Center for Worship Resourcing
The General Board of Discipleship
H1N1 Virus/Swine Flu
Fall 2009 Update
What's the Deal, What to Do & What Not to Do in Worship
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
News about the H1N1 Virus/Swine Flu had diminished after the early scare of the late spring flu season. With the fall flu season upon us, and schools and colleges back in session, it is expected that the virus will have new opportunities to spread.
In addition to our existing resources on Swine Flu and Holy Communion, here is a list of "Dos and Don'ts" for worship that balances attention to theological integrity with appropriate pastoral concern.
WHAT'S THE DEAL
First, let's be clear about this. The correct name of this virus is H1N1. It's "nickname" of "swine flu" is a misnomer that can create confusion. Pigs and pork are NOT a means to catch this virus. As you have the opportunity to stop false information based on a "nickname," by all means do so.
The H1N1 virus has begun spreading more rapidly in some parts of the world again, including the United States. Vaccines for this virus are expected to be made available by October 2009, in the U.S., and at other times elsewhere. Although this virus was declared "pandemic" in June 2009, that term means only that the disease has been shown to be spreading simultaneously on two or more continents. "Pandemic" does not mean "deadly."
Indeed, H1N1 has not been as severe as many seasonal flu virus strains have been. At the same time, it has shown the capacity to outcompete seasonal flu viruses without being substantially altered. The bad news is that this means it may be less likely to mutate itself into a less infectious form. The good news is that once an effective vaccine is made available, this virus should be much easier to eliminate from the human population.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the primary means by which this virus spreads is by airborne particles (from coughs or sneezes) and by skin-to-skin contact spreading these particles. For worship, Sunday school, and other interactive elements of congregational life, this means that the most likely means of spreading H1N1 are actions such as shaking hands, offering hugs, or other forms of skin-to-skin contact. It also means that the most effective preventative measure is regular washing of hands or the regular use of hand sanitizers containing alcohol.
WHAT TO DO
- Do celebrate worship and the sacraments fully, and be not afraid!
Use common sense, but always remember this: Jesus is more powerful than germs!
- Have hand sanitizer available for all worshipers at the entrances to your worship space.
This signals that the congregation cares for the health of all who worship and properly recognizes that other worship practices may be far more likely to become a means of spreading germs than the sacraments are.
- Wash your hands before you touch food you will share with others.
This simple directive has long been practiced in most cultures on the earth. It has an honored place in historical Christian worship as well in the use of the lavabo, a basin for Communion presiders and servers to wash hands. If having water present is problematic or awkward, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer containing alcohol. This applies to any who prepare or serve the bread and cup. Just be sure to make this action gracious, not glaring!
- Receive the bread (rather than taking it) from servers who have washed their hands.
This has actually been the instruction in every official ritual the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have published. We all receive from others, rather than taking the bread for ourselves.
When you come to receive the bread, hold out your hands, cupping one beneath the other, rather than trying to take the bread with your fingers. This will allow the server to place the bread (perhaps already dipped in the cup, as per the next instruction) into your hand without touching your hand or fingers directly.
- If you use intinction, let the server who breaks the bread also dip the bread into the cup (held by another) and directly serve those receiving. This reduces the number of "touches" during serving and entirely eliminates the need for those receiving to place their bread, and perhaps their fingers, into the cup.
Alternatively, have those serving the cup tilt it slightly toward those receiving so no one needs to dip his or her fingers into the juice/wine to receive.
This takes a bit of skill. It also takes caring and careful instruction to the congregation. Practice with your servers beforehand if they have not done this before, using water in the cup. Demonstrate this to the congregation as well at the opening of worship so they know what to do. Then get ready to celebrate!
- If any infectious disease is actively spreading where you are, exchange the peace and greet others in ways that don't require you to make skin-to-skin contact. Keep in mind that clinical studies have shown that Communion itself poses very low risk for spreading disease. The major ways people catch this or nearly any other flu are through skin-to-skin contact and through airborne particles (coughs and sneezes).
Find what works best to convey peace without skin-to-skin contact where you are. For some, it man mean a gesture of blessings. For others, it may be the peace sign. For still others, it may be bowing and saying words of peace.
And keep in mind that this is to be an "interim practice," not a permanent replacement. There is much to be gained in Christian community by real physical contact. Share up front that you will use these measures only when the likelihood of spreading a contagious disease in your area is fairly high.
- If you normally keep water in the baptismal font, be sure the font is cleaned regularly and the water is fresh. If you leave water in the font for a long period of time, it will start to grow harmful bacteria and other agents. So keep it clean! And keep the water fresh, preferably for each service (especially if people will be invited to touch it during the previous service). Pour the existing water into the earth. (Remember, this water will have been blessed, just as the bread and wine of Communion!) Clean the font with an anti-microbial cleaner, rinse thoroughly, and refill.
WHAT NOT TO DO
- Do not come to worship if you are sick with something you can easily spread to others.
That applies to pastors, worship leaders, and participants in the congregation. There are no special "Brownie Points" awarded for showing up at worship, work, or anywhere else you can spread what you have. Stay home. Take care of yourself. And get well. Then come to worship and thank God for helping you recover.
- If you are well and able to come to worship, do not fear germs more than you love Jesus!
Unless your own immune system is seriously compromised, don't bother with face masks, latex gloves, or other medical paraphernalia that give the impression that worship may be an unsafe place to be or that the elements of blessed bread and wine we share may be more physically dangerous than holy. If your immune system is seriously compromised, consider staying home and letting others extend the Lord's Table to you.
- Do not cough or sneeze on others if you do come to worship.
If you have a cough or are likely to sneeze, practice making it a habit to grab a tissue and cover your mouth each time. Then, if you're in an area where an infectious disease is spreading rapidly, excuse yourself to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer at the earliest convenient time. Remember, it is airborne particles (from coughing and sneezing) and skin-to-skin contact (if you have these particles on your hands) that are by far the most likely means of transmitting H1N1 (Swine Flu) and many other infectious agents.
- Do not use little disposable cups or disposable "all-in-one" packages of elements for Communion (pop-top Jesus?), thinking these might be safer.
They aren't safer. It's not just what's inside that's the problem. It's what's outside -- the cups or sets themselves and all the people who will inevitably have touched these things without washing their hands before you do. Neither the containers themselves nor the outside of the containers can be kept sterile.
Worse, the use of elements in this form essentially forces the congregation to violate our teaching about believing and respecting the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. The United Methodist Book of Worship tells us, "What is done with the remaining bread and wine should express our stewardship of God's gifts and our respect for the holy purposes they have served" (p. 30). This Holy Mystery, our official teaching document on Holy Communion, further specifies: If any bread and wine remain, they should always be disposed of by (1) the pastor and/or others at the pastor's direction consuming them in a reverent manner immediately or directly following the service; (2) returning them to the earth by pouring (2 Samuel 23:16), burying, scattering or burning."
Throwing little cups into the trash that will inevitably have blessed elements in them constitutes neither good stewardship of God's gifts (these are not recyclable), nor respect for the holy purposes they have served, nor the more specific forms of reverent disposal required by our teaching.
Far better care for creation, the real presence of Christ, and the unity of the body in him can be expressed through the use of a common cup, or multiple chalices poured from a common flagon, or even individual non-disposable cups poured from a common flagon. All of these can be safely cleaned and reused, and none of them requires disposing of the blessed juice or wine in the trash.
- Be not afraid!
This bears repeating. When we gather for worship, we are there to offer ourselves in praise, thanksgiving, and joy to our God, in songs, prayers, dance, art, music, drama, and with water, Scripture, bread and wine. The perfect love of God who meets us here casts out all fear.
So do worship! And do show reasonable concern for the health of others as you worship, especially during times when illnesses are spreading rapidly. But do not confuse appropriate concern for over-reactive panic. Rejoice, and fear not!
Taylor Burton Edwards (email@example.com) is the Director of Worship Resources for the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.
"H1N1 Virus/Swine Flu Fall 2009 Update" Copyright 2009 the General Board of Discipleship. Any local church or United Methodist agency may reprint any or all of this page as long as the following copyright notice appears: Copyright 2009 the General Board of Discipleship. Used with permission.