As the novel coronavirus outbreak has become a pandemic, churches are also taking various measures to prevent infection.
At the current point of time as I am writing this (on March 15), five out of eleven dioceses of Nippon Sei Ko Kai, Anglican Church in Japan have suspended public worship. Currently, worship has not been completely suspended within the Diocese of Chubu, but some churches have suspended worships on Sundays due to the outbreak of those infected in the local area. There is a possibility that we may have to suspend worship in our diocese depending on future circumstances.
This virus may infect other people before specific symptoms appear, and one may become a source of infection before realizing it, and may also be infected from those around you. Such circumstances may happen. Also, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare are warning people “to avoid gathering in groups in areas with poor ventilation where people gather closely together” to prevent infection. Many churches apply to this very condition, and there is a possibility that they have an unspecified number of people going in and out. Considering this, suspension of worship is unavoidable as an emergency measure.
On the other hand, given that a church is an “ecclesia (a gathering, to gather),” it goes without saying that it is not something easily solved by just saying “we are suspending our church worship due to danger.” However, this infection can be fatal depending on conditions and cannot be treated like a common cold. Because church is a community where it values life, this matter needs to be handled carefully.
At Diocese of Tokyo where I am temporarily assigned, a video of the Holy Eucharist presided over by the bishop is being distributed as one measure being taken during the suspension of worship, and this has been viewed by many people. In that process, an unexpected way of use has emerged.
When a certain priest visited a hospitalized church member and showed this video on the smartphone, the patient was in tears of joy and said, “I am so happy because I have not been able to go to church for a while.” I have also heard that elderlies who have been at home for a long time are repeatedly watching the video and singing the hymns. Before we start saying how we are not able to go to church or take part in the sacrament on Sundays, I was made to think that we should reflect on just how much our thoughts we put into for these people so far.
This issue was recently raised at a meeting of the Ecumenism Dialogue with Catholic and Lutheran churches. Lutheran churches have decided not to hold the Holy Eucharist for the time being, and Catholic Church Archdiocese Nagasaki recommends family members and others read the bible on the day and share while mass is being suspended. I have learned from both churches that in this case, it is a time to recall that we live on His Word, and we are invited to share it with people close to us.
Ecclesiastical churches must not stop gathering at any time. However, they must also be open to the many possibilities of specific “ways of gathering.” Where is God urging churches to turn and act in this time of difficulty?
Revd David Shintaro Ichihara