How can we safely worship at church in a pandemic?

Many types of gatherings are important for civic and economic well-being; religious worship has particularly profound significance to communities and individuals, including as a right protected by the First Amendment.

brick church with cross on the peaked roof and blue stained glass windows

in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:21-22, ESV

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

(Although this post addresses the Christian faith, I hope other communities of faith find this useful.)

IMG_2629.jpg
San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, Texas

 “Closing” our churches

Many of us have not attended a religious service in person since March, when almost every activity outside our homes ceased in order to limit spread of SARS CoV-2 infection.

Unfortunately churches were lumped into the category of “non-essential”, although we all realize how essential our religious establishments are. But in the context of a serious viral pandemic, our public health professionals believed it was necessary to prohibit all large public indoor gatherings.

Of course, the “Church” never closes; people who consider themselves the Church practice their faith in places other than a designated building-in their homes, in a park, at work, online. My local church already had an online presence so we’ve never missed a week of having teaching and prayer.

My state opened relatively early, and my church reopened soon after. They arranged the sanctuary for social distancing, performed extra cleaning, and now require masks. However, due to our age, my husband and I have chosen to continue worshiping from home.

St. Hedwig Church in Chicago Illinois
St. Hedwig Church in Chicago Illinois

“Reopening” our churches

The CDC, state, and local health departments have issued guidelines for reopening public facilities of all kinds, including churches, and I encourage you to consult those. A private association of Christian physicians and dentists also developed guidelines specific to the needs of churches. (Although these guidelines are directed toward those who practice the Christian faith, I believe that others can apply them to their worship practices.)

7 recommendations for church gatherings during COVID-19
7 recommendations for church gatherings during COVID-19 from the Christian Medical and Dental Associations

The Christian Medical and Dental Associations, CMDA, had a specific purpose in writing their guidelines. As stated-

Part of the mission of CMDA is to glorify God by caring for all people and advancing Biblical principles of healthcare within the Church and throughout the world.

With that in mind, CMDA has enlisted several expert members to provide guidance to church leaders as they wrestle with the problem of re-opening their services within the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the association are all physicians and dentists-students, residents, clinicians, teachers, missionaries, and retired. And they are active members of churches all over the world. So they are in a unique position to consider both the needs of the Church and the needs of public health and safety.

CMDA Guidelines For Reopening Churches

  • Consider size of the area for enclosed gatherings to accommodate social distancing.
  • Offer communion using single use, prepackaged supplies.
  • For baptism, use heated and disinfected water .
  • Limit choir participants and assure adequate social distance , especially if unmasked.
  • Use extra precautions for congregational singing if not done outdoors.
  • For instruments, ensure social distance and limit sharing of equipment.
  • Social distancing, hand hygiene, and masks are recommended for all attendees.

I encourage you to follow the link to the full document which explains the reasons for the recommendations and includes links to pertinent references.

a simple white church flanked by autumn trees
a church in Talulla Falls Georgia

There is no guarantee that even with these measures cases of COVID-19 will not occur due to transmission at a church. Ohio has had several COVID-19 outbreaks recently, many of which the Ohio Department of Health traced to bars, restaurants, churches, and day care centers. Outbreaks in other states have been linked to attendance at church events, including weddings and funerals.

the purpose of these guidelines is to provide evidence-based recommendations for Christian communities who wish to reopen safely.

Though evidence-based, however, these guidelines are not intended to replace government ordinances or health regulations and should be considered in light of local guidance which account for the community prevalence of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and available resources.

CMDA

 

The Constitution and the CDC

Does closing churches for health reasons violate the Constitution? According to the First Amendment (the first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights)

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …

Amendment 1, the U.S. Constitution

I suppose it depends on your definition of “the free exercise” thereof.

  • Have we been told to renounce our faith?
  • Are we prohibited from owning or reading our Bibles and other spiritual writings?
  • Can we watch or listen to religious programs on television, radio, and the internet?
  • Can our clergy and teachers continue to preach and instruct?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“This guidance (about church activity during a pandemic) is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).

The federal government may not prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship, and in accordance with the First Amendment, no faith community should be asked to adopt any mitigation strategies that are more stringent than the mitigation strategies asked of similarly situated entities or activities.

while many types of gatherings are important for civic and economic well-being, religious worship has particularly profound significance to communities and individuals, including as a right protected by the First Amendment.

State and local authorities are reminded to take this vital right into account when establishing their own re-opening plans. “

Here’s another post you may enjoy reading
an open Bible next to a world globe

The place where God lives

And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sharing the HEART of health, faith, hope, and love

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I took all of the photos in this post on vacations over several years. They are for illustration only, and do not represent CMDA or the guidelines described in this post. I am a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations but had no part in writing the guidelines,with which I agree.

 

 

FAITH LOVE HOPE- words created with letter tiles
These three remain, faith, hope and love, and greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

                              Dr. Aletha 

Author: Aletha Cress Oglesby, M.D.

I am a family physician who explores the HEART of HEALTH in my work, recreation, and through writing. On my blog, Watercress Words, I inform and inspire us in healthy living. I believe we can turn our health challenges into healthy opportunities. When we do, we can then share the HEART of health with our families, communities, and the world. Come explore and share with me.

10 thoughts on “How can we safely worship at church in a pandemic?”

  1. Great post! Our church resumed in person worship services about two months ago. We have just now resumed Sunday School and youth. Our church is doing a great job of following all guidelines and praise the Lord we have not had any cases of COVID due to church services.

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    1. That’s wonderful Angie, thanks for the comment. Although everyone should follow guidelines everywhere, I think the three most important places (other than home and healthcare) are care facilities, schools, and churches. And it isn’t that hard or burdensome, especially if you think of it as service to others.

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  2. I’m so happy that Church has reopened. I don’t have anyone that I go with, but it don’t matter for I meet my Jesus there, and the blessed Mother sits in my heart! Maybe the world will settle down now. I’m sure the Lord was sad and missed us at His House! God be with you and to all remember the Lord’s day! Amen

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  3. Well here in the UK churches are allowed to open and a lot are open for personal prayer or mediation. Since Lock down I have had my Visits to churches for my Blog the Church Explorer curtailed now they are open I have found a mixed attitude to people visiting the church. They tend to be open at certain times and some churches allow you to wander around freely others restrict you to certain areas, many are no open at all. People are still very scared to say the least

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing the UK experience Bill, that’s interesting. I like the idea of churches being open for personal prayer and meditation, maybe they will continue that tradition long term. I suppose like here they’re trying to accommodate people’s comfort level; I appreciate when those who are less concerned are mindful of the feelings of those who feel nervous about the situation. Almost nice to hear from a fellow explorer.

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    1. And thank you for sharing your perspective. I agree with your viewpoint- risk versus benefit. That’s really what this is all about after all. We trade off some things to gain something more valuable to us. Wearing a mask and physically distancing are small prices to pay for the joy gained.

      Liked by 1 person

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