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Tactile Religion in a Time of Pandemic

Right before the shelter-in-place orders came down, churches (presumably not just in America) went through a short period of deciding what to do about what we might call “contact rituals”: greetings others around you with handshakes and hugs, or joining hands during a final hymn. My church in Waco suspended all handshakes and hand-holding, to the relief of introverts, doctors, and others. Then all physical presence in church buildings ceased for congregants, and overnight we’ve gotten much more familiar with streaming sermons, online worship, and virtual fellowship groups.

Whenever we are able to go back to some sort of normalcy, I don’t see those contact rituals coming back until an effective COVID-19 vaccine is available (sometime in 2021, Lord willing). That will mean that church will remain strange, because tactile religion is such a common feature of Christianity that we don’t notice it until it is gone. I am no big fan of “greeting time,” because I am an introvert and not great at making small talk. But I readily understand that physical contact with fellow believers is a foundational part of what it means to be the peculiar people of God in the world. For example, I hug certain close male friends when I see them, and that is part of how I feel like a brother to them in the Lord.

As much as physical touch is woven into our church life, it is not nearly so pervasive as it was in earlier times, especially among Baptist churches in the colonial era. I was recently reading Janet Moore Lindman’s Bodies of Belief, which argues that among early American Protestants, Baptists practiced an especially “corporeal” religion. This was partly because of their strong attachment to the local church as the body of Christ, but also because of the distinctly tactile nature of their rituals, beginning with believer’s baptism by immersion.

Believer’s baptism gave Baptists their name, but it was one of nine church rituals that at least some Baptist churches across America practiced during the colonial era and into the 1800s. These included the Lord’s Supper, the laying on of hands (usually following baptism), the right hand of fellowship (for new members), the love feast, washing of feet, the kiss of charity, the fellowship of children or dry christening (often called “baby dedication” today), and anointing with oil. All of these practices had precedent in Scripture, though the extent to which they were mandatory was debated (except perhaps for baptism and the Lord’s Supper). James Leo Garrett notes that all nine rites were practiced in churches associated with Separate Baptists and the Sandy Creek network of churches emanating from North Carolina in the mid-1700s.

It would be fascinating to know just how common these rituals are (except for baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are presumably ubiquitous) around the world today in Baptist churches. I suspect that baby dedication is nearly universal, too. The kiss of charity in America is mostly gone as a literal act, but has morphed into greeting times and/or the welcoming of new members (which also entails the right hand of fellowship).

Laying on of hands is probably less common, but is used sometimes as a way to pray intensely for people at particular moments, such as sending them out as missionaries or ordaining them to the ministry. Anointing with oil is probably also less common, but remains in some churches, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. Foot washing is a distinctive practice of Primitive Baptist churches but is less common among Baptists in the “missionary” tradition, of which the Southern Baptist Convention is a part. Love feasts have largely morphed into fellowship meals as part of small groups, but they remain common in German-background Baptist denominations.

In any case, we can see that contact rituals were more varied and common in early American Baptist churches than in typical Southern Baptist churches today. The question for Baptists (and all churches going forward, at least until the availability of a vaccine) is how many of our contact rituals are essential? And how might the essential practices (such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper) be delayed or modified for medical safety? Hopefully all churches can combine medical wisdom with biblical fidelity in this extraordinary time. And hey, at least Southern Baptists don’t have to deal with the issue of the common communion cup!

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