The coronavirus threat and the disruptions it has imposed would be daunting for religious groups at any point in the year. But coming as it does in this holiest of times makes it particularly challenging.
Concessions began at my church, Holy Trinity Episcopal, with services early last month, on advice of the bishop.
First: Avoid physical contact at the Passing of the Peace, the portion of the liturgy that celebrates fellowship and conciliation. In a church like mine, where a handshake is the minimum gesture expected and a hug is favored by many, this ramping back in geniality took some conscious effort.
Second, during the Eucharist, we were to refrain from intinction, or dipping the bread into the wine to take both together.
Participants were invited to forgo partaking of the communal cup of wine altogether if they thought it wise, signaled by crossed arms.
Then, with notice coming only the day before, Sunday services were canceled for March 15. They remain so, while church leaders and everyone else anxiously follows developments that seem to grow more ominous by the day.
Holy Trinity’s rector, the Rev. William Dennler, suggested in a pastoral letter to parishioners that a good use of any spare time would be in prayer, there being no shortage of subjects.
“Pray for others, pray for yourselves, pray for this country and this world,” Father Bill wrote. “Pray for those who have died. Pray for the nurses and doctors who continuously find themselves in harm’s way. Pray for the first responders – the EMTs, the members of the police and fire departments.”
Other churches across the region, state and country also have adjusted as most adhere to public health warnings that seek to slow the spread of the contagion.
The Tennessean reported recently on Christ Presbyterian Church canceling its in-person Sunday services in favor of online versions, and Gallatin First Church of the Nazarene holding a drive-in version of worship, with congregants parking their cars in the church lot and tuning in to a service via radio.
The drive-in service strikes me as a particularly novel response to a virus that includes “novel” in its name, indicating both that it is new to humans and that people lack immunity to it.
Father Bill, meanwhile, has begun emailing his sermons to congregants. I’ve been thankful to have them to read on Sundays, and with a little bit of imagination can visualize him delivering them from the pulpit.
All the efforts are of particular note at this point in the church calendar. For Jews and Christians, Passover and Easter are upon us, or almost so. Ramadan is approaching for Muslims.
Even those who don’t normally make a practice of religious observances have been known to make church appearances around this time, as at Christmas. A heavenward signal, perhaps, that they haven’t entirely strayed.
Not all religious leaders have been compliant with official dictates, however. The pastor of a megachurch in Florida was arrested after holding a service in defiance of a county ban at the time on gatherings of more than 10 people.
And a Tennessee pastor, Bishop Dr. Alvin E. Miller Sr. from St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, has called on Gov. Bill Lee to exempt churches from his call for closings.
“How can churches and religious institutions not be classified as ‘essential’ when our nation is fighting one of its greatest enemies since its existence?” Bishop Miller wrote.
As with much about the coronavirus, there’s some confusion on this topic. While Lee has called for churches to find means other than gathering for worship, his executive order specifically includes “Religious and Ceremonial Functions” as essential.
Federal government guidelines, by the way, deem gun stores to be among the “essential services” allowed to remain open. I’d say churches should rank higher than munitions dealers in pretty much any context.
Still, it seems prudent for the faithful to err on the side of caution rather than to make a point about religious freedom. Father Bill summed it up nicely in another communication:
“I recognize the difficulties involved in missing in-person worship on Sundays,” he wrote. “Church is such an integral part of our lives as a community of faith. Not attending in the usual way, leaves us at a loss. We miss the opportunity to worship God, we miss receiving the Blessed Sacrament, and we also miss getting together after church for fellowship.”
But he ended on a positive note:
“The good news is that this is not forever. We will get through this, and this whole episode in our lives will become a memory.”
As we will say again soon at Holy Trinity: Amen.
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.