At the AOL-sponsored site Politics Daily , religion columnist David Gibson has a feature on the precautions taken by religious leaders and congregants alike over the possibility of a swine flu epidemic.
Church services may pose the greatest risks, however. Christians not only gather together for worship at least weekly, but they also dip their fingers in common fonts of holy water, pass baskets up and down the pews to collect donations, exchange handshakes and hugs at the sign of peace, and — in varying formats — share bread and wine at communion, sometimes drinking from a single chalice or picking from a loaf of bread. Those churches in which a priest or minister gives out individual wafers of consecrated bread aren’t much better off, studies show, especially if the minister is dipping the Host in a chalice or placing it on each communicant’s tongue.
Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services joined with the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to issue a guide for worshipers and clergy to limit the spread of the virus. The guide says congregants should wash their hands often, avoid large gatherings, and stay home if they feel sick — measures known by the rather chilly term of “social distancing.” The guide also says that “faith and community leaders may consider adjusting such practices” as a common cup “in order to reduce the spread of flu.”
In some places that’s already happening. The Roman Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, where the first cases of swine flu were reported last spring, this month told priests in all 198 parishes to stop offering wine during communion and said they should distribute communion in the hand rather than on the tongue, which is an older practice that some parishioners, especially the elderly, still prefer. The bishop in St. Cloud, Minn., has done the same, and in the Archdiocese of Washington, pastors are reminding parishioners that they can give each other a friendly nod instead of shaking hands at the Sign of Peace, which is exchanged just before communion.
In its detailed series of guidelines, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held out the possibility that church services could be suspended entirely — as happened in Mexico City in April — if the situation deteriorates, and said congregants may want to consider decreasing the frequency with which they receive communion. The PCUSA guidelines also counsel ministers to think about preparing communion while wearing surgical gloves or masks, pre-cutting communion bread with a “sanitized electric knife,” and having worshipers spread themselves out among the pews to create an “envelope” of personal space — all of which, the guide concedes, is not exactly the message the church wants to convey.
I suspect if Jesus had only known about the germ theory of disease he probably would implemented a more sanitary form of sacrament, wouldn’t he?
Good grief. Have Christians really lost all sense of perspective? In a world of 6.7 billion people, 4,735 have died of swine flu infections. In contrast, 90,000 people around the world die each year of snakebites . Im not a statistician or gambling man but Id bet the chances are higher that a Christian somewhere on the planet will receive a fatal snakebite on the way to church than will die from partaking of swine flu infected Communion wine.
Obviously, commonsense precautions should be taken: If youre infectious, stay home; cover youre mouth when you cough; wash your grubby paws before reaching for the Communion wafer, etc. And if swine flu becomes as serious a threat as, say, the Spanish influenza pandemic of1918, then more cautious measures need to be taken. But if youre decreasing the frequency with which you receive Communion out of fear of dying from a unlikely cause, then you may want to question whether youre making an idol of anxiety.