The Church of England and Covid19

I have been much exercised in recent days over the latest Church of England guidelines for living with Covid19, and in particular the wearing of masks by congregation and ministers, even during services of Holy Communion. My basic irritation lies in the fact that this goes beyond government guidelines for a range of venues that are comparable to churches – restaurants, bars, museum etc.. On the positive side it has been the source of some amusement in our household when considering how the new mask wearing advice matches with the requirements to sanitize or wash hands before and after removing masks, and the prescriptive way of removing masks without touching them or the face. In the context of receiving Holy Communion this probably required 3 or 4 hands per person. As far as I am aware most Anglicans have two at the most. Personally I am disappointed that no reference is made to removing with dignity a face mask elastic from an ear already occupied by glasses and a hearing aid.

But there are other, deeper issues. The first of these concerns the appreciation of risk. In my current context, in Lichfield in Staffordshire, the number of Covid19 positive cases in the last week given by Middle Super Output Area (MSOA) in England  is less than 3, and as 2 by Coronavirus (Covid-19) in the UK. If we take a figure of 5 to allow for asymptomatic cases, and given a population of 100,000 for Lichfield district, this gives a probability of any one person having the virus of 5 x 10-5. Now let us suppose that the chance of meeting any one person in Lichfield on any one day during normal activities is (say) 1 in a 100 (which is probably a bit on the high side), this gives the probability of meeting someone with the virus of 5 x 10-7. Now suppose that one of those 5 infected folk attend a church service, if any one congregation member spends at least 15 minutes in the presence of each of the others, even without social distancing the risk of being infected is thus around 5 x 10-5. With 2m social distancing and recommended sanitization / washing hands etc. this figure falls by a factor of 100 to 5 x 10-7 again. To give this some context, around 100 people are killed or seriously injured in the UK on any one day. Given a population of 70 million, this gives a daily probability of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident of 1.4 x 10-6. Now whilst these approximations are very crude, it seems that, in the current context in Lichfield, including church services, the probability of catching Covid19 on any one day is probably no worse than the probability of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident.

Now I am not arguing for any relaxation of current procedures imposed by the government. These have necessarily to be rather broad brush and simple to understand. Also, whilst many areas of the country are in a similar position to Lichfield, there are places with much higher rates of infection, so the current procedures are in my view sensible and should be followed. But for the church to go beyond these procedures seems wholly unnecessary. To be consistent in terms of an appreciation of the risk, the church should be advising all its members to give up driving completely. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Within the risk analysis community there is a basic assumption in the UK that we should aim at risks that are ALARP – as low as reasonably possible, where “reasonably” is understood to be such that the basic function of the procedure that is being analysed can be achieved. In some large organisations (and I am thinking here specifically of Network Rail with whom I have had numerous arguments) the approach by individuals within the organization to setting risk levels is better described as CMOA (Covering my own ___). I will let the reader complete the phrase. I fear I see the same approach in those involved in setting the Church of England guidelines, with no indication that the true nature of the risk in many parts of the country is appreciated. In the recent communications, the recommendations have gone beyond “reasonable” and threaten to undermine the purpose and integrity of the activity – in this case the giving and receiving of Holy Communion.

This brings me to some further considerations on the nature of the Communion service itself. Before making these arguments, it must be emphasized that I am no theologian, as I guess is only too apparent from what I have written already. So when I enter into discussions of eucharistic theology, it is very much as a non-expert.

As things stand, only the presiding minister takes both bread and wine, with the laity restricted to the bread. The rationale for this is that sharing a cup of wine might be a source of infection risk, which I can appreciate, although I do not find at all satisfactory that laity should be denied the cup. A way around this would be to put the wine into individual cups, as do many other churches. The Church of England has set its face against this, on the basis that sharing should be of “one bread and one cup”. This has been severely criticized by, for example, Andrew Goddard. The only comment I would make, based on some perceptive observations by my wife, is that, in Anglican circles we most certainly do not have “one bread” in a physical sense – with the people’s wafers coming from one production batch and the priest’s wafers from another (and any gluten free wafers from a third). I would contend that the oneness of the bread and cup comes from their consecration within a eucharistic community, rather than in any physical sense. Communion in both kinds could be offered, with no additional risk, by the simple use of individual cups, if such an approach were to be taken.

The same reasoning can be applied to what might be termed ”virtual communion”, the practice of allowing the consecration of bread and wine in people’s homes via a priest’s consecration over an internet platform. Again, the Church or England has set its face against this, based on a rather narrow concept of what is required for consecration – the physical proximity of a priest. There is a danger here of at least underestimating the role of an omnipresent God rather than the priest in the consecration. Whilst I would be reluctant to engage in such practices for a completely random audience, it seems for me that if a congregation who have formed the bonds of fellowship between them over the years, come together virtually around their tablets and laptops, then the consecration of the bread and wine would take place within the body of Christ, the gathered Eucharistic community. I can see no objection to this. But then, I am not a theologian. All I can say is that it would certainly eliminate the risk of Covid19 infection.

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