By Tim Wyatt
The start of the Covid-19 pandemic had significant consequences for churches and denominations across Britain, although most of these were superseded a few weeks later by the first lockdown which forced all places of worship to shut down for months.
As the government announces its plan to cope with a coronavirus outbreak in the UK, churches have been issuing their own guidance.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, in his briefing to the media, stressed that the “single most important thing” people could do was to wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Given that ordinary Christian rituals and practices at Sunday services, such as sharing bread and wine or shaking hands, often involve close physical contact, many denominations have produced advice for congregations on how to avoid spreading the virus.
Some churches have even published preparations for suspending services or restricting communion, if the outbreak escalates to become a pandemic.
Church of England
The Church of England has a page on its website which is being updated every few days with the latest guidance.
At the moment, there is no need to avoid other worshippers who are well or stop sharing wine from a common chalice during communion, they recommend.
However, parishes should ensure that anyone who has symptoms such as a cough should not share the “peace”, a regular part of many Anglican services which sees congregants shaking hands with each other in greeting.
They should also only be given “communion of one kind”, ie just receiving the bread rather than also drinking wine from the chalice. This should be placed into the hand, rather than directly onto the tongue (which is common in some more traditionalist parishes).
Priests and anyone else administering communion should wash their hands with hand sanitiser, comprising at least 60 per cent alcohol, before and after the service. Hand sanitiser should also be made available to the congregation as well.
The practice of “intinction” – dipping the bread in the wine before giving it out so both elements are received in one – is not recommended because it could pass on any infections.
Priests should not undertake pastoral visits to people who are self-isolating because of the coronavirus, but they can offer support on the phone.
If the outbreak does escalate into a pandemic, government advice is to stop sharing “common vessels for food and drink”, so sharing the cup in communion could be banned in the future.
Roman Catholic Church
The latest guidance from the Catholic Church of England and Wales dates from 27 February, and is very similar to the Church of England’s.
Anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms should not share the “peace” or drink wine from the chalice during communion.
The church also recommends such people receive the host (bread) on the hand only, rather than directly on the tongue. Everyone attending mass should sanitise their hands as they enter the church, and ministers distributing communion should sanitise their hands before and after.
There should not be any pastoral visits to anyone who is self-isolating.
However, if there is a larger outbreak in the UK or in a parish which has experienced a number of cases, churches should step up their precautions, the church says.
In this instance, nobody should be given wine during communion, only bread in the hand, with the priest being careful not to touch the recipient’s hand.
The sign of the “peace” should be suspended entirely, fonts containing holy water should be removed, and all public veneration of relics or the cross on Good Friday involving kissing or touching must be stopped.
More vulnerable elderly or sick parishioners should be advised to stay at home, as should those displaying cold or flu-like symptoms.
Nobody should share hymn books and the collection plate should not be passed around.
In the worst-case scenario, where there are many cases in local parishes, it is likely the government would suspend large public gatherings, the Church warns. If this happens, mass would also be stopped.
The Methodist Church’s guidance, updated on 20 February, is similar to the Anglicans’ and the Catholics’.
One particular aspect is a recommendation for churches to consider using multiple small individual glasses of wine during communion. This practice is already commonplace within some nonconformist churches, in contrast to Anglican or Catholic traditions that always use a single, shared chalice.
Where a shared vessel is used, anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms should not drink wine and receive only bread, and intinction (dipping the bread into the wine) should be avoided.
Although the guidelines do not explicitly say the “peace” should be abandoned, it suggests ministers reflect on whether it wise to continue, especially if some congregants are already uncomfortable about it.
Any wine leftover after communion should not be returned to the bottle to be used again, but instead either drunk by the minister or poured away.
The Baptist Union’s advice page simply points churchgoers to the official gov.uk website.
It does, however, warn churches not to discriminate against anyone who has returned from a high-risk area for Covid-19 once their 14 days of self-isolation has been completed.
United Reformed Church
The URC’s advice is similar to others, recommending normal good hygiene practice and plenty of hand sanitiser.
Church in Wales
The Church in Wales largely follows other denominations’ advice. But it also suggests everyone, not just those feeling ill, should consider receiving only the bread during communion, with just the priest also drinking wine.
However, at the current stage of the outbreak, there is no need to prevent parishioners from sharing the chalice if they want to.
There is also no need yet to stop people shaking hands during the “peace”, although the guidance does note Anglican theology does not actually require any physical contact, only saying: “Peace be with you”.
Diverging slightly from her colleagues, the Rt Rev Joanna Penberthy, the Bishop of St Davids, has recommended congregations do not have any physical contact during the “peace”, and clergy do not offer wine, but only the bread, during communion.
Church of Scotland
The Church of Scotland’s advice is basically the same, although like the Methodists they recommend small, individual vessels of wine rather than sharing a common chalice during communion. Those with coughs and sneezes should also avoid physical contact during the “peace”.
Easter festivities and traditions, which this year takes place in mid-April, could be curtailed in some places if Covid-19 continues to spread.
In Spain, the national health authorities have warned they may have to ban the popular practice of kissing sculptures of the Virgin Mary during the week leading up to Easter.
Other practices, such as Catholics dipping their hands in holy water to make the sign of the cross when going in and out of churches, have been advised against, too, in countries such as Poland.
In Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe so far, Pope Francis has fallen ill but has tested negative for coronavirus. Several large religious events, due to draw thousands of the faithful from across the world, have been cancelled or postponed as well.
In the north of the country where most the cases of Covid-19 have been clustered, churches are among public buildings such as schools which have been closed. However, Francesco Moraglia, the Patriarch of Venice and the most senior Catholic in the region, has asked the authorities to permit the mass to still be held, arguing that Christians “cannot live” without communion.
A Parisian Catholic priest has fallen ill with coronavirus, after he travelled back from Italy. The news has prompted a stronger crackdown in Paris’s churches than those seen in Britain: clergy have been told to distribute bread only in the hand and no wine during communion; fonts must be emptied of water; and no one must shake hands during the mass.
Tim Wyatt is a freelance religion journalist