COVID-19 and Orthodox Liturgical Reform: What’s Possible?

When COVID-19 arrived in North America, the Church’s adjustments to the liturgy were minimal and tardy. The first wave of adjustments included appeals for cleaning icons and vessels and refraining from touching one another, including kissing the priest’s hand and the icons. Initially the Churches refused to change the method of distributing holy communion, and claimed that it was impossible for communicants to become ill when they receive the medicine of immortality.

As the pandemic intensified and civil authorities imposed rigorous measures to prevent the spread of infection, the Church’s response continued to be minimal. Three Churches permitted a change in the distribution of communion: the Moscow Patriarchate permitted disinfecting the spoon in an alcohol solution  after each communion, the Romanian Patriarchate allowed laity to bring their own spoons from home, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine blessed receiving communion via intinction. As most churches and religious centers closed temporarily to prevent gatherings, the Orthodox Churches adopted a minimal approach of 3-10 people in the Church, arguing that the Liturgy was offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

As Holy Week and Pascha approached, the Churches hastily embraced the practice of inviting laity to participate in services via livestream. In some smaller communities, services were held via Zoom. The predominant model for Holy Week was to transform the official liturgy into a reader’s version, resulting in services of 60 or more pages for people to use at home. Holy Week and Pascha were domestic affairs, with the people offering their thanks to God from the safe confines of their homes.

Initial Lessons

Orthodox liturgical practices involve frequent personal contact, from exchanging the kiss of peace (especially during Lent) to venerating icons and relics. It is also customary to ask bishops and priests for a blessing, and to kiss their right hands upon receiving the blessing. The instruction to refrain from kissing icons and ministers’ hands revealed that this gesture is good and convenient, but not the only way to express reverence. The liturgical directives suggested that people bow to the icons and to one another in reverence. When the preferred ritual gesture cannot be performed, the people can adopt another gesture to express the same reverence to the holy people. Bowing is just as reverent as kissing.

Many directives permitted priests to hear confessions via phone and video conferencing, and to complete the rite remotely, without laying their hands on the head of the penitent while reciting the prayer. This adaptation of confession illustrated that sins can be forgiven and penitents restored to the Church while the penitent and confessor are in two different places. In Confession, the medium of the phone, tablet, or computer did not hinder the restoration of the penitent to the communion of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Stages of Reopening the Liturgy

The question confronting the Church remains the same as public officials consider how to re-enter public life as stay-at-home directives expire. How do we resume normal liturgical life when physical distancing requirements make many of our liturgical practices impossible?

Reviving the earlier discussions on alternative methods of sharing Holy Communion is a non-starter as long as six feet of separation are required to prevent infection. Communion via intinction and disinfecting the communion spoon still bring ministers and communicants into close contact. There is no device long enough for a minister to give Holy Communion while remaining six feet apart from the communicant. Despite these obstacles to resuming the ordinary celebration of the Liturgy, Church tradition and modern technology offer alternatives permitting Sunday resurrection services and Holy Communion for all.

What is Possible? Four Alternatives to Community-Wide Liturgy

Sunday Matins or Typica (in-church)

One way to have a Sunday gathering while maintaining physical distancing guidelines is to celebrate a non-Eucharistic service without exceeding the maximum number of people for a safe gathering. Sunday Matins (Orthros) is already appointed to the regular weekly cycle. Parishes that normally celebrate Vigil on Saturday evenings are familiar with resurrection Matins, as are communities of the Greek and Arabic traditions, who celebrate Matins on Sunday morning before the Divine Liturgy. Sunday Matins features psalmody, hymnography, the eleven “eothina” resurrection Gospel readings, and the Great Doxology (Gloria). The addition of a homily to Matins would create a Sunday service honoring the Lord’s resurrection of about one hour, an appropriate way to praise his resurrection while receiving nourishment from his word until it is safe to return to the received Divine Liturgy.

The Typica service offers a viable alternative to Matins. This service features psalmody and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and allows for the addition of the appointed Epistle and Gospel readings. Many faithful are already familiar with the Typica, as it is often celebrated by the laity or with a deacon presiding when the priest is absent. Matins and the Typica allow for two non-eucharistic Sunday gatherings that honor the requirements of physical distancing.

Small-Group Communion services

Our second alternative requires more clergy who can preside at small-group services of ten or less people (depending on size-gathering criteria from health officials). A supply priest could preside at a Divine liturgy of a small group in  a space large enough to accommodate physical distancing. Deacons could preside at Typica services with communion, as they occasionally do when a priest is absent. The adoption of this model would require an innovation in the method for distributing communion. The presider would have to prepare individual intincted particles of communion and place them into individual vessels (or a very large platter). Communicants would approach, one-by-one, and take only one particle, without coming within six feet of the minister and the others. This process sounds onerous, but it is quite possible with a small gathering of ten or less people. The small gathering size reduces the chances of spreading the infection and having a mishap with Holy Communion.

Distribute Holy Communion for the People to Take home

Every year, on Holy Thursday, the bishops and priests take some of the holy gifts and reserve them for distribution to the sick throughout the year. The strenuous limitations of the pandemic imposed on the Church raise the possibility of reserving sacrament the people could bring home. In this instance, a parish priest would give the reserved sacrament to parishioners in a suitable container in a process without physical contact. The laity would receive holy communion on Sunday during an appointed service. The Church knew of this tradition in late antiquity until episodes of the people mishandling the holy gifts required the clergy to assume complete control of communion. Most laypeople are vigilant and responsible, and would observe the rite and method for receiving communion without violations. A revival of the Church’s tradition of giving the people communion to take home would grant everyone in the Church – not only the celebrating clergy – access to the gifts of the Divine Liturgy without violating the demands of physical distancing.

Divine Liturgy via Zoom?

The final option is one familiar to some Protestants – a communal celebration of the Eucharist via Zoom. The Orthodox variant of a Zoom liturgy would require the laity to have bread and a cup of wine and water with them for the service. The community gathered would ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon “these gifts here offered” – in this case, the gifts offered by each family participating in the Zoom liturgy.

Orthodox pastors and theologians reading this are already standing up from their chairs and preparing strong objections. I am aware of these, since Protestants themselves do not agree on the appropriateness of a Zoom Liturgy. I anticipate a minimum of three Orthodox objections – the absence of a consecrated altar; the multiplications of lambs and cups offered, violating the principle of all partaking from a single prepared lamb; and the laity administering the gifts to themselves.

These objections are enough for the Orthodox to reject the possibility of a Zoom Liturgy without further discussion. There is, however, no objection that can be raised to the power and love of God to consecrate any gift offered by his holy people. Certainly, a Zoom Liturgy is extraordinary, but a Zoom gathering is a still a gathering, the participants constitute a community, and they are gathered in a real space, virtual, but no less legitimate than the normal embodied gathering.

The problem with these proposals is neither technological nor legal. The problem is one of trust. The laity can take communion home and partake of it responsibly and with faith and awe of God – if the clergy trust the laity to see it through. God will send his Spirit upon the loaves and cups offered by the people through a Zoom liturgy, if the clergy trust the laity to handle those holy gifts responsible and in conformance to good order.

Two of our four options are truly extraordinary – giving the people communion to take home and receive to a prescribed order, or to celebrate Divine Liturgy on Zoom. Adopting extraordinary measures requires the clergy to make themselves vulnerable by ceding some of the authority they have had over the mysteries to the laity. Trusting the laity to partake with faith and awe, with a conscience to handle the holy things requires an enormous leap of faith. The alternative is to play it safe and ask the people to worship via livestream for as long as 18 months, or to put everyone at risk by assembling for liturgies that require physical contact.

While Church leaders have to decide how much they trust the laity to act responsibly, clergy and laity should have no doubt whatsoever about one certainty: God will accept the gift offered by his people, no matter how extraordinary the rituals are, because petitions of heartfelt faith during a pandemic sent up to protect the vulnerable represent the people’s obedience to God’s command that we place the welfare of the most needy and vulnerable before our own. This seems to be a more faithful rendering of a cosmic liturgy offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

9 comments

  1. I know I have talked to many Orthodox priests who would object to the idea of the gifts of bread and wine being consecrated away from the physical proximity of the priest.

    Though I am more curious about this statement, “Many directives permitted priests to hear confessions via phone and video conferencing, and to complete the rite remotely, without laying their hands on the head of the penitent while reciting the prayer.” Can you provide any examples?

    1. I know that the OCA and Antiochian jurisdictions forbid confession over the phone. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (out of Russia) spoke about confession on the phone but wasn’t this clarified as being a pastoral accomendation but not sacramental?

  2. ” The presider would have to prepare individual intincted particles of communion and place them into individual vessels (or a very large platter). Communicants would approach, one-by-one, and take only one particle, without coming within six feet of the minister and the others.”

    So… self-communication? A bit of a problem there with basic symbolism of how God feeds us with His body and blood by the hand of the living Christ-icon.

    Also… am I really reading that someone is proposing that a priest somewhere else can consecrate bread and wine sitting in front of my computer? I’ve seen some wild speculations at PrayTell, but this is definitely a new high (or low).

    1. The idea for communion is to receive it – and Taft’s scholarship demonstrated that Eastern patriarchs and the Pope himself once received communion from the hand of another.

      There is evidence from late antiquity that the laity self-communicated from communion they received in the Church – Stefanos Alexopoulos of CUA documents this in his study of the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts. Monks also self-communicated to sustain themselves during long periods of life without the Eucharistic Liturgy – again, summarized in multiple liturgical sources by Alexopoulos (and prior to him, Nicholas Uspensky).

      I acknowledged that pastors and theologians would take issue with the possibility of a Zoom liturgy, and I know that chances of a parish celebrating it are extremely low. I think it is worth discussion because the priest does not consecrate the holy gifts – the priest presides at a communal liturgy where the community asks God to send the Spirit to consecrate the gifts. Here, I am following Nicholas Afanasiev in particular (his pithy study on the Lord’s Supper, published in French and Russian, but not English), and Schmemann (who follows Afanasiev).

  3. Nick,

    I like your suggestions. They are creative, but (I believe) one can make a strong case that they are within the Tradition (or, at least,, within the spirit of the Tradition). I would like to make two observations/suggestions.

    1) The liturgical crisis that this pandemic has engendered with most of the laity being effectively ex-communicated, shows (to me) the great need for a fully functioning diaconate (male and female). If we had an army of deacons, we could modify your third suggestion above to include home distribution by the deacons (in a way that is still safe), thus mitigating the concern that the laity wouldn’t be responsible enough to handle the gifts on their own. I am not talking about just “communion dispensers,” but people that would actually visit with the parishioner, hear their concerns, coordinate any philanthropy that might be needed and then bring those concerns back to the “skeletal” assembly on Sunday as their face and voice. I think the physical isolation that people feel from the liturgy is not just in the non-communing, but of feeling as if their voices aren’t being heard. (I would be interested in your thoughts on this; I plan to touch a bit on this at the webinar this Sunday ;-))

    2) In the Romanian tradition, there is a practice of distributing “Pasch” on Easter. This is “blessed” bread and wine. It is put into large jars to take home and the laity partake every morning for the entire Paschal period. (I wonder if this has some connection to the early church practice taking communion home to be communed during the week.) I can remember every morning during my youth saying a prayer and then partaking. Perhaps, this could be a practice that could be expanded as well.

  4. “The presider would have to prepare individual intincted particles of communion and place them into individual vessels (or a very large platter).”

    My brother attended Divine Liturgy in his community a few weeks before the cancellation of all services and this is precisely what they did. So, in at least one parish this practice has happened. I have not been to Divine Liturgy since the Covid 19 so I don’t know what the priest and parish will do. But I do miss it! Online isn’t the same at all!

  5. Thank you for your blog post. I had been looking everywhere for such a post. I think all your solutions make sense and are comforting, all the more since they are rooted in Church History. When one is at high risk, the perspective of the Eucharist – taking Communion from the same spoon- becomes even more of a problem than in ordinary times.

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