Prologue: the following is the text of a presentation I delivered during The Coronavirus (COVID 19) and Communion Practice in the Orthodox Church webinar organized by the Orthodox Theological Society of America on August 22, 2020. I understand that Catholic and Protestant Churches may very well be devoting their energies to the community. This presentation provides some insight into some of the realities the Orthodox Churches in America are confronting. Can the Church remain steady during extraordinary social tumult? History and piety would seem to indicate that the Church will remain steady, but I am convinced that the opportunity for lifegiving ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit is upon all of the Churches. This ministry can redefine what we mean by “the liturgy after the liturgy.”
My comments are designed to discuss the pattern of the Church’s position on liturgical practices demanded by COVID-19 with an eye toward mission and the broader significance of communion – communion beyond ritual.
Sustaining the Status Quo
I will begin by discussing the global pattern of the Church seeking to sustain her rhythm of liturgical life with as little change as possible. The desire to sustain the status quo quickly evolved into a pattern of defending existing practices. This process spiraled into a new variant of defending the true presence of Christ in the chalice as an article of faith.
Orthodoxy is not alone in the seemingly natural impulse to retain the status quo at all costs. Adaptation requires effort and education, and people find comfort in familiar rituals, patterns, and habits during difficult times. What’s significant here is the enormous amount of energy that was devoted to ensuring that minimal changes would be made to our customary liturgical life. What if we had taken some of that energy and directed it towards the exercise of ministry to those who are most vulnerable during the pandemic?
The energy devoted to defending and sustaining the status quo overshadowed the reality confronting the clergy and laity of Orthodox parishes. Many parishes were (and remain) unable to gather in-person. Some adapted to the limitations through digital and virtual engagements. The prolonged inability of the Church to gather in her customary space has exposed a crisis of community. COVID-19 is challenging our established notions of community space by forcing us to refrain from gathering and to focus our engagements with the people who live in our immediate neighborhoods. In some ways, isolation has changed the way that we imagine community.
Access: Commuter Parishes and Digital Liturgy
It has become much easier for someone who would never or rarely attend a service to participate in a parish gathering through digital media. Let’s also consider a reality experienced by Orthodox throughout America. Many of our people drive long distances to attend an Orthodox Church, sometimes more than one hour. Has the pandemic illuminated the limitations of commuter parishes and their capacity to breathe life into their surrounding communities? Let us keep in mind that Holy Communion is inseparable from community. Community extends beyond the parish. Community includes the global Church, and the one of humankind. There is food for pastoral reflection here.
Orthodoxy and Civil Unrest
The civil unrest in America caused by the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake exacerbated the brokenness of the communities in which we live. We are learning that the walls of our parish Churches, our liturgical traditions, and the amalgamation of Orthodox identities are not impervious to the deep social fissures afflicting the world. These crises are not limited to America, as the unrest in Lebanon and Belarus demonstrates.
In many cases, this crisis is forcing us to engage in difficult conversations, and to reorient our lives to engage and confront the very “others” who live in our midst. The civil unrest and reinvigoration of movements for racial justice permeate Orthodox borders, too. How will we respond? Will we consider adding courses on black theology to seminary curricula? Would we establish scholarships for black Americans seeking ordination? Are we willing to have discussions that disrupt our peace and invade our comfort zones?
While COVID-19 is a menace, it is also creating a new opportunity for the Church to reconfigure her mission. COVID-19 poses a flood of opportunities to us. Are we enslaved to the model of Orthodox parishes orbiting around property owned by a community – property that often demands commuting? Does the brokenness apparent to us present new opportunities for mission? Could we form communities that are not dependent on space and make service to the others in our midst a priority equal to our liturgical life? Can we imagine mission that exhorts Orthodox Christians to serve those in need without asking anything in return – including “becoming Orthodox”?