A Pastoral Letter: March 2020
God’s rich grace to you in this Lenten season!
The ongoing spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has prompted us to be more attentive to each other as we gather for worship and other activities. You can find easily find good general recommendations from public health professionals on numerous websites.
Here are some thoughts for congregational practice in worship. First, the greeting of peace: it is not necessary to shake hands or make physical contact at all. The practice of shaking hands to extend peace to one another is a recent development in Lutheranism. Just for fun, here is a little history. (I’m indebted to Bishop Matthew Riegel of the West Virginia – Western Maryland Synod for most of this background.) In the Book of Worship and Tunes of 1880, the presiding minister says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always” – and the congregation sits down without speaking any response. In the Common Service Book of 1917 and The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941, the presiding minister says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and the congregation responds, “Amen” (at times, sung). In the Service Book and Hymnal of 1958, the presiding minister says the same thing and the congregations responds, “And with thy spirit.” And that’s it. A verbal exchange of peace between members was first introduced in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1977), and this verbal greeting gradually came to include shaking hands or other friendly touch. As you can see, practices of exchanging the peace of Christ vary, and all can be quite proper. Verbal exchanges alone are perfectly acceptable.
Second, the distribution of Holy Communion: there is no need to omit Holy Communion from your worship, but there are considerations. Communion ministers should take extra care to keep their hands clean, preferably by washing with soap and water, which is more effective than hand sanitizing. Regarding receiving wine and grape juice:
- Of practices common in our congregations, intinction is the least healthy way to receive the wine, since some people inadvertently touch the wine with their fingers as they dip the bread. Our fingers carry more germs than our lips do. If intinction is used, one safer option is for the communicant to receive the bread from the communion minister with well-washed hands, already dipped into the wine without touching the wine with their fingers, and placed by the communion minister in the communicant’s mouth without touching the communicant’s tongue.
- Scientific tests have shown that drinking from the common cup is typically safe, particularly when the cup has a silver finish. Silver is bactericidal, and the interaction of the alcohol in the wine with the silver of the cup actively kills germs. Ceramic or non-silver cups do not protect against germs. After each person drinks from the cup, servers need to wipe the rim of the cup inside and out with the purificator and rotate the cup before the next person drinks.
- Individual glasses are often used. Even then, those preparing the cups should diligently wash their hands as they prepare all the communion ware.
- Finally, though Lutherans rightly receive both the bread and the wine in Holy Communion, foundational Lutheran Eucharistic theology insists that Christ is fully present, and grace is fully received, even when receiving just one of the two elements. So, a communicant may choose to receive only the bread. The communicant may respectfully nod or bow to the chalice when the wine is offered, instead of drinking.
Finally, let me commend to you a webpage from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled Get Your Community- and Faith-Based Organizations Ready for Coronavirus Disease 2019.
Blessings to you as you continue to worship and serve our Lord.
S. John Roth
Central/Southern Illinois Synod