Swine flu anxiety at schools and workplaces is beginning to spread to churches. American church leaders are beginning to issue words of caution and, in some cases, new guidelines for taking part in religious rituals this weekend.
Methodists in Texas are changing the way they do communion. Catholic priests in Chicago have stopped distributing communion wine. Southern Baptist congregations are being told to be prepared to cancel services. The North American Old Catholic Church will stop passing the peace during worship.
Should you pass the peace this Sunday? Should you share a communion cup or dunk your wafer or bread in a common cup? Should you allow your child or yourself to take part in a water baptism? Should you hold hands in prayer or song? Should you even go?
Here are some examples of precautions church leaders are taking:
The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant group, has reissued Pandemic Flu Preparedness Guidelines, including the possibility of limiting mass gatherings: “This may include canceling Sunday services, weekday events at the church, weddings, and funerals.”
Methodist churches in Texas are changing the way they do communion, ordering shipments of individually wrapped communion wafers and juice packets to be used instead of passing the same loaf of bread of a common cup.
The Catholic Bishop of Dallas, Kevin J. Farrell, has advised his diocese’s pastors to consider suspending the reception of the Holy Eucharist under both species and to take other steps to respond to possible health dangers. The first reported death in the U.S. from swine flu came on Tuesday, when a 23-month-old boy visiting from Mexico died in Houston.
Some Roman Catholic pastors in Chicago already have stopped distributing communion wine as a precaution. Archdiocese of Chicago vicar general Rev. John Canary is advising pastors in a memo to use their own judgment in distributing the wine.
The North American Old Catholic Church issued the following changes to all parishes and ministers:
Clay Morris, the Episcopal Church USA‘s program officer for worship and spirituality, said research shows that the practice of sharing the common cup at Eucharist generally carries a very low risk of infection. But the practice of dipping the wafer, called intinction, may carry a higher risk since fingers are also often dipped into the wine.
So far, the best and most faithful advice I’ve seen comes from Rev. Diana Holbert, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in East Dallas. Wednesday, she sent church members an email with these words of counsel:
“1. If you are coughing or sneezing, it’s probably a good idea to stay home. Let us know and we’ll send you a cassette tape of the service if you like!” says the pastor.
“2. If you are well, I encourage you to come together to worship and to pray for those who are sick or panicked.”
She said she planned to preach this Sunday on the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) “Let’s take a deeper look at what Psalm 23 has to say to us today. It may just be what the Doctor ordered,” she wrote.
“Breathe peace, not germs.”