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)”?
These have been unsettling times. I have been forced by the events of the last several months to face up to several disconcerting truths. When the COVID-19 lockdown orders were issued, they had a common element. Churches were not deemed “essential.” Liquor stores, pot distributors, and lottery sales were deemed essential. Commercial air travel and protests were deemed essential, yet congregating at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques was not. Following the murder of George Floyd, I came to the excruciating realization that the politicians were right. We are not essential.
After the killing of George Floyd, I tried to find some meaning to this hideous act and its aftermath. I am not intending to set forth the arguments regarding the law’s injustices to black Americans. Although tragic, that is far too narrow an understanding of the real issue. Here is the undeniable truth: we are the most affluent nation in the world, and yet countless millions live in squalor with no real prospects or hope for change. I am ashamed of myself; I must change. Also, as a member of the Orthodox Church in the United States, I am ashamed that our church has turned so deaf an ear and so blind an eye to this national disgrace.
Like churches in other parts of the world, the Orthodox Church in Russia has struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question became particularly intense at the end of the Great Fast. Even though Church and state authorities had called on people to remain home, many devout believers, even some who recognized the dangers of the virus, openly or quietly resisted. Tragically, Passion Week led to the widespread infection of priests and monastics. The Church now faces a theological crisis. How is it to respond to traditional notions, sometimes promoted by hierarchs themselves, that holy things and places protect and even heal believers from disease?
When we lived in Russia several years ago, my wife called Orthodox worship a “contact sport.” She meant not only that Orthodox fully engage their bodies as they venerate holy things and receive the eucharist, but also that parishes in large cities can be so crowded on a Sunday or feast day that one literally has to push one’s way inside. Often she or I had no room to cross ourselves or bow without hitting the person in front of us. But inevitably a determined babushka would elbow her way between us to reach an icon and light a candle to the one and only saint who could reliably answer her prayers.
Coronavirus has descended on our world as an apocalypse, a whirlwind destroying the shelter of our fixed verities, ripping the roofs off our traditions and throwing into the blaze of the sun the hidden sins and fragilities of our institutions.
This whirlwind has caught the Orthodox world in the midst of an identity crisis, an epochal moment of transformation from a premodern Eastern Church to a late modern Church in the West. At the core of this crisis is the question of how Orthodoxy is to engage a modern world shaped by nationalism and globalism, separation of faith and state, empowerment of the individual, and human rights. Relatively untouched until recently by modernity, and operating with a liturgical (and thus theological) consciousness shaped by the sensibility of medieval Byzantium, the Orthodox community has found itself ill-equipped and internally divided in responding to modern challenges. The result is a clash of visions along liberal/conservative lines, which certainly cuts across jurisdictions, but can be seen particularly strongly in certain leading churches…