But this week, congregants are experiencing a different kind of newsmaking history after their rector, the Rev. Timothy Cole, became the first confirmed coronavirus case in the District. Health officials have asked hundreds of people who attended Christ Church services on Sunday, March 1 — or who were at the church on Feb. 24 or between Feb. 28 and March 3 — to self-quarantine because of their potential contact with Cole. The cleric is at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in stable condition.
Late Monday, D.C. officials said a 39-year-old man who attended Christ Church also tested positive for the virus. The church said in a statement that organist Tom Smith had tested positive. He and his husband are both under quarantine.
A church spokesman said church leaders previously discussed precautions for the virus, had hand sanitizers around the building and did everything they could with the information they had.
On March 1, Cole spent five minutes of his sermon talking about best practices for hand-washing and other virus-prevention issues, said Rob Volmer, a congregant serving as church spokesman for the virus news. Cole, whom parishioners call “Father Tim,” washed and sanitized his hands before distributing communion at the 11:15 a.m. service, Volmer said.
“Since this came out, we were as diligent as anyone could be," Volmer said, adding that the church sought guidance from the diocese, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the D.C. Health Department.
Christ Church does some outreach and services during the week, but its core is Sunday. Internal research shows that what parishioners most value and appreciate are the church’s traditions, said Sally Squires, a former vestry member — and former Washington Post reporter — who is now on the altar guild.
The church was founded in 1817, before the Episcopal Diocese of Washington even existed.
Key, a lawyer, was among a small group of Episcopalians who left another parish they thought was insufficiently conservative and helped found Christ Church. In 1817, he attended the denomination’s General Convention and introduced what he called an “evangelical” resolution. It decried “conforming to the vain amusements of the world,” including theater, card games and public balls, according to a history the church prepared for its bicentennial in 2017.
Christ Church is a bipartisan congregation, said Squires and other members. Its prominent members come from different backgrounds — political, military, legal, medical and others — and are happy to escape the partisanship they engage with all week.
“They are living politics all week and on Sundays want a respite,” she said. “We don’t talk politics. We talk religion and what we can do for others.”
Christ Church places a huge emphasis on traditional music and was left an endowment specifically to support it. The choir is semiprofessional, Squires said.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S.-based branch of the Anglican Communion. Like the Catholic Church, it practices an ancient liturgy, offering congregants Communion — sometimes called the Eucharist — during services. Typically, that consists of wine or grape juice and bread or wafers. Communion represents different things for Christian churches that offer it, but in the Episcopal Church, it symbolizes being “in communion with God and each other,” according to the denomination’s site. Christ Church’s site says the rite carries out “Jesus’ instruction to break bread and share wine in remembrance of him.”
At Christ Church, Communion is distributed at three services each Sunday. On March 1, Volmer said, Cole was present for all three services but distributed Communion (as “the celebrant”) at only one.
At Communion time, people approach the altar and are given a wafer and offered a sip of wine from a common cup.
Volmer said Cole, as usual, used hand sanitizer and washed his hands before distributing Communion. He carried out the ritual by placing a wafer in each person’s hand as they approached. The celebrant tries to hold only the tip of the wafer, Volmer said. Most people at Christ Church dip the wafer into the cup, called a chalice, and then drink directly from the cup and eat the wafer, Volmer said. People who for whatever reason don’t wish to do that can cross their hands in front of their chest and simply receive a blessing.
Volmer received Communion at the 9 a.m. service, as usual. But he says that knowing what he knows now, he’d forgo the rite because of the virus.
“In general, having 300 people drinking from the same cup,” doesn’t seem like a standard health choice, Volmer said. “But it’s a choice that many of us have made, a lot of Christians have made. There is an experience about everyone sharing from the same cup, us all having this same experience."
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of support Christ Church lends to the annual Georgetown Garden Tour.