Baptism, weddings, and funerals in a pandemic

This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

BAPTISM

Baptism, like Holy Communion, requires physical closeness. The presider applies water to the one being baptized in the name of the Triune God, named in the rites of our churches as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then the presider lays hands on the head of the newly baptized person, often with a prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit and an anointing.

While there is historical precedent for administering the water in ways that may not require direct touch, the laying on of hands does require touch. Very brief proximity can be allowed for this important rite when all participants who are able to wear masks do so. Children under 2, those with breathing issues, or those unable to remove a face covering without assistance should not wear masks.

Baptism is an essential rite of the church. To perform baptisms while limiting physical closeness and touch to what is necessary in the rite, we suggest the following:

1. Provide for physical distancing between unvaccinated family members and sponsors not of the same household.

2. Discontinue the baptism of groups of candidates not of the same household in the same service until physical distancing restrictions are no longer necessary.

3. Be sure the presider and assistants wash or disinfect their hands before the rite and immediately before and after each baptism.

4. When infants are baptized, allow the parent or caregiver to hold an infant during the rite. Parents or caregivers maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from the presider except during the administration of the water and the laying on of hands. Persons living in the same household do not need to maintain physical distance from one another, only from the presider, unless all are fully vaccinated.

5. Encourage the presider to speak at a regular volume and avoid breathing directly on the candidate or sponsors through the face mask.

6. Refrain from conducting baptisms at larger public worship gatherings during the pandemic. However, it is important that some members of a congregation (2 or 3) are present as witnesses.

7. When smaller gatherings for public worship are allowable according to local public health guidance, a congregation may consider holding a rite of baptism (or confirmation) before or after larger gatherings with a smaller group of the congregation in attendance.

8. If a small font is used, pour water into the font from a pitcher at the time of the rite. Perform indicated gestures of blessing over the water without touching the water. Take water from the bowl with a ladle and pour it over the head of the candidate.

9. Include a separate basin to catch the water if the service is not outdoors or if water from the font will be used for another baptism.

10. Use an immersion font, if you have one. The CDC guidance indicates there is minimal chance of contamination by water, especially water in pools: https://www.cdc.gov/ coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/water.html

11. In warmer weather, congregations may consider performing baptisms outdoors, in flowing streams, lakes, or in beach settings. All physical distancing recommendations for gatherings apply: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/ social-distancing.html

12. Administer anointing oil carefully. If anointing more than one candidate, ministers should disinfect their hands after anointing each candidate.

13. Greet the newly baptized with vigorous applause to welcome them into the Church.

14. See guidance on the laying on of hands. The presider and other participants such as sponsors (not part of the same household) will refrain from other physical gestures of greeting or welcome, such as kisses, handshakes, or embraces. See recommendations for alternative gestures for the Exchange of Peace.

    Regular Volume

The purpose of speaking at a regular volume is both to limit the spread of the coronavirus through our breath and to help those gathered for worship be less anxious about spreading germs. We acknowledge that this may make it difficult for some people to understand what is being said. It is important not to compensate by using a “stage whisper” voice. Stage whispers expel a lot of forceful breath, which would defeat the purpose.

Be sure to articulate each word carefully and keep the motions, gestures, and flow of the rite clear and intentional. People will be able to “hear” with their eyes.

Congregations with the capacity to project words or to make them available for members’ electronic devices can allow those observing to know what is being said, even if they cannot hear the words being spoken. Members outside the range of hearing can still participate fully by praying silently for those being baptized, confirmed, or consecrated. God always hears us when we pray.

• See guidance for the laying on of hands.

• Anointing oil may be administered as in baptism.

• Although some rubrics allow for “other persons” to join the pastor in the action of laying on of hands, limit the liturgical action to the presiding minister while others stand at a safe distance.

• As with baptisms, limit the number of persons being confirmed at one time. Maintain physical distancing between all parties except during the parts of the rite that require physical touching (laying on of hands and anointing).

• Postpone confirmation if representatives from the congregation are unable to gather. Encourage the participation of representative members of the body of Christ who have played significant roles in the lives of the confirmands (Godparents, mentors, sponsors, Sunday School teachers, children’s ministers).

• Invite all in attendance to affirm the confirmands with vigorous applause.

Available from Cokesbury

WEDDINGS

The rite of Christian marriage is a public act of discipleship within the Christian community, whose members are its primary witnesses. During a pandemic, the number of people within a Christian community who serve as witnesses may be limited. We recommend:

• Following state, local, or denominational guidelines for the number of persons who may be gathered and requirements for physical distancing except between the couple and persons living in the same household.

• The presider and other attendants wear masks unless all in attendance are fully vaccinated.

• The couple may choose not to wear masks during the ceremony and remain physically distant from others. The couple considers limiting the number of wedding attendants or choosing some number of attendants who are connected to the local congregation in addition to the presiding clergy to ensure that family members and at least one lay representative of the congregation can be present.

• All who speak during the ceremony should do so at regular volume.

• The wedding rite may be live-streamed or unobtrusively recorded and uploaded, with appropriate copyright licensing as needed, so persons who cannot attend may witness it.

Available from Cokesbury

FUNERALS

From the beginning of the Church, Christians have given loving, respectful care to those who have died. When Jesus died and was buried in a tomb, some of the women disciples visited the tomb after the Sabbath to care for his body. During the pandemic, churches must continue the holy work of care for the dead, while acknowledging the need for responsible limitations.

Traditional Christian rites of death and resurrection (commonly called a funeral) and committal (burial) are often distinct in time and place, but each is a proclamation of the gospel in the face of death. Memorial services held later without the body present may combine some elements of each. The funeral rites include elements that presuppose a separate rite of burial immediately after the funeral. Similarly, the rite of burial generally presupposes that the declaration of the gospel and the prayer of commendation have already taken place at the funeral. In the case of memorial services, death may have occurred at a much earlier time, but circumstances may have prevented a large gathering prior to interment.

During this pandemic, depending on local conditions, it may be unsafe and unwise to hold a funeral or a memorial service in person at all. This requires pastoral sensitivity. Because of the professional expertise required for care for the dead, we recommend the CDC “Funeral Guidance for Individuals and Families”: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-lifecoping/ funeral-guidance.html.

We also offer these suggestions about the rites themselves:

• When a funeral is not advisable, a rite of committal may still be possible, especially if it is held outdoors. The committal rite may be expanded by beginning with the reading of scripture, a very brief homily, and the commendation taken from the funeral rite. During the prayer of committal, the presider may touch the casket or other vessel.

• Live-streaming or recording the service may be appropriate when limits on the size of gatherings prevent family members, close friends, and church members from attending. Given the added difficulty of arranging a funeral or committal during the pandemic, some people may prefer to hold a memorial service at a later time.

• When it is possible to gather more people safely indoors or outdoors, the congregation may consider holding a church-wide or community service for those who died during the pandemic.

SENSITIVITY TO CREMATION AS A FAMILY DECISION

When a loved one dies, the decision about whether they should be buried or cremated may be emotionally and spiritually painful. The role of the church in this matter is to support the family’s decision, especially if they find themselves needing to choose cremation when they or their loved one would have preferred burial. Much in Christian theology has made churches and families reluctant about or opposed to cremation. Christians have long viewed the burial as the final act of respect and care for the one who has died. The laying to rest of a body imitates the placing of Jesus’ body in a tomb following his crucifixion and death. Burial also anticipates participation in Jesus’ resurrection and is an expression of our hope in the resurrection of the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20–22, 42–44).

To this day, some Christians still regard cremation as a violation of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Some see it as rejection of belief in the resurrection of the body. Congregational leaders should take these concerns seriously and offer additional support where this occurs.

At the same time, many churches and Christians in recent years have become more accepting of cremation, recognizing that all bodies return to dust (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:7) and that God has the power to claim any deceased’s remains for resurrection to eternal life. Ecological, social, hygienic, and economic reasons may also make cremation an appropriate option for many Churches and Christians. In the United States, funeral homes report that cremation is the preferred option.

It is known that a person who has died of COVID-19 remains contagious for some time after death, thus putting at potential risk those who prepare human bodies for burial. Under these circumstances, cremation of the dead may be more likely to preserve the health of the living.

Given restrictions on the number of persons who can gather in person to say farewell to a loved one, some families are choosing to delay funeral and committal services until it is safer to gather. Cremation allows for this option.

For all these reasons, clergy and congregations should support families in whichever option they choose for their beloved dead.

We commend these resources which the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have developed to prepare clergy and lay pastoral caregivers for ministry with families making these decisions:

Ad resurgendum cum Christo (2016): https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/ bollettino/pubblico/2016/10/25/161025c.html

“How do Lutherans regard organ donation and cremation?” https://download.elca.org/ ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/How_do_Lutherans_regard_organ_donation_and_ cremation.pdf

In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook (especially pp. 64–67): https://www. augsburgfortress.org/store/product/9781506431451/In-Sure-and-Certain-Hope-A-Funeral- Sourcebook

This article is excerpted from CARE-FILLED WORSHIP AND SACRAMENTAL LIFE IN A LINGERING PANDEMIC, available as a PDF for download.

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