Dear Eagle Ridge family:
Not once in my almost 30 years of being a pastor, have I contemplated closing the doors of a church because of health concerns – until now. The COVID-19 pandemic presents every religious community some specific challenges which are unique to the way we gather. On March 7th, the BC Minister of Health and the Provincial Medical Health Officer issued a joint statement which included this paragraph:
“There has been a notable transmission of COVID-19 at events, such as religious gatherings. As a result, we recommend social distancing and forgoing usual greetings. As an alternative, we recommend considering virtual online gatherings.”
I found it distressing that religious gatherings were singled out in this way and began researching why that might be the case. I discovered that our worship services combine a number of problematic practices that might lead to increased transmission of a virus.
- Social distancing (in a church setting, standing or sitting far enough apart that viruses contained within airborne droplets will not reach you – typically two metres) is simply not possible in a worship setting.
- We are a touchy-feely bunch. We reflexively reach out to each other when we greet, when we share a humorous moment, and when we comfort one another.
- We sing together. Although not often mentioned, singing is not a whole lot different than coughing, except that we don’t sing into our sleeves. Both coughing and singing project droplets from the lungs much farther than do speaking or breathing.
- We are an intergenerational community. COVID-19 is much more serious an illness for those 60 and over and for those who have underlying health issues, however anyone can contract and spread it. In children and healthy adults, this illness often presents as nothing worse than a cold. In some people, the illness can be a-symptomatic, meaning that the person does not even know they are contagious. For this reason, mixing groups of people who might not think that their sniffles are dangerous with others for whom an infection could be life-threatening is problematic.
- We eat together a fair amount. Food is a very good vector for viruses. One badly timed sneeze and someone’s dessert is destined for the green waste; or at least it should be, but who wants to throw out something they just spent hours preparing? Likewise, coffee cups, cream and sugar packets are potential sites for contamination.
- Communion is pretty much impossible to administer without risk. Even moving away from a common loaf and cup doesn’t eliminate the risk. Last week the Rector of an Episcopal church in Washington D.C., tested positive for Coronavirus after serving communion to, and shaking hands with, about 500 parishioners.
The point is that as a church, we need to take our ethical responsibilities in this crisis, very seriously.
The United Church of Canada has an Emergency Plan which outlines recommended responses depending on the severity of the situation. Of course, local conditions and factors vary considerably, and so each congregation must decide for itself how to respond. Contained within the UCC Emergency Plan is a chart which is adapted from the World Health Organization (WHO) as a guide to how to respond in any given phase. The question is, in which phase are we right now in the Tri-Cities?
Period WHO Phase Description
Inter-Pandemic Period Phase 1 No new influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. An influenza virus subtype that has caused human infection may be present in animals. Even if it is present in animals, the risk of human infection is considered to be low.
Phase 2 No new influenza virus subtypes have been detected in humans. However, a circulating animal influenza virus subtype (such as avian influenza) poses a substantial risk of human disease.
Phase 3 There are human infections with a new influenza subtype, but no human-to-human spread, or at most rare instances of spread to a close contact.
Phase 4 Small clusters with limited human-to-human transmission, but spread is highly localized, suggesting that the virus is not well adapted to humans.
Phase 5 Larger clusters, but human-to-human spread is still localized, suggesting that the virus is becoming increasingly better adapted to humans, but may not yet be fully transmissible (a substantial pandemic risk).
Phase 6 There is increased and substantial influenza transmission in the general population.
As of March 11th, the WHO declared the COVID-19 to have entered Phase 6, the Pandemic Period, but that is a world-wide declaration. In our area it could be argued that we are in Phase 4 or 5 depending on whether you place more emphasis on the cluster size or on whether the virus is fully transmissible. Either way, it is very serious.
The ethical issues revolve around the importance we place on being community leaders in this crisis. In an effort to be the least disruptive for our church community, we could decide to continue to meet indefinitely, or until the risk of spreading the virus is substantial. The difficulty with that position is that it does not honour the efforts to get ahead of the virus and slow down the rate of transmission by giving this coronavirus fewer opportunities to spread. Why this is important can be seen in the following chart.
What these two curves show is what would happen with and without containment measures (such as cancelling gatherings such as church). Without protective measures, the curve is very steep. With protective measures the curve is flattened. If there are too many new cases at any one time, our health care system will be overwhelmed. This does not just mean that there will be patients on cots in the hallways, but that critical equipment like ventilators will be in short supply, resulting in a much higher death rate. But, if we can stretch the infection rate over a longer period of time, everyone will receive the best care possible. In short, by decreasing the rate of spread of the virus through the following measures, we will save lives.
Jesus said once, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I earnestly believe that if he were here today, he would say, “I have five more new commandments for you:
- That you stay home if you are sick with anything, including a runny nose.
- That you wash your hands a lot, especially when arriving and leaving places. Hand sanitizer works well when you can’t wash. And think of Christmas and sing “happy birthday” to me twice while you wash.
- That you shall cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
- That you shall not touch your face, especially areas with mucus membranes like the eyes, nose, and mouth.
- That you shall refrain from touching others or standing within two metres lest you or they inhale infected droplets launched from your lungs.”
Jesus would have made a great epidemiologist.
As a community formed around Jesus’ work to heal the world, we have another option as well. That would be that we reduce the risk to us, and to those whom we contact in our lives, if we reduce the opportunity for the virus to be transmitted through a large group. This would mean that we can decide to mitigate the risks as much as possible, including the possibility of suspending gathering altogether.
In the United Church’s Emergency Plan, there is a chart which lays out the suggested church response. When in Phase 4, the response is to:
- Eliminate physical contact, including passing the peace.
- Sit apart at church as much as possible.
- Serve individual elements (no common loaf or cup) at Communion.
- Decrease non-worship gatherings
- Governance meetings
- Christian education
- Social gatherings
In Phase 5, the following responses are added in or supplant those in Phase 4:
- Eliminate Communion
- Stop non-worship gatherings
- Governance meetings
- Christian education
- Social gatherings
In Phase 6, the response is to:
- Stop gathering at all for a period of time, including worship.
This week I convened an Emergency Planning Team to come together in order to analyze and make recommendations to the Session regarding this crisis. That team consists of myself, Sue Rodgers, Lisa Munro, Mark Edmunds, Diane MacSporran, and Elissa Gamble.
At this time we believe that we are currently in Phase 4, but likely on the cusp of Phase 5. For this weekend we have decided to do the following:
- Cancel the Potluck Supper on Saturday, March 14th.
- Sunday worship at the regular time, but with the following safeguards in place.
a. Common surfaces will be disinfected before and after worship.
b. Volunteers in place to open doors for others before and after the service.
c. Hand sanitizer stations at each door.
d. No coffee service before, during, or after worship.
e. No physical contact (e.g., handshaking and hugging).
f. Worshippers are encouraged not to sit with people outside of their household.
g. No fellowship time following worship.
I fully realize that doesn’t sound much like our community’s worship experience, but that is what we think we must do to not only protect our own people, but also our neighbours.
I encourage you to join in the conversation if you have insights or other things you would like the Session to consider. You can do so by emailing the office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As this is a rapidly moving crisis, I will endeavour to keep you informed whenever there is a development. The Emergency Planning Team will continue to meet and consider any new information as it emerges daily.
Lastly, a reminder that we live in God’s grace. Let’s not forget that our generation has the least to fear of any before us.
Peace and love to us all.
Pastor Dave Anderson