Re-opening churches

When should church buildings, closed for public worship during the pandemic, reopen?

To begin, churches should comply with government orders to close during public health emergencies such as the current pandemic. As an ordained Christian leader for four plus decades, I’m comfortable writing about Christianity. Leaders of other faith groups must conduct their own assessments, weighing public health against religious freedom.

Christianity values life and offers a path toward more abundant living. Needlessly endangering life through corporate worship amid a public health emergency contravenes the foundational Christian value of protecting and promoting life. Nowhere do the Christian Scriptures mandate attendance at public worship. Christians can worship alone, with those who live with them or in virtual gatherings. Physically worshiping together is important, as I have repeatedly argued in Ethical Musings posts. However, protecting life is even more important. In sum, temporary bans on Christians gathering for worship in church buildings do not impinge on the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

Nor is worshiping together in a building dedicated or consecrated to Christian worship a prophylactic against the Covid-19 virus. Congregations that have met for worship, ignoring civil prohibitions on public gatherings, have consistently experienced high levels of Covid-19 contagion. Arguing that God will protect Christians from the virus during corporate worship is a bogus claim.

Churches should not re-open before civic authorities authorize re-opening. Even then, Christian leaders will prudently weigh the best scientific evidence available and take measured steps to protect parishioners’ health. In the near term, these modifications to pre-pandemic practices will almost certainly be advisable:
1.     Disinfect before worship commences all surfaces people touch. This includes surfaces in the worship area, foyer/entrances, restrooms, etc. Parishioners should avoid touching anything that is not properly sanitized between one person and the next touching it. This includes books in pew racks, offering plates/baskets, handrails, etc.
2.     Employ creative options when adequate sanitization is impossible or impractical. For example, outfit acolytes, ushers, altar guild members, floral arrangers, and sound system operators with disposable gloves. Sextons and other cleaners should likewise wear disposable gloves. Authorize only one musician to play each instrument. Teach clergy, lectors and others who use microphones to never touch the mic with a bare hand.
3.     Eliminate Sunday bulletins/worship leaflets unless printed and distributed with no human contact. Alternatively, use electronic screens to project the information previously printed.
4.     Observe recommended or required physical distancing. This means verbal greetings without physical contact when arriving, leaving and exchanging the peace. Congregations that in January filled their worship space will probably need to add worship services. Congregations with sparse January attendance will probably have sufficient space for attendees to maintain physical distancing.
5.     Encourage, or require if dictated by civic authority, all persons to wear a mask.
6.     Empty holy water fonts to avoid unintentionally spreading the virus.
7.     Practice safe baptisms. Most Christian traditions prefer that clergy perform baptisms. Nevertheless, those traditions consistently recognize that in unusual circumstances non-clergy may conduct a valid baptism. Probably the most common situation in which a lay person performs a baptism is an emergency baptism of an unbaptized person believed to be dying when no cleric is available. Today, a masked and gloved cleric, using fresh water in a freshly sanitized font, might baptize someone. Alternatively, the cleric can officiate at the baptism with a person who lives with the candidate performing the actual baptism, using fresh water in a freshly sanitized font. Others may devise additional safe options that avoid potentially spreading the Covid-19 virus.
8.     Anoint wearing gloves and a face mask. This applies to anointing in both Holy Baptism and healing services.
9.     Replace most or all vocal music with instrumental music. Singing widely spreads aerosol particles that can carry the virus. Play recorded vocal music with a license. A vocalist, possibly amplified, may face an open window or door, avoiding spraying the congregation. Amplification may also allow a vocalist to sing from another room or outside. Similar restrictions apply to clergy who formerly sang all or part of the liturgy.
10. Offer an attractive virtual option for participating in corporate worship or an alternative virtual service. Promote the virtual option(s) as a positive approach; encourage individual parishioners to choose the option best suited to their individual’s health. Elderly, persons with compromised immune systems and persons with significant health problems who are especially susceptible to the virus are among those who should seriously consider delaying their returning to corporate worship.
11. Holy Communion is undoubtedly the most difficult element of Christian worship to resume; for many traditions and individuals, their Eucharistic celebration is the central act of Christian worship:

a.     Traditions that celebrate the Eucharist with a common cup will want to resume Eucharistic worship cautiously and employ appropriate theological and liturgical adaptations. The consecrator might wear a mask and gloves. Some scientific analysis reported by Dr. Michael Osterholm suggests the improbability of communicants catching the Covid-19 virus by receiving a wafer and wine from a common cup. Persons who wish to return to the Eucharist more slowly and with greater caution may opt to receive only the consecrated host. The Church teaches that the fulness of Christ is present in both elements. Distribution of the consecrated host may be reasonably safe if the minister wears gloves, mask and maintains maximum feasible physical distance.

b.     In traditions that observe Holy Communion using individual cups, solution appear easier. Persons filling the cups might do so using every reasonable safeguard, e.g., wearing masks and gloves, never touching anything with bare hands and sanitizing everything possible. Cover the trays of cups and wafers during the service until time to distribute them. Then, persons distributing the trays wear face masks and gloves and extend their arm supporting the tray as far as possible; the recipient similarly uses fully extended arm to receive a wafer and take a cup. Commercial vendors sell individually packaged single wafers and filled cups, eliminating most possibility of contamination. Prioritize preventing unintentional spread of the virus over “we’ve always done it this way.”

The preceding recommendations are suggestive and not proscriptive. I lack the authority to tell anyone how to worship and the scientific knowledge to determine best practices. My aim is to prompt discourse about re-opening churches and the changes that will make re-opening safe. Diverse practices will quickly separate the safe from unsafe. Now, more than ever, congregations and their leaders by observing and listening to one another can learn new, healthy ways to sing the Lord’s song while preserving the cherished Christian melody.


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