COVID-19 Is a Devil Testing Organized Religion

Religious communities have to be careful not to love people to death. Photo: Keith Bedford/Boston Globe via Getty Images

One of the great scriptural foundations of Christianity as an organized religion was Jesus’s saying (in Matthew 18:20): “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But in a public health crisis like the one currently posed by COVID-19, whenever two or more Christians gather to share prayers, hugs, meals or the bread and wine of communion, there among them could also be coronavirus. And Christians form just one of the U.S. religious communities that are struggling to stay true to their traditions and serve those who depend on them without loving people to death.

Celebrations of the festive Jewish holiday of Purim were curtailed by many synagogues earlier this week, as the Washington Post reported:

Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation on Friday canceled its Purim carnival and the party scheduled for after services Monday night. Elsewhere in the United States, Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle shelved its plans for a Star Wars-themed Purim program, and a massive Purim party was reportedly canceled in Lakewood, N.J. Celebrations in places like Israel and Italy also have been canceled.

The practice of Islam has been hit even harder, obviously in coronavirus-stricken Iran — where Friday prayers have been canceled in more than 20 cities — but also in Saudi Arabia, where the issuance of tourist visas for the annual Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina were abruptly halted.

Initial concerns among Christians in the U.S. have often centered on the Eucharist, or communion, particularly in those denominations that practice it at least weekly and distribute it by hand, by drinking from a common cup, or by “intinction” (dipping a communion wafer into the cup of wine or juice, which usually means multiple fingers are touching the liquid). As NPR reports, a lot of churches are changing ancient practices, at least temporarily:

The Episcopal Dioceses of Los Angeles this week told its congregations to stop offering Communion wine. Christian religious leaders at the regional level of various denominations in Chicago, Seattle, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere have taken similar actions. Some, like the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, are asking clergy not to use the shared Communion cup.

The Greek Orthodox Church, by contrast, has announced as a matter of doctrine that it does not believe the coronavirus can be transmitted via communion wine or wafer. To put it mildly, that’s a controversial position.

But as Vox’s Emily Todd Van Der Werff explains, ecclesiastical concerns go far beyond the communion table:

[E]ven beyond communion rituals, most churches practice some variation of the “passing of the peace” — in which congregants shake hands and wish each other “peace be with you.” During Holy Week, which directly precedes Easter, many churches traditionally wash parishioners’ feet, to replicate a moment from the Bible.

But even outside of official forms of worship, most churches are spaces where there are plenty of handshakes and hugs, before and after services. And that’s to say nothing of other gatherings churches might host, like coffee hours after services, fish fries during Lent, or soup kitchens for those in need.

So some churches are taking more extreme measures, like suspending regular worship services altogether, notes the New York Times:

In a dramatic move to slow the spread of the coronavirus in one of the most affected regions of the country, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle suspended all public celebration of Mass, effective immediately, becoming the first Catholic archdiocese in the country to do so….

It was the most significant example of how the coronavirus is increasingly disrupting religious life across the United States, from a mosque in the Seattle area that canceled traditional Friday prayer services last week to Kentucky, where the governor on Wednesday urged all churches to cancel services.

Also on Wednesday, the Episcopal bishops in Virginia and Washington, D.C., announced that all churches in the dioceses would be closed for two weeks, including the Washington National Cathedral, which has held presidential funerals and is a focal point of Christian life in the capital.

In some areas, believers of all types are probably paying attention to declarations by public health experts and elected officials urging avoidance of religious or non-religious events involving “large audiences.” But there’s often fine print that may not be so carefully heard or observed, as in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom has called for the suspension of gatherings of more than 250 people. Public health officials added this warning:

The California recommendations say small events at venues that do not allow 6 feet of space between people should be postponed or canceled. Gatherings of people at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should be limited to no more than 10.

My own little church in California only has about 50 active members, but a majority are probably at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and they love to hug each other and break bread together, both during and after worship services.

As Van Der Werff observes, there are ways to maintain religious communities with far less physical contact; some churches in hard-hit Washington State are already going there:

“A lot of us are ramping up ways to keep and hold community in the midst of this, either by Facetime, Googling, Zoom calls, Facebook Live, all those forms of media that can help keep and hold a community together,” [Rev. Patty] Baker told me. St. Clare [Episcopal Church]’s most recent service was streamed on Zoom, a videoconferencing application that’s similar to Skype, for anyone who couldn’t attend Mass in person.

These changes are being adopted with different levels of rigorousness in different parts of the country. Many churches in the center of the US, where coronavirus is not yet as prevalent, have not taken any such measures, while churches in densely populated areas are already stepping up precautions.

Precautions also affect services that churches offer to people who are more vulnerable than sick or elderly parishioners, as Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde observed in announcing the new regime at the National Cathedral:

Bishop Budde encouraged worshipers to join the National Cathedral for online services on the next two Sundays. She said that parish schools would be allowed to make their own decisions about whether to close, and that ministries that largely serve people who are hungry or homeless would continue to do so.

“We will err on the side of our compassion, but we want to make sure that our volunteers and all who come to receive those necessary services are safe,” Bishop Budde said at a news conference.

Safety is compassionate, too. And believers of all stripes know that God helps those who help themselves with thoughtful prudence.

The Coronavirus Is Testing Organized Religion