Faith leaders in Washington are being challenged to balance the spiritual and physical health of their communities during the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and requirements enacted by local governments.
The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. On the same day, Gov. Jay Inslee declared that events of more than 250 people are prohibited across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. In addition, King County announced requirements for meetings of less than 250 people. Mosques, churches and temples are responding to the pandemic in various ways – from outright cancellations of services to modified liturgy.
Aneelah Afzali, the executive director of American Muslim Empowerment Network (a program of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, MAPS) said in an email that the requirements likely will lead to cancellations of services until the prohibition is lifted. MAPS has canceled Jumuah (Friday prayer services) which is regularly mandated by Islamic faith.
“We are currently working on finding ways to provide spiritual boosts and educational religious services, along with interfaith educational events, via online platforms like Zoom,” Afzali said. She said they had never been forced to hold online events before, but was hopeful that once the pandemic is over, they would have new and better ways to reach those who cannot make services in person.
“There are exceptions (as we set forth in our rationale canceling Jumuah last week), but given the mandatory nature of the service, it is a difficult decision to cancel… and not everyone may agree with the decision,” Afzali said. “Online services cannot replace the experience of being together in person, in community. However, we are trying to find ways to feed the communal and spiritual thirst of our community, especially during times of trial and hardship, as we are currently facing.”
Churchome, a megachurch founded by Judah Smith with multiple locations in King County, has closed all of its locations until further notice. The King County locations average 5,000-7,000 people in attendance each week according to Carla Haskins, the executive director of Churchome.
Haskins said services will remain canceled until it is deemed safe to return. She said pastors and staff who would normally be working in person are dedicating their time to digital meetings on Churchome’s app.
“There are definitely things we are still working through, but in terms of why (Christians) met, which was to discuss the teachings of Jesus and also to experience community, it’s not as complicated as some church practices have been historically,” Haskins said. “As we progress and culture moves forward, technology is one of the ways we use to meet that need. We think we can … still be very true to the New Testament model of Jesus and his followers.”
Other churches, however, said that they are taking every precaution possible besides canceling service.
The crux of the decision to uphold service is theological in nature. Most Christian denominations adhere to weekly meetings, but the importance of physically meeting is emphasized differently in various branches. Some churches had added live streaming – even before the pandemic – as technology had advanced, but others have not.
Father Barnabas Powell of Saint Katherine’s Orthodox Mission in Kirkland said the embodied nature of Orthodox worship would make it impossible to move a service online.
“Orthodox worship is highly incarnational, with a central role for the body and the senses. This is because we believe God became man to sanctify us in body as well as soul. The center of our liturgical life is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, with the reception of Christ’s body and blood in the forms of bread and wine,” Powell said. “This takes place in a corporate, communal setting where the entire service is sung by a choir amidst the rising of incense and candles flickering before icons. An ‘online service’ would be the antithesis of this incarnational ethos.”
Powell stressed that that does not mean the church was not taking proper precautions. They have issued memos to their 1oo some parishioners assuring them that it would be OK to miss service when sick, and that those who are of higher risk – the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions – had a “green light” to miss church if they preferred.
A main practice of Christian worship is the Eucharist – also known as communion – where congregants share in the elements of wine (or grape juice) and some form of bread. While the practice varies across denomination, from dipping bread in a communal cup of wine (intinction) to taking portions of bread and wine from individual trays. Some churches who practice the Eucharist weekly are altering how they administer the elements.
Brent Hunter, pastor at the Kirkland Church of Christ, said the church was no longer passing communion trays between congregants and instead having single-serve packets for members. He said churches from other states reached out to him to try and hear what his church was doing, so they could prepare themselves if their church faced a similar level of outbreak.
Late afternoon on March 11, Catholic Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle announced a directive that parishes within the Archdiocese of Seattle suspend Mass.
“I am going to ask that all of our parishes in Western Washington, in the Archdiocese of Seattle … suspend the celebration publicly of the Eucharist … out of an extreme caution, we want to do our part to prevent the spread of this virus – of this epidemic,” Etienne said. “Every priest has an obligation to celebrate the Eucharist every day, and certainly I want our priests to continue to do that. I want all of us to continue to pray for our efforts and the efforts of so many others to care for the sick and to slow down the spread of this virus.”
Jon Newman, president of the Island Synagogue on Mercer Island, said they have taken all precautions advised by Public Health — Seattle & King County, including social distancing and cautioning those at higher risk.
“Most elective synagogue events have been canceled/postponed, including our annual fundraiser and Purim holiday party. All food events have been canceled. We have introduced online options where possible within the bounds of Orthodox Judaism,” Newman said. “(As of March 3) we are continuing to hold regular communal prayer services in special formats to encourage safety and social distancing … All Torah education classes are moving to online-only.”
He said congregants have expressed only positive feedback and appreciation for the safety measures and information that the synagogue has sent out. He said safety measures, even cancellations, did fit within Jewish faith values.
“The Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, takes precedence over public worship when there is a compelling danger to life. Many Jewish congregations around the country and the world have limited, or in some cases, fully suspended in-person communal prayer services,” Newman said. “The health of the broader community is of primary importance as people of all faiths work together to address the current pandemic. We are looking forward to having this pandemic behind us, and being able to fully resume all communal functions.”
Health officials predict that with proper regulations and precautions the spread of COVID-19 will be minimized, but that it is likely to spread nonetheless. Depending how long the outbreak lasts, faith communities will be forced to grapple with the theological implications of canceling services and activities that are often seen as spiritually necessary.
Reverend Phil Antilla of Bellevue First United Methodist Church said this may be an opportunity for Christians to return to the roots of spiritual practices.
“I find it somewhat amusing that much of this is happening during the Christian season called Lent — which is traditionally a time before Easter when people choose to intentionally give something up in order to practice a more focused spirituality,” Antilla said. “While some people may have thought they were going to give up chocolate for Lent, it turns out that many will actually be giving up church.”
Powell mentioned his normal responsibility to administer communion to those who were physically unable to come to church.
“A few of our older parishioners have let me know they may be staying home for a while, and I appreciate their telling me. Depending on the duration of this outbreak, I may need to explore bringing them Communion,” Powell said. “I would typically do so for one of our members who lives in a nursing home, but have been told I may not enter for the foreseeable future. Orthodox are typically conscientious about obeying the laws of the land and complying with stated institutional policies, so that’s where we are for now.”
More than just concern for their own spiritual well being, faith leaders often see their service as loving their community and meeting community needs. Conflict comes when faced with loving your neighbor in their physical health (avoiding physical interactions to stop the spread of a virus) or their spiritual health (meeting together or administering services like communion).
Washington faith leaders are set to test out answers to these questions, and they may serve as examples to clergy in the rest of the United States.