Church takes a hit as coronavirus fears spread

Diocese takes precautions to halt spread of virus, including cancellation of Archbishop's Fed Square Conversation this month

Archbishop Philip Freier's first Conversation in Federation Square for 2020, scheduled for 25 March, has been cancelled because of coronavirus risks as the Church takes precautions against the spread of the virus.

By Stephen Cauchi

March 1 2020This is an edited version of an article published in the March edition of The Melbourne Anglican. It has been updated to reflect the announcement of the cancellation of the Archbishop's Conversation scheduled for 25 March.

The growing coronavirus outbreak has affected Chinese churchgoers throughout Melbourne, Australia and the world as congregations take measures to protect themselves from the deadly virus.

And with no end to the outbreak in sight, the Melbourne diocese has taken precautions to counter any spread of the virus, including the cancellation of the first of Archbishop Philip Freier's Conversations at Federation Square for 2020 on 25 March. See

Anglican Chinese congregations in Melbourne have experienced reduced numbers, particularly among families with children, due to fears of virus transmission in such a communal setting.

Significant numbers of Chinese have also quarantined themselves for two weeks, either because they have recently visited China or because they live with relatives who have recently visited.

Activities in Chinese congregations that pose a risk of virus transmission, such as passing the peace or taking communion, have been either altered or abandoned and hygiene measures increased.

Archbishop Freier, in an Ad Clerum on 13 February, listed measures churches could take to minimise exposure, including hygiene and quarantining practices. He also included a prayer in a time of epidemic disease (see below).

“To use the Australian bushfire analogy, Australia is now in a ‘watch and act’ level of severity,” Archbishop Freier wrote. “That suggests that as a community we should be alert but not alarmed.”

Dr Brett Sutton, Victoria’s chief health officer, said in late February that Victoria had been working on its coronavirus pandemic preparedness for some weeks. “It’s clear that with local transmission in several countries that a pandemic is very likely, if not inevitable. We are working rapidly on planning and surge with our health sector.”

Some churches in Singapore and South Korea have been the source of local outbreaks of coronavirus. While the outbreak in China has apparently slowed, cases and deaths are increasing in other countries, particularly South Korea, Iran and Italy.

The Revd Ben Wong, lead minister at St Timothy’s Bulleen, said that about a third of the Mandarin congregation went back to China for holidays in January and had self-quarantined for two weeks on their return. Even though the quarantine period was over, numbers at worship were about 70 per cent of the regular attendance, he said – down from around 130 to 80.

“About a quarter of the congregation are just not comfortable with gatherings so they’re just not attending the services, especially families with young kids.

“Families are worried about the situation, they just don’t come,” he said.

The Chinese are more concerned about coronavirus than other Australians as “they have a lot of news from mainland China and other sources”, he said.

Sunday school usually had 30 children but was now down to around 10.

Hygiene measures included buying hospital-grade auto-sensor handwash and a ban on shaking hands. Small groups had been stopped, although some members want them to resume, said Mr Wong. Services had also been live-streamed on Facebook.

Communion was changed after the 2003 SARS outbreak to dipping a wafer in wine and this method was still in use, he said.

The overall mood in the congregation was improving, although there were still a couple of university students trapped in China who could not return, he said. They were upset because the Australian Government had not said when this would change.

The Canon Missioner of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Revd Canon Robert Vun, said the Cathedral’s visitor numbers and Mandarin congregation had suffered a drop in numbers.

Mr Vun, who leads the Mandarin congregation, said that worship numbers dropped when the outbreak started but were now recovering. “It has affected us but, surprisingly, not that much,” he said.

But hygiene measures had been taken. Instead of drinking from the cup during Holy Communion, communicants now receive a wafer dipped in the wine. Priests and communion stewards will also frequently wash with hand sanitiser.

Handshaking during passing the peace, meanwhile, has been replaced by a waved greeting.

However, Cathedral visitor numbers had been significantly affected. “We see very very few Chinese visitors now. It used to be that at least half, if not 70 per cent, of our visitors to the Cathedral were mainland Chinese.”

The lead pastor at Holy Trinity Doncaster, the Revd Andrew Price, said that numbers at the Mandarin-speaking services had been significantly affected. Small groups and other ministries for the Chinese had also been affected.

Those who had travelled to China for the Chinese New Year, or who lived with relatives who did, had self-quarantined, he said.

“Numbers were certainly down when it first broke, probably by 50 per cent. I think that’s starting to change because most of the Chinese were self-quarantined for 14 days. The two weeks is past now so I think it’s starting to get back but it’s not 100 per cent just yet.”

Despite efforts to secure more hand sanitiser, “by the time we thought about it, most of the chemists had sold out”. The church also advised other hygiene measures suggested by health authorities, including washing hands and coughing into the elbow.

The Revd Esther Ruan, the senior Mandarin pastor at Holy Trinity, said that communion had stopped in February and many families with children had stopped coming. On the other hand, “some people are stuck in Australia”.

“They can’t go back to China so they come to church. So we have an opportunity,” she said.

The seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak was also a time for reflection.

“It’s a good opportunity to think seriously about the Bible’s truth for Christians and non-Christians. A large number of our congregation are very busy, for work, for business, for family, but now I find that people think more about the truth.

“We remind people that they have to be prepared … a lot of church members have parents in China.”

In Hong Kong, Archbishop Paul Kwong, Bishop Andrew Chan and Bishop Timothy Kwok released a pastoral letter on 4 February highlighting their distress over the coronavirus. “As the novel coronavirus spreads through Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China and across the world at an alarming rate, our hearts are filled with worries and anxiety. Our daily lives have been affected and we are forced to make all sorts of inconvenient adjustments to our routines. A sense of frustration, helplessness and even panic has enveloped us,” they said.

“During this trying time, on the one hand we need to pay attention to our personal and community hygiene by following the guidelines given by the medical personnel and the authorities. On the other hand, more importantly we need to lift up our trust to that faithful and unchanging Heavenly Father. We are not fighting this battle alone. Jesus Christ, who cares for us and walks with us, is the ultimate strength in who we can put our trust.

“At this time, let us pray more, especially for those who have been infected and for the frontline medical personnel.”


Prayer in a time of epidemic disease

Lord Jesus Christ, healer and friend,

come and care for all of us

through the danger and uncertainty

of the coronavirus epidemic.

To people who are sick, bring healing.

To people who are displaced, isolated,

or cut off from family, friends or work,

bring comfort and companionship.

Work with medical staff as they care for the sick,

and protect them from harm.

Give skill and fruitful research to scientists

as they search for treatments, prevention and a cure.

To public health authorities, give wisdom

to decide the best ways to manage

both this crisis and our anxieties.

When communities are fearful,

give a calm spirit,

and kindness to neighbours and strangers.

Through this testing time,

and through all the risks we face together,

teach us once again how we can love one another

as you have loved us. Amen.