On a typical Sunday at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), the church service takes several hours. Worshippers arrive, they are welcomed and then a call to worship is made. A praise-and-worship session follows, culminating in the intercessory prayer.
The sermon, the most important session of the day, is preceded by readings and singing of hymns and, thereafter, closing prayers and benediction, then the recession hymn and offerings before the faithful leave.
But all that is about to change. The entire worship session will take just 60 minutes. They now have timed everything. The sermon, the longest session, will be just 20 minutes.
These are the changes places of worship countrywide are grappling with following the release of health protocols prior to reopening after a three-month closure due to the Covid-19.
For many churches and clergy, it will no longer be business as usual. Want holy water or handkerchief? Sorry, those will no longer be available for sale.
The new protocols by the Interfaith Council on the National Response to Corona Pandemic are turning out to be a major disruptor of worship as we know it, ushering in a new order.
There will now be “parking services” and even “drive-through” communion. Now, the faithful are being encouraged to attend drive-in services, where they will not leave the comfort of their cars.
In the new order, prosperity gospel pastors could be hard hit as they are banned from selling anointing oil and holy handkerchiefs.
Those who love music will be disappointed, too, as the protocols recommend less singing and more of teachings. It may be hard to squeeze in praise, worship, preaching, casting of demons and miracles in an hour.
As churches and mosques reopen their doors on Tuesday, congregants will be expected to comply with the new guidelines.
The sale of holy water, pamphlets, food, books and even the miswak twigs used by the Muslim faithful to clean their teeth has been banned.
Contact, which has been a sign of affection among the faithful, is also banned. Touching of holy sites and statues is out of the question. The council is encouraging creativity.
“Consider offering drive-in, parking lot services in which individuals participate in faith-based activities and receive services (blessings) without leaving their cars,” the team says.
With a cap on only 100 people allowed into any service, any additional member will be asked to go back home, or follow the service online.
“Calculate the number of attendees to be allowed in the building. The measurement to be used is 36 square feet per person (using the seating space). Markers must be used on benches and chairs must be placed no less than six feet apart in every direction. Those who will make it to the service will be required to avoid handshakes. Greetings should be universally recognised gestures. Namaste (place your hands at chest level).
“Wearing of masks and temperature screening of congregants at the entrance of the places of worship is mandatory. Provide for each service appropriate facilities and adequate supplies not limited to handwashing facilities, running water, soap, paper towels, hand sanitisers and disinfectants. A sanitising station must be set up at the entrance for people entering and leaving the building. Establish a separate room, space inside the building or outside to accommodate any individual who becomes sick during service. The responsible party must provide a Covid-19 hotline, to report the case, and the Covid-19 signs displayed.”
The churches will also be expected to establish visible signs and notices encouraging members to observe the protocols and practices to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Congregants and worshippers will be expected to wear masks.
“When addressing the gatherings, a speaker may remove his mask, but must maintain physical distance of at least 12 feet with the congregants. If this is not practical based on the physical size of the church, the speaker must wear their mask,” the document says.
This will be a huge test to the majority of “small” churches in residential areas, especially in urban centres, which are mabati affairs. The congregation numbers will reduce significantly.
Due to health-related concerns, individuals with underlying health issues, pregnant and nursing women, senior citizens, children under 15 years, and those who might not be able to wear a mask for the duration of the service are not allowed to attend prayers, but can follow the service online either in separate rooms or at home.
Churches and mosques will also require frequent sanitising, with frequently touched areas carefully sanitised before, during and after each service. Where microphones and podiums are used, they must be properly sanitised after each person uses them, with no sharing of microphones allowed.
“The cleaners must follow the guidelines from the Health ministry, with masks and gloves at all times,” it says.
All individuals who attend service will be expected to exit the premises immediately after service.
“Worshippers will be discouraged from socialising after services outside of the church premises.
The places of worship should encourage contactless tithes/offerings system like M-Pesa paybill numbers, bank account numbers and such with those who must touch cash or cheques advised to wear gloves and sanitise their hands,” the protocols say.
To support contact-tracing efforts in the event a faithful tests positive for coronavirus, operators should collect the names and contact information of attendees.
Choir music will be difficult to perform as pre-recorded music is being encouraged.