Ever since COVID-19 began to impose strict limitations on gatherings this past spring, a pattern has emerged in the Orthodox Church’s pastoral response. Church leaders modify and update their directives frequently. The novelty of COVID-19 requires constant modifications to communal behavior. Every time we learn something new about the virus, we change our response.
In the spring, medical experts produced short videos to show us how to wipe down our groceries. Since then, we have learned that the virus is most infectious through the respiratory discharge of air, when we cough, sneeze, speak, and yell. We continue to disinfect surfaces, but our primary focus is to maintain physical distance and wear masks every time we are around people.
Most of the discussion among Orthodox has focused on the safety of using a common spoon for Holy Communion. The most popular new practice has been the use of multiple spoons. Some parishes use bamboo or wooden spoons, one for each communicant. Other parishes dip the spoon in a powerful alcohol like Everclear and then wipe it dry in between communicants. Some Churches temporarily authorized the method of intinction by hand, with the minister placing a small portion of the Lord’s body previously dipped in his blood in the hand of the communicant.
Mere discussion of modifying communion practices has generated emotional reactions from all corners of the Orthodox Church. Opponents to revising the method of distribution claim that the true presence of Christ in the gifts guarantees that disease cannot be transmitted through communion. Hermina Nedelescu has recently presented the science that supports this assertion through a key distinction: Communion cannot pass on a disease, but it can transmit a virus.
In summary, all of these measures are temporary, and there is a general push to resume the practice of Communion through a common spoon when the pandemic ends.
Orthodox Directives: Masks and Distancing
Church leaders consulted with local infectious disease experts to formulate plans for safe gatherings. In most places, masks are required throughout the duration of the Divine Liturgy. The number of singers is limited and they must stand more than six feet apart. Seating is arranged to ensure physical distancing. Hand sanitizing stations are at the entrance of some Churches. Many parishes added Divine Liturgies on weekdays and Saturdays, encouraging people to sign up for Liturgy, to limit the number of people who gather on Sunday.
Amidst all of this change, one constant remains: there is no powerful movement to revise the Liturgy itself so that the people who are gathered are not in a common, shared space for a long time. For many parishes, the duration of the Liturgy is the same as always, between one hour and fifteen minutes and two hours.
Decreasing Risk with New Measures
The safety measures implemented by church leaders have certainly reduced the risk of spreading COVID-19 during a liturgical gathering. No measure can completely eliminate the risk of infection, but the Church can take additional steps to reduce it, and make it safe.
Enhancing safety measures for liturgical gatherings is necessary because it appears that COVID-19 will be with us for some time. The world hopes for vaccines, and the World Health Organization recently affirmed that the vaccine is a “vital tool” in the battle to end the pandemic, but people should not expect an instantaneous return to normalcy. Infectious disease experts continually reassure us that consistent mask-wearing, physical distancing, and limiting indoor gatherings are the keys, along with a vaccine and therapeutics, to the long process of ending the pandemic.
For the Orthodox, this will require five medium-sized steps, and two major ones. It will also require voluntarily embracing a compromise that violates some of the fundamental principles of liturgy.
Reducing aerosol generation
The purpose of adding these measures is to address the potential of spreading the virus through singing and speaking. The high rate of aerosol generation caused by singing and speaking in indoor gatherings poses the greatest threat to spreading the virus. The current measures reduce the potential spread, but permit clergy and singers to perform their ministries without masks.
These exceptions to the mask rule are unreasonable because it is possible to sing and speak in an elevated voice while wearing a mask. It is certainly not ideal, but requiring singers and clergy to wear masks does not prohibit them from performing their ministries. The same principle holds true for the clergy – they are to wear masks throughout the entire celebration of the liturgy, with the exception of Holy Communion.
Additional Safety Measures for Orthodox Liturgy (Medium degree of modification)
- All singers and clergy wear masks throughout the Liturgy, with the exception of receiving Communion.
- The maximum number of singers permitted is two (2), with only one person singing at a time.
- The maximum number of clergy permitted in the sanctuary is two (2), one bishop or priest, and one deacon, with a maximum of one server to assist.
- All of the prayers appointed to the presider are to be read silently – including the anaphora – the Creed and Lord’s Prayer are to be recited, not sung, by one person.
- The presider will stand a minimum of six feet from the holy gifts and they will remain covered until it is time for communion (unless he is handling the gifts).
- (Large Order of Modification) One of two methods will be used for Holy Communion: either multiple spoons, one for each person, without reusing the spoons, to be thoroughly and properly sanitized after the Liturgy; or communion via a portion of the Lord’s Body intincted with his blood, given by hand from a gloved minister to each communicant. The common spoon will not be used.
Revised Order for Liturgy During a Pandemic (Large Order of Modification)
- Opening (Blessed is the kingdom)
- Great Litany
- Two hymns (Troparion & Kontakion)
- Prokeimenon (Responsorial Psalm)
- Alleluia (responsorial psalm)
- Homily (absolute maximum of five minutes)
- Entrance with (maximum of two commemorations)
- Kiss of peace (bowing)
- Creed (recited by one person)
- Anaphora (prayer recited silently)
- Litany of supplication
- Lord’s Prayer (recited silently)
- One is Holy & koinonikon
- Holy Communion
- Litany of Thanksgiving
- Prayer behind the ambon
This variant of the Liturgy observes the established order of the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great. Critics might object to the elimination of antiphons, litanies, prayers, and especially hymns as instances of reductionism. The objective is to reduce aerosol generation significantly.
The essential liturgical components remain intact: gathering, the proclamation of the Word, praise and petition, and Holy Communion. Enhancing physical distancing, a substantial decrease in aerosol generation, removing the sharing of common vessel (cup) and utensil (spoon), and limiting the amount of time people share an indoor space make it possible to do the one thing needful: to gather for the Eucharist in adherence to the Lord’s command, “do this in remembrance of me.”
Some readers might object to he limitation of the sermon to a maximum of five minutes. The objective of minimizing the amount of time a gathering is in a common indoor space supersedes the privilege of speaking longer.
Not Just the Laity: Protecting Clergy and the Public
It is also important to be mindful of protecting the clergy and the singers from infection. Most of the liturgical directives have emphasized protecting the laity from infection, and while this is laudable, such texts are missing two essential components. The clergy are not immune from infection, and neither is the public.
After the Liturgy, everyone will return to their ordinary lives, many of which occur with other people in the general public. The Liturgy is not offered only for Orthodox laity, but Christ and his body offer it on behalf of all, for all humankind, and for the life of the world. If we permit the words of our own liturgy to form us, we will embrace the call for all to “mask up” – including clergy and singers – as nothing more than an inconvenience.
The contagious and dangerous coronavirus will be with us for a while. We have done much to make it possible to gather for Church, in person. But we add even more layers of safety that help protect everyone – including clergy and the general public – from the spread of the virus. These seven steps make safe Liturgy possible for the foreseeable future.