Can you imagine a church service without singing?
I can’t. But that might be the case for the next year or more if warnings from scientists and public health officials about the spread of the novel coronavirus are correct.
According to experts, one of the easiest ways to spread the virus is by singing. That’s what Dr. Lucinda Halstead, the president of the Performing Arts Medical Association and the Medical Director of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of South Carolina, and Dr. Donald Milton, an infectious bio-aerosol specialist at the University of Maryland, told the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the American Choral Directors Association earlier this month.
In their presentation, the two stated there is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95 per cent effective treatment in place — something they think is at least 18-24 months away.
They went on to say there is no spacing solution for singing groups that would eliminate risk, noting singing can transmit the virus up to 16 feet.
According to Halstead, physical distancing is not an option. "You would need a football stadium to space apart the... choir," she said.
Masks may also not provide safe methods for singing, they added; Milton said experiments with the flu found people still spread the influenza virus from their breath in fine particles even when wearing masks.
What’s true for choirs and choral groups is also true for congregations. And if it is, who can imagine a church service with no singing?
Jeremy Penner can’t. For the director of worship and media at Portage Church here in Winnipeg, "the word that comes to mind about this news is ‘devastating.’"
And yet, he also wants everyone to be safe. Once his church is allowed to gather in person, Penner said he wants to follow health advice about singing, suspending it if it is not safe to do so.
Although that will be difficult, he notes Christians throughout history have suffered much more. This includes persecuted Christians who met secretly and avoided singing in order not to be discovered.
That was also true worship, he noted. It focused "on the hope we have in God, that He will bring us through it like He has always brought His people through hard times in the past... if God is leading us to go through a similar period of restraint in our worship, then our rejoicing will be even greater when we come through it."
Michael Wilson, minister at Charleswood United Church, said his church would also follow health guidelines about singing if it isn’t safe. But even if that happens, it doesn’t mean there will never be congregational or choir singing ever again, he said.
"The future of congregational singing is that there will be congregational singing," he said. "When and how are fair questions, but there is no need to rush to an answer before there has been time to reflect on what that means."
Janet Brenneman is a professor of music at Canadian Mennonite University. The dire warnings have "sparked real concern and panic for some," she noted.
For Brenneman, who conducts the university’s choirs and often leads singing at her church, Bethel Mennonite, it’s hard to imagine what life might look like with no choral singing.
But, she said, directives from public health officials need to be taken seriously. "We don’t want to put anybody at risk," she said.
And yet, the loss of congregational singing in churches would be a huge blow, she said.
"That’s the way the congregation finds its collective voice, how many participate in worship," she said. Without singing, "it just wouldn’t be the same."
When the question about singing in churches, once groups can gather again, was posed to provincial health authorities, a spokesperson noted they are aware about "droplet production" when singing.
"If and when gathering size increases and the situation evolves, Manitoba public health officials will provide guidance based on evidence at that time," the spokesperson said.
In Luke 19:39-40, we are told some Pharisees told Jesus to tell his disciples to keep quiet. "I tell you," Jesus replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."
If the coronavirus silences singing in churches until a vaccine is created, I’m sure Christians will still find other ways to praise God.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.