It’s one thing to be courageous in opening oneself to risk for the sake of others, as all disciples of Jesus are called to do. It’s another thing, however, to put others, who have not themselves volunteered for such exposure, at risk of serious illness or death. I am concerned about the not-insubstantial prospect of someone who is infected but asymptomatic attending one of our services, feeling completely well and healthy, and then infecting another communicant who is in the category of those who are most at risk if infected with COVID19. Knowledge of something like that happening would be more than any of us would want to bear.
The principle is the same as that which lies behind laws against drunk driving. Getting drunk may be a choice an adult has a right to make. Killing another person as a result of driving while drunk is not. Continuing to hold services that are open to the public during an epidemic could be considered the moral equivalent of drunk driving. Of course, it could be argued that we take serious risks, and put others at risk, every day, without giving it much thought. This is not untrue, and I won’t pretend to be able to make a slam-dunk argument about how one form of risk-taking is tolerable and another is not. I agree that we ought not to allow our lives to be ruled by fear. But the gospel calls us also to cultivate the virtue of prudence. For this season of the coronavirus, foregoing public worship is, I believe, the prudent course.
This will, of course, be a shock to our collective system. This is uncharted territory; we have no “corporate memory” on which can call for a time like this. There are no established “best practices” to guide us. What does our common life look like, then, in the near term?
First, the Eucharist can and must go on. To reiterate what I wrote in my St Patrick’s Day letter: I call on parish clergy to continue to celebrate the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day. But it must be done, as it were, privately, not at a stated time that is publicized. Attendance must be limited to five persons, with extraordinary precautions taken to maintain social distance and a microbe-free cleanliness. For the administration of the sacrament, I would commend the otherwise wholly inappropriate practice of leaving the consecrated elements at a “neutral” location—the altar or another table designated for the purpose—and inviting people to approach it one by one and communicate themselves. I leave it to local leaders to determine which four persons in addition to the priest are admitted to these liturgies.
Second, I further commend the practice of live-streaming these events so that the majority who are unable to attend can nonetheless participate in some way. The technology for doing this is not inordinately sophisticated—a smart phone with an internet connection and a Facebook account or some other app. Look at the diocesan Facebook page for a tutorial on how to do this.
Finally, I lift up the venerable practice of “spiritual communion” for those who are unable to either attend the actual celebration or receive via “drive through.” There is a resource for this on the diocesan website.
I am aware of some anxiety that some among us might become so accustomed to not coming to church on Sundays that, when the storm clears, they may have formed a new habit that will be hard to break. I suppose this is a possibility, but I prefer to be a “glass half full” kind of guy. COVID19 has delivered us a load of lemons. How can we make lemonade? Perhaps this ordeal presents us with a unique opportunity to strengthen the bonds of our life together. I am already aware that the daily office is getting prayed far more frequently among Episcopalians than it was a month ago! Clergy and laity are learning new ways to be in contact with one another, using technology. We may come out of this crisis not weaker, but stronger and healthier than we would otherwise have been
In the love of Jesus,