Dioceses respond, adapt as coronavirus spreads to Canada

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3D print of a SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—virus particle. Photo: NIH

As cases of the novel coronavirus are confirmed in Canada, Anglican leaders have responded with a review of good hygiene practices in pastoral care and public worship—with at least one diocese suspending sharing of the common cup in worship.

As of March 2, public health officials had confirmed 24 cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) across Canada. These included 15 cases in Ontario, eight in British Columbia and one in Quebec.

Following the first two cases of coronavirus in Toronto, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, wrote in a Jan. 27 letter to the House of Bishops.

“Our prayers are extended to those who are ill with this virus and those who are caring for them, especially those at the epicentre of this outbreak in China…. I pray that our common life in worship and pastoral care will be rooted in the compassion of Christ and appropriate care for one another in a time of uncertainty,” Nicholls said.

Other statements and pastoral letters have followed, including from the dioceses of Toronto, British Columbia, New Westminster, Quebec, Brandon and Huron.

Bishop Andrew Asbil also issued a statement Jan. 27 to the diocese of Toronto. He noted that he was consulting on a regular basis with Toronto Public Health, and that the Bishop’s Committee on Healing Ministries would review current protocols in the diocese and make revisions if necessary.

“At this time, we believe our call to action is to pray—for those infected and affected, for those in the medical and scientific fields who are combatting the virus, and for all those who may feel anxious—that the Great Physician himself, Jesus Christ, will bring strength, comfort and healing to all,” the bishop said.

Asbil has since released a pastoral letter, to be read out at every service in the diocese on March 8 and then posted or published in each parish. The letter states that the diocese of Toronto will be suspending sharing of the common cup at the Eucharist and is advising people to “share words and smiles only, not handshakes or hugs, during the Exchange of the Peace.”

“Our normal liturgical customs are important to us, and we hope to reinstate them as soon as we are advised that the risk of transmission has been better contained,” Asbil wrote.

On Jan. 28, health officials confirmed the first case of novel coronavirus in British Columbia. The next day, the diocese of B.C. released a statement outlining hygienic practices.

On Feb. 6, the National Microbiology Lab confirmed the second case of coronavirus in B.C. In the diocese of New Westminister, Archbishop Melissa Skelton put out a statement that included health information and best practices for hygiene. But she also warned of a different threat: fear and prejudice against specific racial and cultural groups.

“At any given time in human history viruses have arisen in one part of the world and over time been transmitted to other regions,” Skelton said. “The ease of international travel in contemporary society has made such transmission even easier.

“While it is vital that we take precautions to prevent the spread of biological viruses, it is equally vital that we take proactive steps to prevent the spread of another kind of ‘virus’—the virus of ethnic or national blame. As a Diocese we are committed to dismantling racism. The current outbreak of the [coronavirus] provides us with the responsibility to dismantle any prejudice or racism that can emerge during such a time.”

Statements by the primate, bishops and dioceses outline hygienic practices for pastoral care and worship, which echo steps taken by the church during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

These include having hand sanitizer available in the worship space, urging pastoral care workers to take precautions before and after visits to hospitals and homes, and reminding worshippers who are ill to stay home. Standard practice for administering the common cup during the Eucharist includes the use of clean purificators—the cloth used to wipe the chalice during celebration of the Eucharist—between communicants.

Regarding concerns about use of the common cup, Anglican leaders have reiterated the church’s teaching that recognizes the fullness of communion in one kind, meaning only bread or wine. In the case of coronavirus, they advise bread only for those choosing this option. Another option is touching the base of the cup as it is presented, but not consuming the wine.

The primate’s statement includes two other possibilities. One is using disposable individual cups; the other is the practice of intinction, or dipping the bread in the wine in a way that makes contact between the fingers and wine impossible.

However, practices can vary across the church, and some dioceses prohibit intinction altogether. Both the dioceses of New Westminster and British Columbia do not allow the use of intinction, citing the higher risk of spreading viruses or infections through the wine. New Westminster also does not allow the use of individual cups, with the archbishop’s statement pointing to the significance of the common cup as an “ancient symbol of unity.”

The uncertainty and fear surrounding coronavirus and its potential to spread is reminiscent of sentiments expressed during previous flu outbreaks, such as the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

Writing in the Anglican Journal at the time of the SARS outbreak, Canon Eric Beresford—then consultant for ethics and inter-faith relations at the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada—described “information” and “compassion” as the “antidote to fear.”

“Human life is full of risks and the task is to be able to recognize those risks that need to be accepted, and those risks that need to be avoided,” Beresford wrote. “When the fear of risk grows out of bounds it becomes a prison that constrains our lives and a barrier to relationships with others.

“Finally we need compassion: Compassion both for those whose fears are beyond reason and also for those who might be hurt by such unreasoning fear. Such compassion may involve taking short-term measures as the churches in Toronto did in order to reduce anxiety levels to a point where we could think about the way forward together.”

The Journal will continue to provide updates on the church’s response to coronavirus as the situation develops.

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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