devise an equitable system for allowing parishioners to participate in a given celebration.

Sacramental services such as Holy Matrimony and Baptism will resume under Phase Two, but with special considerations for those ritual practices that would ordinarily bring the priest into physical contact with the ones receiving the sacrament. While the instructions are intended to minimize the risk of infection, all participating in the sacrament must understand and assent to the fact that some risk remains; otherwise the service should be postponed. Other people attending all such ceremonies must be strictly limited and distanced.

In the case of Wedding services, performing the Joining of Hands, the Blessing of Rings, and the Crowning ceremonies will be done in accordance with pandemic observances.

Baptisms are restricted to adults only in these initial phases-in consideration of counsel from medical authorities that infant baptism remains a high-risk activity during the pandemic. (Gravely ill infants will remain an exception to this policy, as is the case currently.) Even for adult baptisms, however, special cautions must be observed for the blessing of the cross/narod, immersion, and anointing.

Essential meetings and other non-liturgical functions may take place in other areas of the church facility with the approval of the Pastor and in consultation with the Parish Council.

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).