Working on how to react to the Swine 'Flu pandemic has taken a great deal of my time this week, together with that of other members of the church staff.
First came the reading. There was a large document from the government on Faith Communities and Pandemic Flu. Then there was the Church of England's advice (at the beginning of the week) from the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds on the administration of Holy Communion. Just as I thought that I might have a handle on it, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter which changed the CofE advice. Then this morning, my own Diocese issued its Information for Clergy.
Got all that? Good. After the reading came the writing. A letter will go to all congregations on Sunday, and a paper has gone to staff so that we can put things in place. Our head verger has been busy buying hand gel and bins and setting up stations in church. He and I have to finalise arrangements for Sunday's services later this afternoon.
There is a great deal of advice about washing hands, about not intincting (dipping wafers into wine - apparently this may be a greater risk than the common cup), about placing bread onto hands and not onto the tongue, and about not touching hands as you do so. The Archbishops' letter suggests that clergy should 'offer guidance to the congregation about appropriate precautions in ... exchanging the peace'. But nowhere do they or the rest of the CofE advice say what precautions would be appropriate.
The prize for the fiercest response goes to the Diocese of Chelmsford, whose website includes the statement that 'pastoral visits and home Communion for people who have been infected ... is strongly discouraged'. I am very glad that my own Bishop's advice is rather more temporate.
To summarise the letter I have written to my congregation:
- don't come to church if you have the 'flu
- we will visit those who are ill
- wash your hands often
- we are providing hand gel, tissues and bins in church
- Holy Communion for the time being will be in one kind only (i.e. the bread)
Interestingly, one of the things cited by the Archbishops is the Sacrament Act of 1547. Section 8 reads that "the saide moste blessed sacrament be hereafter commenlie delivered and ministred unto the people, within this Churche of Englande and Irelande and other the Kings Dominions, under bothe the Kyndes, that is to saie of breade and wyne, excepte necessitie otherwise require". Clearly the Archbishops feel that 'necessitie otherwise requires' the limitation to one kind at the moment.
This exception was introduced into the Sacrament Act because of the bubonic plague. The Reformers didn't want the good work of achieving the administration of the sacrament in both kinds to be undone by a public refusal to share the common cup in times of plague.
Now the Swine 'Flu is not the plague. But when the government is advising us not to share common vessels for food and drink, it may indeed produce a situation in which folk in the pews (or at the altar rail) refuse the common cup. This creates an issue of lack of confidence in the administration of the sacrament and in the church which ends up bringing the whole sacrament into disrepute.
Now, as I said, the Swine 'Flu is not the plague. Any comparison of the seriousness of the respective diseases makes that clear. But however much this is driven by the media or the fear of litigation, we do not want a situation of mass refusal (so to speak) of Communion. Such an event would seem to call into question the whole communal basis of the sacrament. The question to ask is not whether this is an over-reaction to the disease, but whether such a refusal of the common cup was becoming a likelihood.
In all of this the key for me is not to lose sight of our common humanity. That is after all, part of what the common cup is about. Common humanity suggests that we should take precautions not to infect others with a nasty disease. Common humanity also suggests that we should not withhold all human contact from one another, whether that be a visit or a handshake at the peace.
Provided, of course, that you wash your hands!