About noon, John Wesley walks down to the green in Montrose, Scotland; he begins singing a hymn; curious people flock to him and he preaches. Imagine Methodist worship without singing.
Can you ‘come into his presence’ without singing? You must. This and other fundamental changes for worship are mandated in Bishop Sharma Lewis’ Task Force Handbook, ‘A Plan for Resuming In-Person Worship’. The exhaustive handbook comes with granular prescriptions on how United Methodist local churches in the Virginia Annual Conference can re-open over Phases 1, 2, and 3. The handbook raises interesting countervailing questions worth considering.
One is appreciative of Bishop Lewis taking proactive leadership in providing guidance for pastors and local churches regarding in-person reopening. Bishop Lewis and the Task Force are genuinely interested in the well-being of the Annual Conference and its churches; this is demonstrated in their attitude of putting people before apportionment's. Nevertheless, since the Task Force’s Handbook micromanages church life at its fundamental core, in its worship and, in fact, all its life, the Conference Administration will understand that faithful and reasoning Methodists have questions.
Do we have a constitutional issue here in which an entity of the church, the Bishop’s Task Force, is arrogating to itself the right to mandate essential changes in the nature of worship - no singing, no baptisms, and no in service communion for Phases 1 and 2? Is not the General Conference invested with the constitutional authority in Paragraph 16.6 ‘to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship…?’
Though the Chancellor has advised the Conference, and liability is the backdrop of the Handbook, what legal issues regarding the infringement of persons’ privacy rights (HIPPA laws) are we raising by forcing persons to divulge, private personal health information, e.g., ‘Have you tested positive for COVID -19’, to gain admittance to worship? Should have the Conference during the flu epidemic of 2018-2019 required worshipers in order to attend worship complete a health form on personal flu prevention? Is the Conference making attending worship even more stringent than federal and state requirements by also requiring worshipers to wear masks? If a worshiper refuses, worship must be cancelled; the worshiper will be shamed.
Have we finally found something Methodists will not tolerate? The Bishop’s Task Force makes it abundantly clear: non-compliance, that is, singing, communion and faces free of masks ‘will not be tolerated’. How can it be we can tolerate sin and unhealthy sexual practice but not singing?
We all want our disciples’ best welfare. What is it and what is the basis of the Task Force determining it? Are we balancing science, logic, and the Scriptures? Yes, the Conference Task Force rightly consulted the CDC. Yes, we want to know what Drs. Fauci and Birx have to say. Have we also weighed their views against counterbalancing data, medical research and the experience of other highly respected members of the scientific and medical community? For instance, Dr. Scott Atlas, Former Chief of Neuroradiology at Stanford University and Hoover Institute Member, advises the standard for determining opening-up is not model hypotheticals, but coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations. Both fatalities and hospitalizations are much lower than originally predicted.
Informed medical authorities have been arguing for some time what six hundred medical doctors just wrote (May 20) in a letter to President Trump. State orders keeping businesses (churches also) closed is a ‘mass causality incident’. Dr. Simone Gold of Los Angeles stated in the letter the effects of continued shutdown are more serious for most people than the potential of the virus spread should the shutdown end too quickly. The healthy should be released to get on with life and get exposed to build antibodies which not only protect them, but prevent its spread to our most vulnerable.
Further, consider a comparison of COVID -19 cases with those of the flu. As of May 21, according to the Virginia Health Department 32,908 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed; of those 1072 people have died. For the 2019-2020 flu season from October 2019 to March 2020, 9,354 cases of A and B flu have been reported; of those, 782 related deaths have occurred - in spite of the fact many in the population have been inoculated. There is comparative similarity in the number of deaths of each. Note also 60 % of COVID -19 deaths have occurred in long term care units and in a handful of counties in the northern Virginia and Richmond areas. My and surrounding counties have no more than one COVID-19 death each, with most having none. A Virginian has a 12 out of 100,000 chance of dying from the coronavirus; a 15 out of 100,000 chance of dying from a drug overdose.
Notwithstanding this cursory look, the point is, has the Task Force considered carefully the full range of input to inform re-opening? Have they seriously weighed in the balance the comparatively minimal risks of the coronavirus against the risks to our church of not ‘provoking one another to love and good deeds’ and of ‘neglecting to meet together’? When liquor sales are up 300% and social, mental, and economic strain is exacerbated, should we be damping down the availability of, habit and desire for true worship of Jesus Christ, group prayer, Scripture study, counseling, missional service and evangelism? Well-meaning as they may be, are the Handbook’s dictum's going to drive more people to or away from church? Is the danger of the virus less than the financial harm to local churches and the Conference? Is the Handbook really shoehorning the vast majority of the Commonwealth’s counties minimally impacted into a Northern Virginia-Richmond nursing home problem? Are we encumbering an already beleaguered church with unnecessary burdens too heavy to bear? Is covering our legal liability worth changing the nature of the church?
Oh, about singing in worship and the spread of the virus. Earlier in the year, choirs after performances in Amsterdam and Washington State came down with the coronavirus. People surmised projecting the voice increased the transmission of airborne droplets. Yes, said Jamie Lloyd-Smith of UCLA, an infected singer trying to project the voice might disperse particles further. Professor Christian Kahler of the Military University, Munich has researched droplets and aerosol behavior for decades. After the choir deaths in Europe and the U. S., he carried out experiments to find out how singers and musicians expel air and droplets. He measured airflow in low and high frequencies in voice and instruments. Yes, Dr. Kahler found, flute, clarinet and oboe pose a problem; but not singing. Singing is quiet safe. Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University agrees that linking singing to spreading the virus is anecdotal. My hope is the Task Force will re-evaluate our policies in line with new, emerging scientific data and reasoning; full-orbed medical, economic, and social understanding; mitigation strategies for seniors and those with extenuating conditions; Scripture, reason and common sense; or else, you will ‘come into his presence’ without singing!