Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Swine Flu and good practice at the Eucharist

The Church of England, our own Diocese of Durham and many other Church bodies have issued guidance on Church practice in relation to the fears over swine flu. What's missing is an indication of when the guidance might need actually to be implemented.

Faced last week with a sudden upsurge in infection in the wider community within our parish boundary, we had to do some thinking. Here's the gist of what I finally found myself sharing with the congregation and the action we took. Of course we'll need to review our practice on a regular basis:

1. Don't panic! All the evidence is that the illness is almost always mild. Even the worst case scenario figures given by the government for mortality are very low when divided by a population of 60 million - I think I hazarded a guess that this would work out at about 6 deaths for a parish of our size (actually it's nearer 10, now that I've done the sums... But let's not let that distract us).

2. Nevertheless we should be responsible. Some people may say they'd rather get flu sooner rather than later. But some of us have our holidays booked - and if everyone got flu all at once who's going to keep the country running and provide the care we all need?

3. There are some people you would definitely wish to avoid getting the illness - especially expectant mothers, mothers of very young children, the very young and elderly, and people who have complicated health conditions. We need to look out for them.

4. There are real concerns in our parish. I know several people who have swine flu in their families. It is spreading through some if not all the local schools. So proper precautions are responsible.

5. On the other hand because much of the spread in the last week or so has been through the schools, it's possible that the end of school term (for most of our children, 22nd July) will bring a fall-off in the rate of infection (but probably only temporarily).

6. How can we at St. Cuthbert's play our part when we worship together?

(a) follow the government's advice on hygiene - don't cough and sneeze over each other; use disposable tissues, and bin them carefully. If you've been infected or have been in close contact with someone who is infected, then it's responsible to stay away from people if you can. Wash your hands.

(b) most infection that's not airborne is by contagion, i.e. hand to nose / mouth. So I suggested that we should use the Peace to value one another - we don't need to shake hands. Instead, make eye-contact, smile, acknowledge one another... Having said that, some people did shake hands. But no one should feel that they have to.

(c) there is some guidance from the diocese about the chalice - one question is at what point might it have to be withdrawn? (In that case only the priest would drink from the chalice). Holy Communion in one kind is sufficient, i.e. receiving the Host. In the event we offered the chalice to all who wished to receive, but made it clear that they did not have to. We asked communicants not to intinct (not to dip the consecrated wafer into the chalice), because intinction itself is a means by which infection can be passed on (and it's bad practice!). Most people did receive from the chalice. But we noted among those who did not receive were a couple who had a family member receiving chemotherapy, and an expectant mother. I understand their concerns.

(d) people shouldn't feel that they had to shake the Vicar's hand as they left the church!

(e) alcohol hand-rub was available at the back of church (and the priest himself used it before the Offertory in addition to the usual lavabo).

In the event I think we got things about right. There is obviously widespread infection in our community, and we'll need to review how things progress, and whether the chalice should be withdrawn. One danger is that an invitation might be made to people to receive if they wish, only for the priest to find that most decline, leaving him / her with rather a lot of consecrated wine to consume. And the priest him/herself should not be obliged to consume - at the end of the Communion - what other people have declined to receive (or might have infected).

Should we publish these guidelines more widely? Are people presently staying away from church out of fear? If they knew what steps we are taking, perhaps they'd be reassured!

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