One of the greatest impacts of the current pandemic is the effect it has had on interpersonal relations. The inability to embrace or hold a friend’s hand, the need for “social distancing,” and the knowledge that anyone we meet is potentially the carrier of a deadly disease all contribute to a feeling of suspicion and standoffishness, while masks interfere with clear communication and human connection.
The Orthodox Church has faced a slew of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not least in regard to the mode of distribution of Holy Communion. In conversation with priests of various churches I’ve learned of alternate methods being used, including “disinfecting” spoons between communicants, intincting the Holy Body with the Blood, the use of tongs, disposable spoons, even toothpicks to transfer the Eucharist from the chalice to the mouth of the communicant. In Canada the most common alternate method seems to be the use of multiple metal communion spoons, one per communicant. The response to this change on the part of a small but vocal element within the Orthodox community has been heated, with accusations of “heresy” or “blasphemy” being levelled against bishops and priests promulgating or following this practice.
The “single holy spoon” faction claims that the use of multiple spoons is an explicit denial that the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood. Their argument generally goes like this: You can’t get sick from Holy Communion because the Eucharist is Jesus’ own Body and Blood, so if you think the Eucharist can be a bearer of infection, you don’t believe that Holy Communion really is Jesus’ Body and Blood, which is a denial of Orthodox eucharistic theology. Since Protestants believe that the communion bread and wine (or grape juice) only “symbolize” Christ’s body and blood, the use of multiple communion spoons is an overt acceptance of a Protestant eucharistic theology, and consequently a denial of Orthodoxy and the propagation of heresy. The sub-text often includes accusations of “ecumenism” as a motivating factor.
A related argument is that the use of multiple spoons puts one on a “slippery slope,” i.e., the use of multiple spoons gives the impression that infection can be transmitted by Holy Communion, or that the Eucharist is not truly Jesus’ Body and Blood, and that stepping onto this “slope” invariably ends in the acceptance of the “heresy” elucidated in the previous paragraph.
As the psychological dictum states, the response a person makes to a stimulus tells you more about the person than it does about the stimulus. Reflecting upon the words of theologians, clergy, and laity from both sides of this issue, I was struck by several thoughts.
First and foremost, Orthodox Christians believe that the bread and wine offered at the Liturgy become Jesus’ Body and Blood, and so, in some sense, that we “eat God.” “This bread and wine is flesh and blood? It’s God’s flesh and blood? And you eat it? Really?” The claim we make about the Eucharist is so outlandish from a worldly perspective that I cannot understand how anyone who truly believes it could be swayed in any way, shape, or form from believing otherwise. Which led to another thought.
I have often gotten the feeling that the anti-multiple spoon faction “doth protest too much,” and wondered if one of the reasons their reaction has been so heated and vitriolic might not be because those who are arguing for one common spoon are not trying to convince others of the sanctity of Holy Communion, but rather are trying to convince themselves. After all, it isn’t the spoon that makes holy communion Holy.
What is Holy Communion for?
As the word suggests, Holy Communion is both a means toward and a sign of unity. Communion begets community. It seems obvious that where “communion” is begetting strife, conflict, and rancorous division something is very, very wrong.
Much has been written over the past six months about the introduction and genesis of the use of the communion spoon in the Orthodox Church (for example, “A Note on the Communion Spoon” and “From One Spoon to Many”). It’s pretty clear that faithful Christians haven’t been “traditionally receiving Holy Communion from a common spoon for two thousand years” (as one woman told me), but that the only truly traditional and “canonical” way of receiving Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church is the way the clergy do to this day: in two species, receiving the Holy Body in the hand, then drinking from the chalice.
The introduction of a spoon to distribute the Eucharist was an innovation, and if we think about this innovation, it does raise questions. But rather than questioning the use of multiple spoons, a more salient query might be “doesn’t the use of a spoon for the communion of the faithful draw a harmful distinction between the ordained and non-ordained people of God, i.e., doesn’t it foster ‘clericalism’ in the Church?” It seems obvious that the use of even one spoon puts us on a “slippery slope,” if we choose to see things this way.
Our teaching is not that we are united by the use of “one holy spoon,” but rather, as we pray in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, by partaking in “the one bread and cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit” (prayer after the epiclesis).
Inconsistencies can be observed among those who favor of the use of one common spoon in regard to “fear of infection” as well as custom. In the first case, priests and bishops have for years instructed communicants to lean their head back and open their mouth wide “so the host can be dropped into the mouth of the communicant without the lips touching the spoon.” Is this not a tacit admission that infection can be transmitted through the spoon? Secondly, multiple spoons have been used for many years, especially in large parishes and at large celebrations with many communicants, when Communion is distributed from multiple chalices. If there is such great concern for the nonexistent “letter of the law” regarding the use of one and only one spoon, why is there apparently no concern regarding St. Basil’s clear reference to “one cup?” (as a fellow priest asked: “If we had a separate chalice and spoon for every communicant, would this be OK?”).
The obsession with “one holy spoon” has given rise to the phenomenon of “spoon chasing,” i.e., faithful who attend services at a particular parish not because of its jurisdictional affiliation, holy bishop, or dedicated priest; not because of its exemplary Christian educational programs or charitable work in the community; not because their ancestors, parents, and God-parents have been dedicated members of the parish from time immemorial, but because of—a spoon! What does this say about community? What is communion without community? How much am I invested in “my” community? Is my parish, God forbid, simply there to fulfill my personal “spiritual” needs, as I define them, when and how I want them fulfilled? If so, it seems to me that this, not the use of multiple spoons, is clear proof of a “Protestant phronema”(mentality).
Christianity is an incarnational faith. We incarnate the body of Christ when we gather together in worship. What does it say about my dedication to my local community or Church when I feel it is perfectly acceptable to neglect, attack, or absent myself from “my” community or diocese because of a utensil? And what happens when the practice returns to normal at “my” parish?
I have never heard an Orthodox bishop or priest insinuate that the Eucharist is not truly Jesus’ Body and Blood. If the practice of using multiple spoons is truly “heretical” (and anyone who uses this “buzzword” should use it correctly; see, for example, this essay and this essay) someone needs to do something—and quickly! I have no doubt that faithful Christians will have no problem responding obediently when and if the Church—not John or Mary, but the Church—decides that the use of multiple spoons is problematic. In the meantime, it seems to me that the appropriateness of using multiple spoons to distribute Holy Communion is, at most, an open question.
“Germophobia” is a cultural reality in our world. Many faithful Christians have for years expressed reticence towards the use of a common communion spoon, and many refuse to commune because of this. Whether we like it or not, this is a reality. I personally am absolutely convinced and have complete faith that the Holy Eucharist is truly Jesus’ Body and Blood, and that Jesus’ Body and Blood cannot make me sick. I, like many priests, have communed people with infectious diseases and consumed the remnants afterwards with no ill effects. But “that pestilent fellow Paul” does teach us that “the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples” (Letter 16 of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis—highly recommended reading), that we “who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification (Romans 15:1-2).
There seem to be three reasons associated with modifying the method of distribution of Holy Communion: because the current method might endanger the health of the communicants; because it is mandated by civil authorities who do not hold our faith; and because if we do not do so the parish, priest, or diocese can incur heavy fines or other penalties. Leaving aside our faith that the Lord’s Body and Blood cannot harm us, here in Ontario we are still left with the second two reasons. As a friend of mine, a Coptic Orthodox priest, has observed, “We have three choices: compromise, i.e., change the method of distribution in a way which will neither violate health guidelines, nor repudiate our faith, nor deny the sanctity of the sacrament; martyrdom, i.e., continue the normal practice, pay the fines, and accept any other penalties incurred for doing so; or excommunication, i.e., deny communion to the faithful.”
I’m sure we all agree that we wish as many of the faithful to receive Holy Communion as often as possible. I’m also sure we agree that if there is no compelling reason to change the common (not “canonical,” not “traditional,” just common) practice of distributing communion with a single spoon we shouldn’t. If, however, it is necessary to change our communion practice, it seems to me that the most reasonable approach would be to use multiple, blessed communion spoons.
Communion shouldn’t cause consternation. This pandemic has given all of us the opportunity to “show what we are made of,” and like it or not we’re all in this together. Those who have lost their jobs and businesses as well as individuals experiencing mental health challenges due to the pandemic would probably appreciate it if we as Christians spent more time attending to their needs and less time worrying about how to get the Eucharist from the chalice into the mouth. But that’s a topic for another day.
For now, it seems clear that the pandemic has given us enough challenges in regard to maintaining healthy, supportive relationships with each other as human beings and as Christians. Let us not contribute to the weakening, but rather to the strengthening of our communal ties. When we are tempted to become upset, or judgmental, or angry, we would all be well served, as my daughter might say, to “take a chill pill” and hearken to these wise words:
“In these uncertain times, no matter what happens. . . we should in no way exalt ourselves and make judgements about the various precautions that our bishops have directed for us. We should have compassion for those who are over us in the Lord and we should have gratitude that we are not the ones who have to make these difficult decisions for the welfare of the Church. There is so much that we do not know about the pandemic and it is so easy to judge when we are ignorant of all the facts. For this reason we should have faith in the providence and goodness of God. This present time is the opportunity to transcend the difficulties and bear witness to the triumph and beauty of God’s holiness.”(The Talanton, August 2020, St. Gregory Palamas Monastery, Perrysville, OH)
Fr. Bohdan Hladio is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, currently serving in Oshawa, Ontario.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.