Our news headlines these days feature story after story of the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) throughout the world, and we are saddened by the number of deaths that have occurred in China, Italy and other nations including our own as a result of Covid-19. As our health care system is seeking to contain and eliminate this disease many religious bodies are also wondering what role they might have in preventing Covid-19 from spreading.
As churches we gather as a community and rub shoulders with each other every week. We hug, we shake hands, we share food and drinks in fellowship, and we sit side by side as we worship our Lord. All of these are activities which also leave us open to unintentionally passing along more than the Peace of Christ, whether it is Covid-19, the flu or a common cold. This would be a good time to carefully reconsider how we, who delight in being in community, also practice care for the health of our communities within and beyond our churches.
A few weeks ago I led worship at a church in downtown Toronto. One of the elders began the service with the announcements. He presented an extended message about the Coronavirus, including a number of power point slides giving detailed instructions on hand washing and community greeting practices. As a glanced at my watch and saw my sermon time shrinking, I wondered if this was necessary. It very much was!
During these times here a few things every church ought to consider:
Are there plenty of bottles of 60% alcohol based hand sanitizer placed throughout the church building that are visible and accessible for all?
Should our ushers/greeters/minister be welcoming worshippers in a different way as people come and leave worship? Is hand-shaking our only option to say welcome? Should we smile, nod, bow to one another as we avoid all forms of touching.
Should we adjust or discontinue our present practice of ‘passing the peace’ during out worship service? Encoring people to offer the peace of Christ to one another while standing in place makes good sense. Making eye contact, waving, or nodding heads are a much better option.
Should we take time to teach our church about best practices for hand-washing, coughing, and/or staying home?
Are our bathrooms kept clean and well-stocked with soap and paper towels? Are handles, faucets and doorhandles regularly cleaned, sprayed and wiped with a germ killing product such as Lysol?
Is the rest of the church being cleaned thoroughly and regularly with products that kill the spread of germs? Pay particular attention to the Sunday school, cleaning table tops, cupboard doors and handles and any other thing children are apt to touch. Clean all surfaces in the nursery before and after use with a germ killing product and wipe down all toys and board books after each use. Children are less likely to practice good hand washing and babies and toddlers put just about everything in their mouths in the course of play.
What are our best practices in the kitchen with the preparation and delivery of food items and drink? Are we using gloves when touching food items for presentation? Are we washing our dishes correctly? Are there practices we need to correct or polish to be more considerate during these times of fellowship?
Consider postponing the sacrament of communion until after the risk of transferring the virus has passed. If you decide to celebrate this sacrament at this time discontinue intinction during these days. Also, limit the number of people involved in the preparation of the elements for communion and use disposable gloves at all times. Consider how the elements will be distributed to limit the number of hands touching the dishes as they are passed from row to row, and among members along the rows. Is there a better way? Finally, as the person(s) officiating, use hand sanitizer immediately before this portion of the liturgy even if you washed your hands before the service. Doing this will assure your congregation that you are taking this seriously and modelling for them good practices.
Consider the other times in worship where people come into close contact with one another. Passing the offering plate up and down the rows might be ceased and the offering plate could be placed at the entrance to the sanctuary for members to leave their gifts on the way into and out of worship. Encourage people to leave a 2 metre space between them as they sit in worship.
(March 12, 2020) Since the original writing of this post churches are now considering, out of an abundance of caution and care, whether it is appropriate to cancel services of worship along with all other activities of the church. As of March 12, 2020 some PCC churches have made the decision to cancel worship services, other have cancelled everything but their worship service, while still others have encouraged older and vulnerable persons to stay home and are adapting worship and its activities to lessen the risk to all involved. Many churches have held emergency session meetings to discuss and decide what is best for their church, knowing that these answers might evolve and change in the days to come. Please make all of your decisions as a church out of an abundance of caution, leaning always on the side of safety in all matters.
Here are some very helpful directions from the World Health Organization for you to consider as you give leadership to your congregation around the subject of the Coronavirus:
Basic protective measures against the new coronavirus
Stay aware of the latest information on the COVID-19 outbreak, available on the WHO website and through your national and local public health authority. COVID-19 is still affecting mostly people in China with some outbreaks in other countries. Most people who become infected experience mild illness and recover, but it can be more severe for others. Take care of your health and protect others by doing the following:
Wash your hands frequently
Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.
Why? Washing your hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand rub kills viruses that may be on your hands.
Maintain social distancing
Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
Why? When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease.
Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
Why? Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick.
Practice respiratory hygiene
Make sure you, and the people around you, follow good respiratory hygiene. This means covering your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately.
Why? Droplets spread virus. By following good respiratory hygiene you protect the people around you from viruses such as cold, flu and COVID-19.
If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early
Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority.
Why? National and local authorities will have the most up to date information on the situation in your area. Calling in advance will allow your health care provider to quickly direct you to the right health facility. This will also protect you and help prevent spread of viruses and other infections.
Stay informed and follow advice given by your healthcare provider
Stay informed on the latest developments about COVID-19. Follow advice given by your healthcare provider, your national and local public health authority or your employer on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
Why? National and local authorities will have the most up to date information on whether COVID-19 is spreading in your area. They are best placed to advise on what people in your area should be doing to protect themselves.