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“Singing together in congregations is a practice that we dearly love and are eager to promote, but loving our neighbor is job one here and so the time for fasting from this wonderful practice may be longer than any of us would like,” said Rev. John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a May 13 interview.
“Based on the science that we are learning about this week, we are urging, and I am personally urging, extreme caution,” he said.
His unprecedented words of warning come as religious leaders have received jarring predictions from scientists well-versed in virology as well as vocal practices. Webinars, videos, and texts are circulating across the globe as scientists reveal their studies, and clergy must consider what to do with the results of those reports. Some church leaders aren’t yet sure what to do when they reopen, others are designing multiphase plans, and still others are moving ahead with their traditional practices of praise.
More than halfway across the country, Dr. Howard Leibrand, public health officer for Skagit County, Wash., appears to be in Witvliet’s amen corner.
“I would recommend that until we get a vaccine, we don’t do congregational singing,” he said, adding that it is “the safest recommendation.”
Leibrand was one of the investigators of the coronavirus outbreak that spread through a local chorale that had been meeting in a Presbyterian church. He is an author of a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tracked the 61 people who attended the March 10 rehearsal with one symptomatic person. The report found that 87% of the group was confirmed to have COVID-19. Three members were hospitalized, and two of them died.
The report noted that, in addition to sitting next to each other, snack sharing, and stacking chairs after the rehearsal, the singing by chorale members could have led to infection via the transmitting of droplets.
“The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” it says.
Leibrand, a congregational singer and a member of a nondenominational church that meets in homes, said that even though the chorale was not specifically a church choir, “I think it has some cross-utility for making predictions about what would happen in a church choir, too.”
When the Rev. Leslie Callahan of Philadelphia’s St. Paul’s Church met via Zoom with her deacons earlier this month, one of the top concerns they discussed was whether there would be singing when they reopen. She had read articles, including about the infected chorale. She had also viewed the much-shared webinar hosted by singing associations where Dr. Lucinda Halstead, medical director for the Medical University of South Carolina’s Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing, posited that it could be 18 to 24 months before group singing makes scientific sense.
“It doesn’t sound like singing is safe, especially not congregational singing, which is from my perspective a really important feature of worship,” Callahan said. “Singing together is a big deal. In fact, not having a handle on this may make me postpone when we start to worship together again.”
Callahan’s historic, predominantly black church, which draws a congregation of 150 to 175 people—some of whom are at special risk—on a regular Sunday, is in a part of Pennsylvania that remains in the red phase, under a shelter-in-place order through at least June 4.
Some churches have started singing in worship again.
“We did sing, and it was glorious,” said Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Cape Coral, Fla., that met for the first time since mid-March in its sanctuary on May 10. “We did so out of simple obedience to Christ.”
He said the multiethnic church’s service was attended by 160 people, which was a bit more than half its usual gathering. They sang six songs as they often do in their liturgy, including the traditional Charles Wesley hymn, “And Can It Be,” and “O Church, Arise,” a contemporary hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty.
Ascol, who opposes online worship and has instead offered an archive of previously recorded services or drive-in services in the church parking lot, said he was disappointed in religious leaders who have taken a more cautious approach.
Seth O’Kegley, director of worship and music at First United Methodist Church of Oak Ridge, Tenn., is pursuing a different strategy, as his congregation awaits word from the regional bishop about when it can open its doors again.
“As far as music goes, we are going to start with no congregational singing,” he said of the mostly white church with 400 to 450 congregants.
A group of no more than six paid professionals will sing in a more remote spot of the cross-shaped sanctuary during the traditional service, more than 16 feet (almost 5 meters) away from congregants (a distance cited by two scientists in the singing organizations’ webinar for how far the virus can travel). A “pared-down band,” smaller than the usual six to eight members and spread out across a platform, will provide music for the contemporary service.
“We’re hoping this gives people that participatory experience even though we ask them not to sing along,” O’Kegley said.
The lack of regular congregational music now—as many worship online—doesn’t mean congregants aren’t singing. O’Kegley said some people stand and join in when hymns are played via their digital connections.
Witvliet, a professor of congregational studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, said members of his Christian Reformed congregation, Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, gather around their kitchen table and sing along—and their Zoom worship service features individuals and families singing and playing instruments from their homes.
However, conflicting scientific reports have made some church leaders unsure how to proceed once they reopen.
For example, two researchers at Bundeswehr University in Munich concluded, “In a choir or in the church, a safety distance of at least 1.5 m (or 4.9 feet) should still be maintained in order to protect yourself effectively against a droplet infection even if you cough unprotected.” Their study, published in German and translated via Google Translate, differs from others’ recommendations while also noting the need for staggered seating for singers and good ventilation.
“If you read all (the reports), they are all over the map,” said Philip Brunelle, organist-choirmaster at Minneapolis’ Plymouth Congregational Church and founder of VocalEssence. When it comes to congregational singing, he thinks it's probably “better for us to wait until such time as we have a better idea about what is healthy and what is allowed.”
Brian Hehn, director of the Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song, is working with an ecumenical consultation to devise recommendations for worship in Catholic and Protestant congregations. He said his group’s future musical advice will likely be based on the consultation’s guidance.
Related: A CRC Network post about reopening churches includes many thoughtful responses on congregational singing and other implications.
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