When the tidal wave of coronavirus news washed over his suburban Philadelphia congregation, the Rev. Barry Gray knew he had two issues, one spiritual and the other political. And they were intertwined.

As the transitional pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Holly, N.J., Gray was just wrapping up three intense years of work focused on improving and building consensus around the church’s practices. There had been many emotional conversations about how to make worship more intimate, more real. There were heated debates about music styles and what was lost or gained by merging the traditional service and the later, contemporary one.

For Gray, 68, who calls himself an “experiential pastor,” a moment he wanted badly to elevate was the receiving of Communion. The moment when, his congregation believes, “the Holy Spirit meets us and strengthens us and seals us to the blessing of God,” he says.

Traditionally at First Presbyterian, servers with trays walk among the congregation and pass plates with wafers down the aisle. The idea was that everyone partakes together. But, Gray said, the handing out also was speedier and seen as more efficient.

“It’s easy to get into the mind-set that the Lord’s Supper is a necessary inconvenience, so you do it the easiest way possible in order to fit in the time frame of your service,” he said. “We didn’t want to fall into that. We were thinking: How do we make it intimate and personal with Christ at the center?”

After working with a consultant and church lay leaders, First Presbyterian made a big switch Jan. 1 — having all congregants leave their seats and come forward to receive a freshly torn piece of bread and cup of wine (or grape juice) from one of four servers rather than taking wafers from trays passed through the pews.

“When people come forward, you get to look them in the eye,” the pastor said. “You get to say: ‘The body of Christ, broken for you, the blood of Christ, shed for you.’ ”

Then, a few weeks ago, “things got crazy,” he said. News about the coronavirus was everywhere — and way overblown, in Gray’s view. A nurse in the congregation approached him with worry.

“I told her, ‘We’ll talk and pray about it,’ ” he recalled.

Gray said he thought the flu was a bigger concern. He worried about changing the service again and harming the delicate balance they had worked for. And with a theologically conservative parish split down the middle politically, he said, he also was worried about how his own reaction to the virus would come across. With the president saying the media was exaggerating the threat, whatever he did seemed to be dragging politics into worship.

Would changing Communion for the coronavirus help keep people focused on Jesus, or the opposite?

A deacon came up with a compromise: disposable gloves. Congregants still would come forward for the new, slower Communion, but the servers — including Gray — would wear disposable gloves while ripping off pieces of bread.

“It feels weird because you’re adding something that is highlighting a problem versus focusing on Christ himself. It takes away from the flow,” Gray said. But if people felt afraid and distracted, that also would be a problem.

First Presbyterian offers Communion the first Sunday of every month, and this past Sunday, for the first time, Gray finished preaching, descended from the altar and put on gloves.

“I cracked a little joke about it. I said: ‘Well, Dr. Gray is about to do some spiritual surgery!’ ”

As he considers his diverse congregation of about 160, Gray said he and his team are still thinking hard about the optics of the pageantry and whether things are working or need tinkering. Is there a better place to put the gloves before and after using them? When should they be put on and removed?

So far, he’s gotten no negative feedback.

About all of it — the virus, the news, the Communion up front, the gloves — he says, “look, we will all have our own opinions.”

His job, as spiritual leader — albeit a transitional one — is to protect people.

“Church is supposed to be a safe place. And unfortunately for too many, it has not been,” he said. “How do we faithful followers of Jesus Christ show that grace and love for people? And that becomes most important.”

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