In 2009, I was serving in a Church of England parish in West Sussex, England, when avian flu, also known as bird flu, hit the headlines. Did we know how long it would last, or how many people would be infected? No one knew the answers, which drove down the stock market and created a climate of fear and uncertainty. Sound familiar? In the church, the Diocese of Chichester ordered us to serve only the host (bread) at communion and not the wine.
Bird flu – H5N1 – was an imported virus which was spread to humans who were in contact with infected birds. As of today, the number of human deaths worldwide since the outbreak has totaled around 600. Although it was news for many weeks, after a while people realized that the danger of coming down with bird flu was not as great as had been feared, and the media turned to focus on other subjects. But the flu itself didn’t go away – last year, chickens at a farm in Suffolk, England, were found to be infected with the virus, which led to 27,000 birds being culled.
Today a new coronavirus – COVID-19 – is in the headlines. This poses a more serious danger than H5N1, being more contagious and having a higher mortality rate – currently around 2%. At the time of writing, infection rates in the USA are relatively low, but that could change over time. Those most vulnerable from COVID-19 are the elderly, and those in poor health – in this way it most resembles the “flu” with which most of us are familiar. The main difference, however, is that at present there is no vaccine for COVID-19, although medical science is working to produce one.
With spring and summer on the way, it is possible that warmer weather will mean fewer infections. However, COVID-19 seems here to stay. If you are unlucky enough to catch it, the government advises you to stay at home and recover. In most cases your own immune system will deal with it.
At St Barnabas we want to do our part to help slow the spread of the virus. Here are some basic rules to follow:
1) Before coming to church, please wash your hands (I hear if you sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice you’ve scrubbed long enough) or use hand sanitizer. Handwashing is a great deterrent to the spread of communicable disease.
2) At the Peace, don’t feel obligated to shake hands. Try placing palms together instead, and say the words, “Peace be with you.” Avoid “going on safari” i.e. leaving your pew to give the Peace to someone in another, distant part of the church. Stay in your pew and exchange the Peace only with those closest to you.
3) At the communion rail, members are asked to refrain from “intincting” – the practice of dipping the bread into the wine. It is more likely to spread infection, because hands and fingers have greater contact with infectious matter than do the lips. Instead members are asked to drink directly from the cup (what Jesus actually said we should do) or refrain from touching the chalice altogether. The higher alcohol content of the fortified wine used for our communion and the (naturally anti-microbial) silver chalice have a better chance against spreading disease if we keep all fingers out of the cup.
In case you’re wondering, the Church holds that full communion can be received through one kind only – the bread or host – so that if people choose to receive the host but not to drink from the chalice, they will nonetheless have made a full communion. If we are all sensible and careful, we can reduce the chances of infection while we assemble for worship.
Finally, there is one more thing we can do about COVID-19, which is to pray for those infected by the disease, and for the doctors and nurses and hospital staff who care for those infected. Pray too for a cure, and for everyone whose livelihood will be affected by the disease spreading.
With love and every blessing