The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left no sector unaffected. Practically every sphere of human activity and involvement has undergone unprecedented sea-change in a magnitude which this generation, and probably the previous one wouldn’t have experienced. Pictures of the worst pandemic, Spanish Flu circulating on Whatsapp draw similarities with the current pandemic.
The two principal modes of transmission of SARS-CoV-2-(1) through respiratory droplets of those infected and (2) fomites have necessitated people to maintain minimum distance of 1 meter while interacting, and to limit handling of physical articles by large number of people. These two requirements have turned societal functioning topsy-turvy. Students have moved away from blackboards in classrooms to Televisions, Laptop computers and tablets in the comfort of their homes. The sick try to stay away from hospitals, which break at their seams with COVID-19 patients. They take to Tele-Medicine should they need a doctor’s service. All modes of transport ground to a halt with imposition of lockdown, and have only begun resuming operations albeit reluctantly. Almost all sections of society and businesses that went on slow-motion are only resuming normal activity- all of them reluctantly and circumspectly, as cases continue to soar globally and nationally.
Places where Congregational worship was being practiced too closed their doors to the faithful. They resorted to online services, and you-Tube services, or just praying as family in the safety of their homes. It seemed the pandemic had given God that much-needed reprieve, presuming God exists within four walls of palatial and colossal ‘places of worship’ of todaydespite sleazy goings-on within them these days. Irrespective of religion. The church too foresees a plethora of changes and modifications in its functioning. It is inevitable.
Containment of the pandemic demands those changes- right from the ‘womb to the tomb’ journey of a so-called ‘faithful’.
- To begin with, baptism is probably the very first church-related event that a Christian goes through. Apart from limitation of number of people gathered for the event, mass Baptisms practiced in some churches will cease. The priest might not be allowed to carry the christenee in the characteristic vice-like grip. The picture of a baptism circulating on WhatsApp in the post- ‘Covidian’ times comes to mind. A man is seen holding up the christenee by the armpits. Across the baptism stall stands the priest with a water pistol aimed at the christenne’s forehead! That might actualize!
- Confession requires communication between the priest and the confessant at close quarters- a sure recipe for viral spread. The confessional chamber will give way to confession through WhatsApp, email or even a mobile phone through SMS or voice calls. Written confessions are better avoided as they could be used by priests to blackmail confessants for wanton favors, as had happened in ‘pre-Covidian’ times. Involvement of hi-fi technology might even render confession redundant, which it actually is. There is no place for a mediator or intercession between God and man. Not even a saint. Let alone the priest, whose credentials these days leave much to be desired for a mediator. Why is a mediator actually required when Christ is around?
- The sacrament of receiving communion will undergo a sea-change. This is one Christian practice which augurs viral transmission significantly through the hands of the priest serving communion to a multitude. Part taking of the wine from a single chalice is a big NO, as is use of the spoon. The Anglican Church I used to frequent as a teenager had wine served in small individual cups, as small as wine glasses placed in a wooden frame that had holes to hold the cups on the altar fencing where communicants knelt. That’s worth considering. Similarly, the blessed host too must be placed separately for individual communicant along with the blessed wine.
- Weddings too will look for new format. Use of masks would obviate services of beauticians, helping already financially harassed families save precious money. Large gatherings inside churches will go, which will throw out elements of perennial nuisance like photographers, uninterested onlookers, decorators and an army of priests and bishops who aren’t really essential. Christians will need to explore other avenues to showcase financial clout and snobbery. All redundant practices of the priest coming in physical contact with the couple, on the excuse of blessings and prayers, as practiced by the Malankara church must cease to exist. Couples will anyway be blessed by God Himself. As weddings happen in Heaven anyway, as believed! Marriages anyway happen always on this planet itself, whether or not the couple is blessed by a battalion of priests and bishops!
- The choir might become extinct eventually. The incident of the ‘Washington Super-spreader’, a COVID-19 infected causing infection of 52 others, and also leading to the death of 2 among them at a choir practice in Mount Vernon, Washington is still fresh in our minds. Forceful singing, required of choirs is fraught with droplet transmission bigtime. This will come as huge disappointment personally, as I go to church only to listen to choir render hymns, and to sing with them.
- The Congregation must strictly adhere to social distancing while sitting or standing inside the church. Half-empty pews and chapels will be the norm. Dreamy and somnolent worshippers will pray from home to reduce crowding. Needless to say, one of the most obnoxious practices of exchanging peace between congregation through greeting with hands will be shown the way out through the wide-open church door. Christians do not need to exchange peace physically. They need to live peacefully.
- The church will have alcohol-based sanitizers in place of holy water and oil. Use of holy water and oil is empty rituals that can afford to go. Sprinkling water on the congregation will stop.
- Offertories will no longer be dropped inside cloth bags or plates passed around, but will be dropped into boxes with wide openings placed liberally inside churches to prevent crowding.
- All church-related events like harvest festivals and feasts of saints which have church compounds resemble Kolkata’s Eden Garden during a cricket world-cup match will stop. Historically those events have not contributed to further Christianity’s wholesomeness. They have served to fatten the churchs’ bank balance. Christ will not be thus required to pick up the lash He dropped years back at the temple of Jerusalem!
- Rituals that cause public inconvenience like processions and wayside sales related to feasts cannot be persisted with, as social distancing is key.
- Sunday Schools and confirmation classes will go online.
- The practice of kissing holy books and idols too will have to be abandoned.
- Finally, when someone is laid to eternal rest, people must limit attendance. Dearth of space in overcrowded cemeteries will have the church consider cremation, even if Christians who are cremated shudder at the prospect of resurrecting as a pillar of ash when the last bugle sounds, as one of my colleagues joked recently