Liturgical Life, Religion and Science

The Orthodox Response to COVID Failures in Both Theology and Leadership?

Published on: August 30, 2023
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The Orthodox Response to COVID
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Archdeacon John Chryssavgis has recently commented on the way in which, during the COVID pandemic, many of the leaders of the Orthodox Church have “been almost paralysed by division among themselves and by their isolation from the outside world.” He relates this paralysis to a number of important issues, but does not comment in detail on the way in which, in some regions, at least some hierarchs and priests encouraged their people to ignore sensible medical precautions in the name of “faith.”  

This attitude was reflected in many bishops’ refusal to allow the use of multiple spoons for distributing Holy Communion within their dioceses. This refusal may have been due in part their fear of “dividing the Church” in the face of significant pressure on them from “conservatives” to refuse any change in communion practice. However, it seems also to have been partly due to their agreement with two assertions often made by those putting this pressure on them. One was that “You can’t catch Covid from the Body of Christ.” The other was that “The spoon is part of the Orthodox Tradition and therefore its use can’t be modified.”

No one who made the first of these claims seemed, however, to take into account the important theological point that the bread that is received in communion—while it is truly the Body of Christ—retains all the physical properties of bread. This means that the consecrated bread—and by extension the spoon on which it is offered—can clearly be a host for a virus or other micro-organism. (This is not, we might note, just an abstruse theological point that may be open to argument. Its validity is clear from the way in which, when the sacrament is reserved for the communion of the sick, it can quickly go moldy unless the atmosphere is dry. It is in fact far from unknown, in the damp climate of the country in which I live, for priests—before putting the newly reserved sacrament in the Tabernacle on the Holy Table—to put it into the airing cupboard at home for a couple of days to prevent this problem arising.)

The assertion of those who made the second claim, based on “Tradition,” is equally questionable because it fails to take into account the fact that—as indicated by reviews of the evidence presented by Robert Taft and Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas[1]—the use of the communion spoon was unknown in the early church and was far from universal until quite late in the medieval period. In the fourth century—as is indicated by St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s instructions to catechumens about how to receive communion—there was no spoon involved. (The consecrated bread and wine were received separately, with the latter being taken from the cup. Ecclesiastical spoons that have survived from this early period were probably used only for anointing.) Only several centuries later is there clear evidence of the use of a spoon for communion, perhaps arising from the needs of communicating the sick, or possibly—as St. Nikodemos once speculated—because there was a shortage of deacons to hold the cup during the distribution of communion. Even after its introduction, however, the practice did not become widespread for some considerable time. In the late twelfth century, for example, the canonist Theodore Balsamon, later Patriarch of Antioch, could still complain that the traditional method of receiving communion was being abandoned in many places in favor of the use of the spoon.

As Fr. Alkiviadis has summarized the matter, the “use of the communion spoon was not enacted by a synod, ecumenical or local. Its use came about gradually … Replacing the centuries old manner of receiving the consecrated Gifts separately, based on the biblical model, was not easy … In the final analysis, the spoon was accepted, even reluctantly, because it did not violate, contradict, or compromise any doctrinal teachings.” In the light of COVID, he goes on, we need to recognize that the method by which Communion is administered “is purely functional. It serves a practical purpose. Thus, as warranted by needs and circumstances, a local Church is free to adapt, modify, and manage the method by which Holy Communion is distributed. Whatever method a Church chooses, the single most important concern is that it does not violate any dogmas and that … it upholds and maintains the dignity of the sacred act of communing.”

Fr. Alkiviadis talks in his article about a decision of this kind being made by a local Church “in its collective wisdom and authority.” How are we to understand this phrase? One of the most stimulating Orthodox commentators of the 20th century, Philip Sherrard, has complained about our Church’s “coercive authoritarianism.”[2] This kind of authoritarianism is, I suspect, reinforced by the widespread but distorted sense that a bishop’s authority may properly be exercised independently of the any attempt to tap the wisdom and knowledge of the people over whom he presides. When we sing to a bishop eis polla eti Despota (many years O Master) we should not, however, be using the term Master (or literally Despot) to asserthis right to be despotic in the modern sense of that term, as though his authority is to be understood in terms of the auctoritas of the Roman legal tradition. Rather, we should be asserting the different understanding of authority that Metropolitan John of Pergamon once labelled as “authority as authenticity.”[3]  

Authority, in this latter sense, is not about despotic power but—as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (d.2003) often used to stress—about responsibility, exercised in a spirit of servanthood. For him, a final decision on any issue that evokes concern was normally to be made by him only after consultation with the people over whom he had authority, and his statutes for his own diocese reflected this understanding. (Sadly, these statutes were replaced a few years after his death to reflect a rather different understanding.)

Episcopal authority is not, we should note, questioned in any way by setting up structures of consultation of the sort that Metropolitan Anthony saw as necessary. Admittedly, the Church is not a democracy, so that any votes taken through these structures can only represent advice to bishops. Such advice may be important, however, because bishops are often ignorant of areas of knowledge or experience that need to be taken into account before decisions are made. One such area is science, and since my own theological interests lie particularly in this area,[4]  it is a matter of concern to me that, in relation to both COVID and other scientifically related issues that have arisen in the Orthodox world, consultation with experts in the relevant disciplines seems only rarely to occur. (As a layperson with a high level of such expertise once said to me, official Orthodox statements on issues that require scientific expertise frequently get the science wrong.)

In a sense, we were very lucky during the COVID pandemic because transmission from person to person was not as easy as some initially feared it might be. This initial fear was far from irrational, however, since scientific understanding of COVID at the beginning of the pandemic was far from extensive. Only more recently has it become clear that the spread of the virus in churches is likely to have been largely due to its presence in airborne water droplets exhaled by those infected rather than through the use of a single communion spoon. (This is because the size of the virus—unusually large by viral standards—is such that the number of potential viruses on a spoon is below that usually required for infection.)

What turned out to be true of COVID will not, however, necessarily be true in the next major pandemic, which scientists have warned may occur in the near future. This new pandemic may well involve a different and much smaller kind of virus, so that a shared communion spoon may be far more dangerous than it turned out to be in the case of COVID. This means that the question arises of how we should begin to prepare for this new pandemic. In particular, we need to ask whether—for the reasons I have outlined—the insistence on a single spoon for communion should be seen as inappropriate during a pandemic period. If we decide that this is the case, then—after consultation with scientific experts—episcopal instructions about the use of multiple spoons (or other methods of receiving communion) should be prepared as soon as possible, ready to be put into operation as soon as a new pandemic makes their use necessary.

[1] Robert F. Taft, “Byzantine Communion Spoons: A Review of the Evidence”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996) 209-238; Fr. Alkiviadis C. Calivas, “A Note on the Communion Spoon”, Orthodox Times, May 26, 2020.

[2] Philip Sherrard, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition (Brookline, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998) chapter 2

[3] John D. Zizioulas, “Preliminary Considerations on the Concept of Auhority”, Ecumenical Review 21.2 (1969) 163

[4] See especially my book Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed (Yonkers NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2021)

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About author

  • Fr. Christopher C. Knight

    Fr. Christopher C. Knight

    Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Cambridge, UK)

    Fr. Christopher C. Knight is the author of Science and The Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed (SVS Press, 2020) and Eastern Orthodoxy and the Science-Theology Dialogue (Cambridge University Press, 2022). He is a parish priest in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s archdiocese of Thyateira and Grea...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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