Greek Orthodox Church faithful in America each week consume “the blood of Christ” in the form of wine dispensed by a communal spoon into each churchgoer’s mouth.
As late as March 4, as the coronavirus pandemic was just kicking into high gear in the U.S., Orthodox authorities hesitated to suspend the practice, much less halt services.
“From a purely microbiological perspective, the sweet red wine used in Communion is typically high in alcoholic content,” Rev. Fr. Stylianos Muksuris wrote in an article on Orthodox Research Institute’s website at the time, CBS News reported. “This means that the chances of bacteria or germs surviving in it are virtually minimal to non-existent. Although each of us communes the Body and Blood of Christ, the invisible microbes that may enter our mouths from the previous communicant are harmless. From a purely experiential perspective, every chalice on Sundays is consumed in its totality by the priest, after several mouths have communed from it. No priest, including the writer of this column, has ever become ill or incapacitated after consuming the Holy Gifts. And finally, from a purely spiritual perspective, the Holy Gifts are exactly that: they are sacred. … If we truly believe in God, we know quite well that God would never allow harm to come to us, most especially in the reception of Holy Communion.”
Although other church authorities weren’t necessarily as dismissive as the Orthodox hierarchy, there was a fair amount of pushback against coronavirus rules. Some clergy predictably insisted that people should still come to church and behave at church as they always have, because God would certainly protect them or as a “test of faith.”
In South Korea, a church — Lee Man-Hee’s Chincheonji Christian Church — was actually believed to be one of the main causes of a rapid spread of coronavirus there. The church’s doctrines encourage people to deprioritize disease, stigmatize failure to attend services, and require even sick congregation members to go out into the wider community to constantly proselytize. But when the infection struck the country with a vengeance, Lee ultimately and publicly fell to his knees, bowed, and apologized for his fringe sect’s alleged role in causing the disease to proliferate.
Now things are different everywhere, as governments worldwide in nations affected by the virus have begun issuing stringent “social distancing” rules, enforcing isolation of known carriers, and strictly admonishing the sick (and healthy) to stay at home as much as possible. Schools are closing, workers are telecommuting, and sports venues lie empty.
Churches are also instituting their own safety rules and recommendations. Churches have either suspended services or urged congregants not to touch each other as usual, although a number of churches have continued holding worship services. At the Catholic Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, for example, the congregation’s traditional “drinking of the precious blood from the chalice” has been suspended in all 109 state parishes. During the “exchange of peace,” worshippers are now instructed to simply bow to each other and not shake hands.
All this seems new to most people, but its not America’s first rodeo with infectious disease, even pandemics. For instance, the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, on the heels of World War I, was brought to the U.S. by returning soldiers. It was a cataclysmic infectious event, the “deadliest in history,” as described in a History.com article:
“The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.”
Unsurprisingly, the disease had as great an effect on churches as everything else in America, as elsewhere.
A post this week by Chris Gehrz in the Anxious Bench evangelical blog on the Patheos hub refers to information on that U.S. catastrophe in The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia, which included a epidemic narrative for each city.
“What caught my eye was a set of newspaper articles and other documents dating from late September 1918 through early November of that year — the first peak in the spread of the disease, when cities around the United States banned worship services, among other public gatherings,” Gehrz wrote. “(Here in St. Paul, Minnesota, authorities waited until early November 1918 to close schools like Bethel. Then a second outbreak caused an ‘influenza vacation’ [for schools] in the winter of 1920.)”
In the post, Gehrz reported on a number of 1918 news stories about how churches responded to the crisis.
“While most Christians made the best of church closures, many grumbled… and a few went to jail rather than stop worshipping,” Gehrz wrote.
Various news accounts reported that:
- On Sunday, Sept. 29, the streets of Boston were eerily quiet and free of motorcars and other traffic.
- On Sunday, Oct. 6, Cincinnati, Ohio, police shut down Fr. William Scholl’s mass, and, surprisingly, Catholic dignitaries and other Bostonians condemned Scholl’s rebellious attempt to hold a banned service in the first place.
- Harry P. Hitchcock, a Los Angeles Christian Scientist and a scientist, was arrested and jailed on Friday, Oct. 11, for attending a prohibited church service (and claiming his religion could destroy the “dread of contagion.” Four other Scientists were also arrested.
- Alexandria, Louisiana, Episcopal church rector Dr. W.S. Black expressed his dismay to authorities that pool rooms remained open while his church was forced to close — he said he found the pool hall “in full blast, with an ample supply of patrons, none of whom were overly careful as to the degree of distance from their fellow players.”
- In Salt Lake City, Utah, the Deseret News reported the city’s Mormon tabernacle and 50 other Latter-day Saint chapels, plus other churches and synagogues, were closed on Sunday, Oct. 13. Even funerals were suspended due to the epidemic.
So, like much of life, what’s old is suddenly new again.