While precautions are being taken in local church bodies and denominational organizations, the spiritual community largely is choosing to continue assembling in corporate worship.
At least that was the case Wednesday night as The New Tri-State Defender went to press amid mounting cancellations of events and gatherings in myriad parts of the city, state, country and the world. (Thursday morning, Gov. Bill Lee used an executive order to declare a state of emergency — a move crafted to position the Tennessee to receive more federal funds to address the evolving public health scenario.)
“We must continue to assemble,” said CME Presiding Bishop Henry M. Williamson. “We will come together and pray for God to heal and deliver, just as we did for small pox, measles and every other communicable disease.
“We encourage our people to following the recommendations of the experts. Wash hands often and thoroughly, and seek medical professionals if they suffer any symptoms. In such case, they should not assemble with others,” he said.
“The church will march on, trusting God as we pray for deliverance.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website on Wednesday, the U.S. had 1,275 confirmed and presumed cases of the COVID-19 virus with 37 fatalities. Globally, nearly 126,000 cases had been reported with 4,613 deaths.
Large-scale conventions, concerts, and individual travel have been cancelled and postponed in the wake of rapidly spreading infection. Some colleges and universities (including some in Memphis) already have chosen to suspend in-class instruction and others were huddled in discussion about their next steps.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopalian Church sees this health crisis not as a time for pulling away from one another, but a time for unity and coming together.
“In this time when we are all affected by the coronavirus, whether directly or indirectly…it may be helpful to remember that we’re in this together. …Jesus came to show us how to be in a relationship with God and in relationship with each other…so look out for your neighbors and look out for each other. …Listen to those who have the knowledge to guide us medically…”
The three Episcopalian bishops of Tennessee issued a joint statement that advocates caution during assembly but not cancellation of services and events. It reads in part:
“Our respective Dioceses are working together to stay informed and supportive of our faith communities across the state. …The most important way to minimize the spread of infectious diseases is for people who have symptoms such as fever, upset stomach, or frequent coughing or sneezing, to stay home and to seek medical attention as symptoms warrant. This includes clergy…Frequent hand washing is another way to minimize spread of the virus…”
The three bishops are the Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee; The Rt. Rev. Phoebe Roaf of West Tennessee; and The Rt. Rev. Brian L. Cole of East Tennessee.
“We want to show that the three of us are putting forth a collaborative effort to keep our state safe from the spread of the coronavirus,” said Bishop Roaf. “We are united in our statement and put forth these recommendations with one voice.”
Additional advisements in the joint statement said parishioners while assembled should avoid direct contact and greet each other with the touching of elbows. The Holy Eucharist, called The Lord’s Supper in some denominations, should be considered complete if only the bread is taken. The normal practice is for everyone to drink from a common cup.
A receiving line for after-service fellowship should include conversation without physical contact. Any food or refreshments served during a gathering should be served by individuals who have thoroughly washed their hands and are using protective gloves and tongs to handle food.
The bishops also advised that individual congregations should consider canceling any large gatherings, if possible.
Presiding Bishop David P. Talley of the Memphis Catholic Diocese of Memphis forwarded a letter to all pastors, administrators, and chaplains.
“…For each mass celebrated, plan to offer only the species of bread for Holy Communion. Additionally, during these days of concern about this ‘new’ virus, during the ‘exchange of Christ’s peace,’ parishioners instead of shaking hands could turn to their neighbors in the pew, nod, and verbally wish them Christ’s peace.”