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Why do worship services involve so many germs?

As COVID-19 spreads and anxiety rises, churches are trying to reduce physical interactions during worship

A volunteer sprays disinfectant inside a Christian church in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, Friday, March 6, 2020. World stock markets are down sharply again as pessimism prevails over the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Chinatopix via Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — For people of faith, churches can be a great place to connect with God, catch up with friends and spread germs.

That last activity doesn’t happen on purpose, but it’s still hard to avoid, said the Rev. Tim Briggs, who is in the process of planting a new church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“People shake hands, introduce themselves and share what’s going on in their lives. There’s ample opportunity for germs to be spread,” he said.

Physical interaction, including during the ritual of communion, has been part of Christian worship services for centuries. Early Christians met in small spaces and shared their limited resources, drawing close to one another both physically and spiritually, the Rev. Briggs said.

“Gathering together in a physical location is part of the rhythm Jesus set up from the beginning,” he said.

But the familiarity of handshakes, hugs and even shared communion cups during worship doesn’t stop these practices from becoming problematic when people’s fears about illness rise. Some churches adjust their rituals every flu season, and most encourage people to stay home anytime they’re feeling sick.

“It’s a hard balance for all churches,” the Rev. Briggs said. “You don’t want to have sickness spread in the community,” but you also don’t want to lose all the physical interactions that make church feel like church.

Amid the global outbreak of COVID-19, the new strain of coronavirus that’s led to more than 3,300 deaths, many churches are trying to make common sense adjustments that don’t affect the flow of worship too much.

For example, pastors have encouraged people to bump elbows rather than embrace, or stopped offering communion wine or juice in a shared cup.

“I bought two high-speed thermometers for every ward and we had disinfectant containers all over the building so people could sanitize their hands frequently,” said Jean-Luc Butel, president of the Singapore Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the Deseret News last week.

Churches are far from the only religious organizations affected. Mosques in Iran and elsewhere have had to stop offering weekly prayer services and many synagogues have discouraged attendees from touching one another.

These coronavirus related changes are likely only temporary, but they still trouble some of the religious leaders who have to oversee them.

Churches should do what they can to protect worshippers, but also try not to spread panic, said Bishop Oscar Solis, who leads the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, in a Feb. 28 memo.

“We do not want to create any panic, but we also want to be ready if the need arises to implement appropriate health precautions,” he wrote.

It can feel wrong to make decisions based on fear when you’re part of a community built around faith, other religious leaders said.

“It feels weird because you’re adding something that is highlighting a problem versus focusing on Christ himself,” said the Rev. Barry Gray, transitional pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, to The Washington Post about his church’s recent adjustments to communion rituals.

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge, who is an Episcopal priest and author, shared similar thoughts in a 2017 blog post on communion, which she re-shared this week in response to anxiety about the coronavirus.

In the piece, she laments growing concern about sharing a communal drinking cup during communion, noting that the Bible instructs Christians to love one another, not obsess over each other’s germs.

“Should fear dictate our practice in this most intimate of all settings?” the Rev. Rutledge asked.

The Rev. Briggs joins her in believing that it shouldn’t, but he still thinks pastors should do what they can to keep their congregations healthy. For example, when he leads a worship service featuring communion by intinction, which involves having people dip their piece of bread into a shared cup, he reminds worshippers not to get their fingers in the juice.

“Sometimes people will drop the bread and then go fishing for it,” he said.

When flu season ends and anxiety tied to the coronavirus subsides, the Rev. Briggs hopes churches will again celebrate the messiness that comes with being human, rather than agonize over how to reduce it.

“It would be really foreign for a church not to have hugs and handshakes and other messy, germy stuff,” he said.