Is it safe to sing at church yet? Depends on who you ask

Religion News Service | 6/3/2021, 6 p.m.
On Pentecost Sunday, some members of Southwood Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Neb., sang hymns without masks for the first time …
The Doane University Choir Sings

On Pentecost Sunday, some members of Southwood Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Neb., sang hymns without masks for the first time in more than a year.

They vocalized “Multilin- gual Grace” in four languages after music director Denise Makinson taught them how to express thanks in Spanish, Arabic, Swahili and Korean.

“Idohavetosayitwas quite emotional yesterday to hear the congregation singing all the hymns,” Ms. Makinson said in an interview on May 24. “It was definitely something I missed.”

Pentecost is often celebrated as the “birthday” of the Christian church. It frequently includes a reading from the New Testament Book of Acts about the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ followers, who then begin to speak and understand languages they had not known.

“I think they were also emotional about it, to hear people’s voices,” Ms. Makinson said of Southwood’s congregants.

Some people sang with masks on, others with them off — a mix that is likely to continue across the country for a while as congregations navigate the “new normal” of the continuing pandemic when not everyone is vaccinated.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent announcement that fully vaccinated people could generally resume pre-pandemic activities has played a part in new decisions by congregations. But the CDC’s guidance was about individuals; its advice for “communities of faith” has not been updated since Feb. 19 and currently does not mention singing.

The Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song has declared in its own latest guidance: “We do not currently recommend that congregations sing.”

Its May 20 blog post also included questions that might further guide congregations about higher- or lower-risk activities. They covered such topics as the percentage of fully vaccinated congregants, the chances of some congregants remaining unmasked and not distanced, and whether people wear their masks properly.

But it added, no matter how those questions are answered, “there is still risk.”

The Rev. Ed Phillips, co-convener of the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacrament, said his organization is also coming down on the side of caution, urging mask-wearing indoors for “any sort of congregational responses or singing that would cause us to use a loud voice or sustained singing voice.”

He said “restrictions are much less necessary” for outdoor worship.

“Our guidance around singing at this point is to take a relatively conservative approach because congregations tend to be multigenerational gatherings and also gatherings where we will have both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, possibly of differing ages,” said Rev. Phillips, associate professor of historical theology and Christian worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Rev. Phillips said the consultation advises congregation leaders to use websites such as covidactnow.org to keep tabs on the latest information about the pandemic, along with advice from their local health officials, to determine what is considered safer in their particular situation.