My congregation has a weekly tradition of "sharing the peace" before the offering. Those in worship often shake hands, give hugs, or otherwise share greetings during that time. It has been suggested to me that we ought to suspend sharing the peace because of the swine flu outbreak. It's important to know that the state in which I serve is far, far north of the Mexican border, and that there are no indications of any swine flu cases in our area or in the state. I personally think the suggestion is an overreaction and that it is unnecessary to take such precautions at this time; I'm concerned that media frenzy about this is already encouraging too much paranoia. What do others think?
From one of our new matriarchs, Mompriest who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice...
The invitation to share the peace is just that, an invitation. One may always choose not to share and simply greet without any extension of the hand or cheek. Personally I think this is a bit of an over-reaction. I live 45 minutes from the border of Mexico and we are not worried about this, nor are we forgoing the peace. We are a hugging congregation! ... I think an exchange of the peace is an important ritual that should not be alleviated out of fear. I also think that safety measures can be put in place for those who might be worried.
Another new matriarch, Sue, who blogs at innerdorothy, addressed the flu concerns in her congregation last Sunday:
"We are a caring family within the body of Christ, and sharing the peace is a joyful part of our worship. In the past week, news reports have been made about concern over a certain flu virus that has affected certain parts of the world and certain parts of our country. Some experts are now saying that the so-called pandemic is no worse than any other late-season influenza outbreak.
That said, it would be best to use common sense and even better to err on the side of caution. If you or anyone in your family has been coughing or feeling unwell this week, please refrain from handshaking or hugs and simply offer the peace with your voice and your heart. Others will understand."
Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists joined many of us in encouraging common sense:
Everything we touch (hymnals, pews, doorknobs) could be infecting us. One of our elders is literally the #2 person at the FDA and she's told me that if we are simply smart, we'll all be fine. Smart means that if you are sick WITH ANYTHING, stay in your fuzzy slippers and pj's and eat soup at home. Don't come to worship/work/playgroup/Starbucks. Wash your hands often. Don't sneeze on people. And hugging is "safer" than shaking hands.
If you are in a public space where people are coughing, sneezing, etc, there are enough air-born germs floating around that suspending the passing of the peace is more symbolic than anything from a health safety standpoint. Folks who are really worried or especially vulnerable should probably just stay home.
Yet anther suggestion for common sense action during cold and flu season is to have hand sanitizer visibly accessible in the worship space, and perhaps even place individual packets in the pews. All communion distributors at our church use hand sanitizer before sharing the elements.
Jacque who blogs at comptoncaresupdate notes that her congregation has only changed the worship leaders' communion practice:
I would not presume to say what others should do, however, we are not stopping the Passing of the Peace at this time. We feel the situation does not call for that at this point. We are having the elders and pastor drink out of separate small communion cups instead of sharing the common cup as they usually do. (The congregation already uses individual communion cups.)
Stacy who blogs at earthchicknits offers an important point:
I agree that the suggestion is an overreaction and I think you are absolutely right that the media has already created too much hysteria around this. The last thing I think we pastors need to do is to inject anxiety into the liturgy... I think our job is to model non-anxiousness in the face of the fear, and to extend care and compassion to those who may be afraid, without allowing their fear to set the tone for our worship and fellowship.
Schools here in some areas have closed, but now the state is saying, "maybe we overreacted." There may be a time when we should abstain from passing the peace, but I think it is too early to do that.
What has been the response in your worshiping community? Do you have some words of wisdom to add? Use the comment feature to share your thoughts and suggestions.
May you live in God's amazing grace+