SARS Virus affecting churchgoers

May 1, 2003

Churches in Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada have been encouraged to make a number of changes in the way that services are conducted as a result of the recent outbreak of SARS. In Toronto, Canada, the congregation at St James' Anglican Cathedral has been served bread only at Communion.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a respiratory illness that has recently been reported in Asia, North America, and parts of Europe. The primary way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact.

The Rev. Andrew Chan, General Secretary of the Anglican Province of Hong Kong, has said that while no official guidelines have been issued, there has been very close contact amongst diocesan secretaries and heads of organizations to determine appropriate measures.

Many dioceses and parishes have issued their own guidelines for Sunday services, such as encouraging congregations to wear surgical masks, keeping all doors and windows open for ventilation, and providing plastic gloves for communicants during communion.

Several churches, including St John's Cathedral in Hong Kong, have suspended Sunday school classes and worshippers are exchanging the peace by nodding or bowing rather than shaking hands or embracing.

Until the spread of the disease is contained, churches are being asked to keep windows and doors open to provide better ventilation during services and to sterilize all parts of the building--including liturgical books, pews, walls and floors--that could harbor germs. In addition, the celebrant and communicants have been advised to wear plastic gloves and masks during communion.

In a sermon last Sunday at St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong, the Rev. John Chynchen tried to put the SARS virus into perspective by comparing it with the Great Plague of 1665 when around 70,000 deaths were reported in London, some 15 per cent of its population at that time.

'Undoubtedly, SARS is a very nasty new bug capable of tragic and devastating consequences for those infected by it and for their loved ones,' he said. 'It is essential, however, that it is seen from the right perspective. In Hong Kong, so far, one person in 4,500 people has contracted the disease.'

He added that a great part of the human race exists in poverty and squalor whilst the affluent world over-produces and consumes to excess. 'In Africa...5,000 children, mostly under 5 years, die every day from malaria.'

Earlier in April, the Primate of Hong Kong, the Most Rev. Peter Kwong, called on all congregations in the province to pray for hospital pastoral workers, health professionals and patients.

In Toronto, Canada, where another serious SARS outbreak has occurred, Dean Douglas Stoute decided that St James' Anglican Cathedral would serve bread only at Communion, with wine being served in a separate side chapel.

In response to consultation with public health officials and the medical community on the worship practices of the Anglican Church during this time of heightened health concerns, Archbishop Terence Finlay of Toronto issued instructions to all clergy in the diocese. 'The celebrating priest will continue to consecrate both the bread and wine at every Eucharist. However, our parishioners will receive only the consecrated bread until I inform the clergy otherwise,' he said. 'I am also encouraging congregations to share the peace through words and smiles and similar gestures, rather than hand shakes and hugs.' In addition, he asked people to uphold in their prayers the victims of SARS, those who care for them, the quarantined, and the researchers who are searching for its cause and a cure.