A Liturgical Turn in Orthodoxy? A Review of 2020

The Orthodox Liturgy changed in 2020. There are questions, however, concerning the duration and the meaning of the changes made to the Liturgy.

This first installment of two brief essays reviews the Orthodox Church’s liturgical response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The review produces two primary observations. First, the argument about the rite of holy communion resulted in a new veneration of communion vessels as holy relics. Second, a resistant defense against perceived threats underpinned the Church’s approach to adapting to the new liturgical environment.

Liturgical Changes in Response to COVID-19

Investment in Digital Technologies

Orthodoxy swiftly enhanced its digital presence and activity to make liturgical celebrations accessible to faithful quarantined and isolated at home. During the most restrictive stay-at-home orders, Churches livestreamed divine services on Facebook and YouTube, especially during the spring. Some smaller parishes encouraged active participation in services through video conferencing services like Zoom. A few examples surfaced of Divine Liturgies celebrated on Zoom with the presider’s prayer said for the bread and cup set out by each participant. These services generated controversy and debate in certain places, but the practice of Zoom Liturgies was not widespread.

Many bishops also authorized the practice of hearing confessions virtually during the pandemic, a practice that remains in force to this day.

Physical Distance and Masks

Orthodoxy’s adjustment to the need to limit attendance capacity, create physical distance, and require masks has been uneven. In North America, it is safe to say that most of the Orthodox Churches have complied faithfully with the guidelines mandated by civil authorities and public health officials. Pastors marked the spaces inside where people could be seated. People signed up to attend Liturgy to avoid exceeding the maximum capacity. Parishes required faithful to wear masks during the Liturgy.

From the beginning of the pandemic, bishops instructed the faithful to cease kissing icons and receiving blessings from priests by kissing their hands. The people could venerate the icons and the priest with reverent bows. The clergy were also encouraged to venerate the altar table and the Gospel by bowing instead of kissing.

One of the positive adaptations was an increase in the number of services celebrated. Many parishes added two or three Divine Liturgies to the weekly schedule. Other communities had multiple Sunday services, adding Typica with holy communion to the Sunday Divine Liturgy. Communities in warmer climates utilized outdoor space to diminish the threat of viral spread.    

Select communities resisted introducing changes. In many instances, only faithful were required to wear masks, whereas clergy and singers could perform their duties without masks. Rumors circulated about people pressuring their pastors to resist the mask mandate, or to find Orthodox parishes that refused to comply with public health measures.

Superspreader Events

Churches appeared to be the sources of superspreader events in Eastern and Southern Europe. In the spring, the Pechers’ka Lavra Monastery in Kyiv was the epicenter of COVID cases in Kyiv, Ukraine. Many Church leaders were infected and required hospitalization.

The Orthodox Church of Serbia suffered grievous losses on account of COVID this Fall. Metropolitan Amphilochius, the beloved leader of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, died of complications caused by COVID in October. Enormous crowds of people attended his funeral, including Patriarch Irinej, the leader of the Serbian Church. Soon afterwards, Patriarch Irinej was also infected. He was hospitalized and died from the complications. The photos of Amphilochius’s funeral show that very few people observed physical distancing or wore masks during the service.

Resisting External Threats: Defending Christ’s Presence and the Holy Spoon

Orthodox adherence to public health mandates are uneven. For those hesitant or unwilling to comply, the primary rationale is the perception of civil authorities of attempting to persecute the Church by asking them to comply with public health measures. The emotional defense of holy communion as bearing the true and complete presence of Christ was an attempt to defend the Church against a perceived malevolent threat.

COVID’s contagiousness immediately raised the question on whether one can become infected by sharing a common communion spoon. While some Orthodox theologians and scientists argued that it is indeed possible to catch COVID by sharing a common communion spoon, others argued passionately that it is impossible for Communion to infect anyone. This matter produced both liturgical innovations and perhaps the most lively theological debate among orthodox in recent years.

The range of changes made to the distribution of communion is broad. Many parishes implemented one or more of the following revisions:

  • Faithful receive communion without closing their mouths over the spoon. In other words, the minister drops communion from the spoon into the communicant’s mouth without contact.
  • The Romanian Patriarchate authorized faithful to bring their own spoons from home for communion, amounting to using one spoon per communicant. The Church cancelled this decision in May.
  • Some parishes purchased multiple bamboo spoons. There is one spoon for each communicant, and the spoons are burned after the Liturgy.
  • Numerous communities simply use one spoon for each communicant.
  • The Moscow Patriarchate instructed clergy to disinfect the common spoon by purifying it with an alcohol wipe in between communicants. Some parishes of the Orthodox Church in America also adopted a variant of this practice by disinfecting the spoon in grain alcohol.
  • The Orthodox Church of Ukraine and some communities of the Alexandrian Patriarchate temporarily permitted the distribution of communion via intinction. Ministers distributed a piece of consecrated bread, dipped in the wine, to communicants by hand.
  • Some parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia implemented physical distancing without changing the method of communion by inviting one communicant at a time to enter the Church and receive while waiting in their vehicles in the parking lot.

The adoption of these diverse measures did not satisfy everyone. Some faithful view the adaptations to communion as a lack of faith in the true presence of Christ. Others join the chorus of religious communities and insist that Churches should be exempted from public health mandates because they offer essential services. Exceptionalism is a central theme among those who resist public health mandates. Acquiescing to capacity, physical distancing, and mask requirements amount to a lack of faith, because no harm can come to those who are gathered in Christ.

When civil authorities and public health officials attempt to impose mandates on Churches, resisters interpret these requirements as an attack on the Church. While some Orthodox agree with Christians and people of other religions that the state seeks to diminish the influence of the Church and religious communities, the thorny history of state persecution of the Church contributed to resistance in some places.

Some Orthodox depicted the pandemic as a corporate conspiracy to control humans. For example, officials from the Orthodox Church in Moldova claimed that the pandemic was manufactured so that tech giants like Microsoft could manipulate or monitor humans by implanting microchips during vaccination.

Concluding Observation 1: Holy Things

The debate on the method for distributing holy communion dominated Orthodox public discourse. Some Orthodox officials claimed that the medicinal quality of communion is an article of faith. The debate unearthed Christological issues concerning the nature of the consecrated bread and wine. Is the claim that communion is only Christ’s divine nature without any of its natural properties (bread, wine, water) faithful to Orthodox sacramental theology? Are the vessels themselves infused with Christ’s divinity, rendering them impervious to the virus?

One trend that emerged was the insistence that all liturgical adaptations were temporary. Alterations to the methods used for distributing communion were designed to calm those who approached with fear. There is a general consensus among Orthodox that the Church will resume the practice of using one common spoon for communion when the pandemic is over. The communion spoon became the symbol of Orthodoxy’s refutation of the threat of COVID-19. The Church’s public message about its liturgical adaptations was crystal clear: they would last as long as the pandemic threatened public health and would be reversed as soon as possible.

Concluding Observation 2: Thwarting the Real Threats 

Orthodox resistance to compliance with public health measures evinces a lack of trust in civil authorities and public health officials. This lack of trust is irreducible to one or two political issues. A long history of complicated, bitter, and painful state-church relations fed the flames of resistance and breathed life into conspiracy theories. The communion spoon debate became the powderkeg for a battle about the Orthodox faith itself.

Those who suggested that communion could lead to infection viewed communion as a meal with shared utensils: the people share the same bread and drink from the same cup. Defenders of the established practice weren’t concerned with the utensils – they viewed the question as an attempt to question the veracity of God’s presence. Their most precious core value, the promise of God’s presence, was at stake for them. They vigorously defended the spoon because it had become an essential component of the ritual that expressed their most precious tenet of faith – God is with us when we receive communion.

Not all resisters deny the threat posed by COVID, but many of them view changes made to the most solemn rituals as threats to the faith, and to their core values as Orthodox Christians. COVID-19 caused severe damage, but not only to public health – it also opened unhealed wounds in religious communities by posing doubt on beloved practices.

Concluding Observation 3: Missed Opportunities?    

The current trend in Orthodoxy suggests that 2020 did not introduce a liturgical turn. Church leaders are determined to resume pre-COVID liturgical life, and many faithful share their objectives. If Church leaders succeed in returning to liturgical uniformity, it is possible that the Church will lose opportunities to explore significant questions of faith and life more deeply.

The spoon debate occupied space and energy that could have been devoted to other issues. What is the value of having divine services with small numbers of people? Is the one-size-fits-all approach to communion suitable for all parishes? Did the obsession with Christ’s presence in communion vessels obscure a recognition of Christ in the people of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods? Does the Church have a civic responsibility to maximize the protection of the vulnerable during a public health crisis?

If the Church resists the temptation to stop the liturgical turn of 2020, it may capture the opportunity to witness as the world awakens to the unknown new normal. I’ll reflect on those opportunities in part 2 of this series in 2021.

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