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.
Science seeks truth in the natural world through observation and experimentation. Scientists are driven by curiosity, which encourages inventive thought, leading them to discover how nature works. Science is a tool to penetrate into the unknown physical world, which at first might seem incomprehensible. However, scientists know that within this perceived obscurity lies a perfected beauty, comprised of meaningful patterns waiting to be discovered. An example of this being, the brain, which remains largely unknown, is an exquisite universe of intricate, structural, nonrandom patterns, with functional implications for survival. Scientists make the assumption that nature is intelligible, bringing discovery of the unknown physical world to light. This supposition made by scientists is an ancient idea of the Church that has Scriptural resonance: “For as rain comes down, or snow from heaven, and does not return until it saturates the earth, and it brings forth and produces, and gives seed to the sower and bread for food” (Isaiah 55:10).
COVID has changed the lifestyles of almost every American (and even most citizens of the globe) since March 15 when quarantine orders, stay-at-home orders, mask orders, work limitations, social distancing, and many other such measures began. In many locations, these orders are in effect “until a vaccine for COVID is available.” The presumption is that a vaccine will render a person immune to serious infection from the virus.
Naturally, the world awaits the production of a safe and effective vaccine, not just any vaccine. What do we mean by this? A safe vaccine means that neither the disease for which the person is being vaccinated (in this case COVID) arises from the vaccine nor do any unwanted side effects (such as seizures or extensive allergic reactions). “Effective” means that the vaccine must actually protect against COVID, or at least against its consequences. In other words, the vaccine should prevent the viral infection in the first place, but if infection does happen, the vaccine would prevent it from being severe. In most vaccine trials in the US, scientists test and monitor thousands of people to establish that a vaccine is both safe and effective. The standards are rigorous, because unproven vaccines can have side-effects.
The development of a vaccine alone will not be sufficient to protect the population. We also need to think about production and implementation, given the extraordinary global demand. The scale is simply unprecedented. While some animal testing of potential COVID vaccines has been done in pre-clinical trials, there are very few people that have been immunized against COVID with any type of vaccine at this point.
Despite these great efforts going into the vaccine, many Christians in the US and abroad have asserted that they will not take any COVID immunization. The justifications for this have ranged from questions about what can be “slipped into” the vaccine to concerns about sources of cells used to grow the vaccine to distrust of scientific data in general. Let us look at each of these arguments.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orthodox Church has found itself in an existential crisis. The situation has challenged our traditions and even the way that we receive Holy Communion. One of the points of disagreement that has arisen concerns the manner in which Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful from the common cup by means of a common spoon.
The experience of the church tells us that Holy Communion by the common spoon never became a vector to transmit disease. Many priests have consumed a Consecrated Lamb that had molded due to natural conditions. In addition, every priest, after distributing communion with the spoon to the people, has consumed the remaining Gifts with that same spoon at the conclusion of the Liturgy; yet priests who have served in hospitals specialized in infectious diseases can tell you that no one ever got sick- from tuberculosis, AIDS, herpes, influenza, and even Ebola (as we hear from our brothers who serve in Africa).
Nevertheless, many of the faithful have always been fearful or disgusted by the common spoon. We can spend countless hours explaining sociologically the reasons behind it, but that is not our purpose today. We just need to accept this reality. So, the question is how do we continue to minister to people who struggle with this fear? Do we throw them out of the Church, admonishing them for their lack of faith? Or, do we follow the path of the Lord and embrace them? Are we not called to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one which is lost and who tells us “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13) and that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)”?