Ensuring a safe passing of the peace during worship

Medical scientist, church usher offers advice for staying virus-free

by Dr. Perry Sprawls | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The passing of the peace is a time for sharing, but hopefully not for sharing viruses. (Contributed photo)

BLACK MOUNTAIN, North Carolina — The world’s attention and concern is on a virus originating in China and spreading to other countries.  Every day our news is filled with dramatic stories of this disaster and the efforts to contain it. Here at home we might pray for those affected and take some comfort in that the virus will not reach us and we are safe.  The reality is a deadly virus is already in our community and potentially in our worship services.

For many people Sunday morning worship is a highlight of the week providing spiritual guidance, reflection, fellowship and renewal for the week ahead.  Unfortunately, it can be a person’s most dangerous time of the week for becoming infected with a life-threating virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that so far this season in the United States there have been at least 26 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,00 deaths from flu.

It is a reasonable expectation that church worship is a significant contributing factor. A traditional worship service is an incubator for the virus when individuals, including many with health issues, come together in close personal contact and engage in normal activities like hand-to-hand contact with others and then touch the face, especially the nose and eyes, during the service.

This is made especially critical when the congregation is led in the practice of the “passing of the peace” in a form that health professionals clearly identify as a predominant factor in spreading infections and should be avoided.

This is not a new issue but continues as a conflict between Presbyterian ritual and the safety, health and lives of individuals. This practice not only enhances the risk to worshipers; it is also a factor relating to the real or perceived values of the Church and church leadership with respect to human life.

Now’s the opportunity for progressive churches that place value on human life and well-being of its members to develop and conduct worship opportunities with reduced risk through a combination of actions.  The responsibility is on both church leadership and individual worshipers. Leaders can develop and conduct worship services to minimize infecting self and others and also guide by message and example the personal practices that contribute to a healthy church environment. This is a public health issue and professional guidance is appropriate.

Perry Sprawls, Ph.D., is a medical scientist and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of the Emory University School of Medicine now living in Black Mountain, North Carolina. He currently serves as head usher and worship host for Black Mountain Presbyterian Church with a major emphasis on providing a comfortable and safe worship environment for members. 

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