Eating and drinking (viral) judgement

One of my enduring, and blackly amusing, memories of being a houseman was my occasional duty of administering radioactive isotope tracers in radiological examinations.

The idea (in my hazy memory – I’ve had no re-experience of it for the last 45 years) was that radioactively tagged isotopes would bind to thyroid cancer cells that might be deposited in the body, which could therefore be detected by scanning the patient. The procedure was done by radiographers, but because IV injection of the isotope was required, Jon Houseman was enlisted to do that part.

It was actually an entirely safe procedure for the patient, and was treated as routine by the radiology department, but I was always struck at how it must seem very far from safe from the victim’s point of view, sitting there in nothing but an ill-covering paper gown. And this was, of course because of the stringent radiation precautions for the staff.

Now, how necessary these were I’m not sure. There is a societal paranoia about radiation which even extends to avoiding nuclear power as the only sane way to produce plentiful electricity without generating plentiful carbon dioxide. But obviously, for radiographers exposed daily to small amounts of radiation, it makes sense to take adequate precautions, and likewise for young house-physicians starting families and using isotopes repeatedly.

Be that as it may, when I arrived the pleasant radiographer would be telling the patient how straightforward and painless it would be… before retreating from the room entirely whilst I put on gown, gloves and mask (I can’t remember if lead aprons were included in the outfit), and only then withdrew the vial of tracer from its armoured container, drew it up and then stuck it into the vein of the patient’s vulnerable and naked arm, before carefully removing my contaminated Hazmat gear (well, not quite) and dumping it all in a special bin with “radiation hazard” stickers before myself retreating as the radiographer re-appeared.

If there’s anything more scary than seeing someone wearing a decontamination suit, its seeing them when you’re not wearing one.

And that was the kind of feeling, sadly, that I got at our communion service last Sunday. It was our second “proper” communion since our “Post-Freedom Day” policy began, though for months we’ve been doing strange things with cream crackers and grapes in individual plastic bags, which was universally agreed to be weird more than edifying.

On the first occasion, our associate pastor did an excellent job of sharing the Lord’s Supper whilst reassuring the anxious. He himself had cut the bread using gloves (I believe he may even have done a negative lateral flow test first), and we use those separate glasses for wine anyway. Our (newly minted) policy already suggested that masks be worn whilst moving round the building (in imitation of the crazy rules for restaurants still in play), so it did not look strange for the servers to be masked, and for good measure they were passed antiseptic hand-gel before they were handed the baskets of bread, thus proving their bacterial sanctity. They then dropped a piece of bread, Anglican fashion, into the open hands of each recipient as they toured the rows of seats.

To me, part of the joy was that there was an uplifting combination of psychologically reassuring precaution and necessary trust, as we received bread from the hands of those we had seen cleansed, but had to trust to be safe. Scientifically, of course, there was no danger at all as COVID has not been found to transmit significantly by fomites or hand-to-hand, but the whole procedure served to build confidence and, more importantly, the sense of intimate human fellowship which is at the heart of the Eucharist . We are, after all, sharing the body and blood of Christ as the body of Christ. Paul even warns us in 1 Corinthians that it is our lack of appreciation of the latter that puts us in physical danger of abusing the sacrament.

But our pastor being on leave, others were managing this week’s service, and somebody had the idea – or was nobbled by someone in the congregation – that proper COVID-safety required the use of sterile surgical gloves. So the passing out of the baskets of bread was preceded by the ceremony of masking up the servers (more noticeable as general mask-compliance has become mercifully more lax since last month), followed by the rite of the Antiseptic Gel, culminating in the sacrament of the latex gloves. The actual communion was a bit of an anti-climax to all that.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever worn surgical gloves, but there is a certain skill required in getting them on, which begins with choosing the right size. Of course, the kind used in catering don’t come in proper sizes. So as the servers and the celebrant struggled in this un-rehearsed and unfamiliar task, the lady next to me whispered how sinister and scary it was – and she wasn’t thinking of supernatural awe at the holy mysteries of the Eucharist, but of preparing to be operated on by a bunch of Bizarro zombie-surgeons.

In the end, as the elements were handed out by hands with various fingers curled into palms because somehow they had no corresponding pocket in the glove, whilst other latex fingers flapped freely and impeded operations, the effect was more comic than sinister, but equally alienating. Here was the ultimate expression of our spiritual – even our physical – union with Jesus and with each other, and its emphasis became focused on the need not to be united, all for fear of a virus that has done no serious harm within our congregation for 18 months. I couldn’t help but think of the hollow reassurances of safety I gave to unprotected patients as I injected them with isotopes I wouldn’t risk touching myself. I hope we may get to work out a better way before next month.

Now, I’m not one to say that God is bound to protect Christians from the common risks of humanity. There have been COVID outbreaks in churches, though I haven’t heard of one anywhere in the world that arose because of a communion service. As I have said, it’s good to take reasonable precautions, and even to make them visible to reassure the folks – but surely not when it makes the reception of the body and blood of Christ appear either like a surgical procedure without anaesthetic, or a comedy sketch.

We do believe, after all (don’t we?), that there is a spiritual reality to the Lord’s supper beyond mere symbolism (even Zwingli did not go that far, though it seems many Evangelicals now do). In some way we believe the supper is a true spiritual encounter with Christ, and one that is experienced through the entirely physical act of eating and drinking. Do we not think that in obeying the Lord’s command to honour him in this way, he will not return the compliment with at least some degree of protection from statistically tiny risks?

Or are we somehow guilty of failing to discern the body in the routine?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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