Swine Flu, Hygiene, and Holy Communion
The high profile of the Swine Flu outbreak has provoked new concerns about contact with people in public settings. In stadiums, airports, and other settings where we don't know who has been there or where they have traveled, there looms a question of what exposure to epidemic diseases we might have. It is natural that church leaders and members are wondering about the risk of participating in worship, including hand-shaking, hugging, and sharing the bread and cup of Holy Communion.
Here we want to provide reliable resources to help you decide how to handle concerns about the spread of Swine Flu where you worship.
The Centers for Disease Control has a dedicated page with specific information and links regarding Swine Flu. In states and major metropolitan areas within those states with higher counts for any epidemic, it stands to reason that greater precaution and stress on preventative measures would be in order. The CDC recommends covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, using a disposable tissue then disposing of it immediately, regular hand washing (10-15 seconds with liquid soap, drained bar soap, or an alcohol-based hand cleaner), and not touching your eyes, nose or mouth as the basic means of preventing any spread.
Taking a Broad and Prudent Approach
So what can you do that is proactive and prudent? What might such an approach look like?
First, anticipate that there are a number of people who already have concerns about communicable disease and Holy Communion. And assume that some in the congregation are concerned about Swine Flu, although they may have little clear and trustworthy information about the possible connections between worship practices and transmission.
Second, if Swine Flu is present where you are, issue today the same advice that New York City and other municipalities are issuing. Get the word out in your congregation that if folks have a sore throat, fever or other flu symptoms, they should not come to worship!
Third, talk with physicians and other health care workers in your congregation. Let them know you intend to follow the CDC's recommendations as you lead worship and ask for any input they may have about how you and your worship leaders should do that.
Fourth, take this occasion as a prompting to institute (if you have not already done so) practices of preparing and serving Holy Communion that are consistent with the best epidemiological information available. (See Holy Communion and Infection Risks.) In consultation with your worship team/commission, implement these kinds of changes, asking all who handle the elements to thoroughly wash their hands first (including yourself!) and to administer the bread rather than having partakers tear their own piece. (See This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion for more detail.)
Fifth, remember that the most likely forms of transmission are by skin to skin contact. This can occur while shaking hands, hugging, or passing the peace. These are common, everyday human interactions, and normal parts of worship in many traditions. Avoiding all forms of touch may be a counterproductive over-reaction where the Swine Flu is not spreading. In places where it is, consider encouraging people to nod their heads, or bow toward one another, or offer other signs of peace and greeting that do not require skin to skin contact.
Finally, consider writing a brief article for the church newsletter or website encouraging the CDC recommendations as good practices for worship and daily life, especially during times and in places where the Swine Flu is spreading.
Swine Flu, like SARS and Bird Flu before it, will come and go. The specific scares will pass; but now is a good time, before this pandemic (or whatever the next pandemic may be) reaches you for churches to do a checkup on their worship practices and gain some important factual data about healthy practices to inform how you do what you do.
Certainly the conclusion we come to should not be that being together is dangerous or that Communion should be suspended or relegated to infrequent celebration. After all, receiving Communion has a much lower risk of spreading infection than shaking hands does! The conclusion should be that God calls us together to be the body of Christ around Word and Table and that we can do so with confidence that we will taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Daniel Benedict retired from the staff of the Discipleship Ministries in August 2005. Taylor Burton Edwards ([email protected]) is the Director of Worship Resources for the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.