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Safety first: Coronavirus prompts local churches to alter worship practices

Communion

William Bates, 68, receives Communion during Sunday Mass at Saint Ita Catholic Church in Chicago in 2018. The Archdiocese of Chicago this week asked parishioners to limit taking communion in the mouth and asked churches to refrain from distributing communion in the species of wine via chalices.

As the novel coronavirus has spread across the globe and now America, people are advised to avoid large gatherings. For many, that can mean church. In addition, many worship services are a time for hugs and handshakes, or for taking communion using a common cup of wine or juice — practices that might contribute to the spread of flu or COVID-19.

We surveyed several church leaders in Calhoun County via email on how they are responding to the spreading coronavirus threat. Several are coming up with novel alternatives to shaking hands or drinking from a common cup, while others are making contingency plans on how to continue worship if they cannot gather together in person.

At Anniston First United Methodist Church, worshippers usually greet each other with a handshake during the Passing of the Peace, but the church is encouraging members to instead greet each other with “Peace be with you” in sign language, according to pastor Dale Clem.

In addition, Clem said, worshippers will no longer be served communion wine from a shared cup. Instead, they will be served bread and a small cup of juice. Servers will use hand sanitizer, and ushers will offer hand sanitizer to members as they come forward for communion.

Church services are already broadcast on Facebook Live, and those who can’t attend in person are encouraged to watch online.

The church is also considering postponing its upcoming Couch Lectures series, scheduled for April 5-6, Clem said. The new lecture series is to be held at Anniston First Methodist, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church and Grace Epispocal Church.

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At First Christian Church of Anniston (Disciples of Christ), pastor Laura Hutchinson said contingency planning is underway to make sure outreach and worship will continue.

Hutchinson was meeting with the mission team “to discuss ways we can continue to serve the needs of the homeless — especially the homeless people who are in our congregation — should we have to stop gathering for a while.”

Another team is studying ways to continue to worship and have Bible study “in the event we can’t gather in person,” Hutchinson said. Possibilities include a pre-recorded, abbreviated worship service that would be posted to Hutchinson’s podcast, “Love God and Your Neighbor,” as well as continuing the church’s Lenten Bible study through a video conferencing tool such as Zoom.

In the meantime, Hutchinson said, the church is making extra efforts to sanitize the building each week, including handing out sanitizing wipes to each member so they can wipe down surfaces as they pass them.

Rather than shaking hands to greet one another, members are asked to bump elbows.

Rather than using a shared cup for communion, the church will use bread and grapes. “We could use the individual plastic cups, but since we’re trying to cut down on our church’s plastic consumption, grapes seem like the best way to address that concern,” Hutchinson said. 

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At Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Anniston, pastor John McDonald said the church is following the guidance of the bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, which was distributed in writing March 2 to all Catholic parishes in the diocese.

The bishop urged those church leaders serving communion to practice good hygiene, washing hands before Mass begins and even using hand sanitizer before and after distributing communion.

(For Catholic churches in the diocese of Birmingham, the distribution of communion from the shared cup was suspended until further notice.)

The memo also stated, “Please assure the faithful that if they are sick or experiencing symptoms of sickness, they are not obliged to attend Mass, and even that out of charity they ought not to attend.”

Pastors were instructed to use their discretion whether or not to suspend the exchange of the sign of peace, or replace it with a greeting that does not involve physical contact.

“Personally, I have not heard many concerns expressed by congregants, though many have decided to refrain from shaking hands, but almost universally in a kind or humorous way!,” said McDonald.

“Going forward, our bishop will provide the guidance we need to adapt to the changing circumstances, much in the way that the Italian Bishops’ Conference has done throughout the Italian peninsula,” McDonald added.

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St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville is also following the guidance of its bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. “Our bishop has offered advice on how to handle contact in church,” said pastor Robert Fowler.

“At the Peace, we have told people that they can fist bump, touch elbows, etc., instead of hugging or shaking hands. We have hand sanitizers in the church. At communion, we let the people decide whether they wish to drink from the chalice or use our intinction cup. They can choose to consume the bread and forgo the wine.”

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First Presbyterian Church of Anniston is also changing the way it serves communion, according to a post on the church’s Facebook page. They will be serving individual crackers and cups, although the shared cup will still be available if desired.

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This week marks the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the biblical story of Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from massacre. In Los Angeles, New York and other areas where coronavirus is spreading, several synagogues have cancelled Purim celebrations.

At Temple Beth-El in Anniston, however, Purim services were held last Friday night as scheduled. “Of course, the coronavirus was both a topic of conversation as well as something of which we were all very aware. We all used Purell, and we were more careful with physical touch and eating together as a community,” said Rabbi Lauren Cohn.

“My next visit to Anniston is in two weeks. So far, that visit is still going forward as planned,” she added. “From speaking to colleagues across the country, there are many plans to live-stream Purim services and celebrations as well as other worship services in the immediate future.

“My professional organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, announced today that the annual convention, scheduled for March 22-25 in Baltimore, has been cancelled. Additionally, some upcoming programs of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association have also been cancelled because the presenters (from outside of Atlanta) are no longer coming.”

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At Word Alive International Outreach church in Oxford, one of the largest churches in the county, leaders are encouraging church members to follow the advice of Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge to help prevent the spread of flu and COVID-19. That includes: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with sick people.

“We are encouraging our congregation not to panic,” said pastor Beverly Mattox. “People seem to be responding in a very level-headed way.

“Of course, we are all diligently praying for the individuals, cities and countries that have been so radically impacted. We believe that paying attention to these guidelines and common sense will prevail.”

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.

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