If you are an average Greek Orthodox Christian in Australia, chances are that you will on average, take communion, only once a year, just before Easter. It seems therefore strange that the question as to whether communion as provided by the Orthodox Church, will facilitate the spread of the dreaded coronavirus has arisen within the Greek communities of Australia. Yet it is precisely because the virus is predicted to have already hit us hard by Easter, that the issue has become so divisive.
At the centre of the controversy, is the Orthodox Church’s contention that communion is the Body and Blood of Christ and thus, cannot, by its very nature, convey any form of disease. The prospect of churches remaining open during the epidemic to dispense communion offers comfort to some, but outrages others who consider it irresponsible and dangerous.
Heated debates have taken place, mostly on social media, resulting in the alleged targeted bullying of at least one senior priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.
The mainstream media are also paying attention, with a recent ABC article stating that: “Greek Orthodox churches across the country will allow congregations of hundreds of people to sip wine from the same spoon during mass because “the holy cup cannot carry disease.”
Another article in the Australian newspaper quotes recently ordained Bishop Elpidios of Perth as affirming that “where science ends, that’s where faith kicks in.” The same article refers to a so-called ‘Global Statement of the Greek Orthodox Church’ where it is considered that: “attending eucharist and communion through the common glass of life certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission.”
That so-called ‘Global Statement’ is actually a statement by the Church of Greece, which is a State Church, of no ‘global’ reach. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia however, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Communique by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while affirming Orthodox Doctrine on Communion, which it states is the “antidote to mortality” is far more nuanced, pronouncing:
Despite the seriousness of the situation, prudence, patience, and the avoidance of panic are advised.
The Church has and continues to respect medical science. Thus, the Church recommends that all the faithful adhere to the official directives of both the World Health Organization and the pertinent pronouncements and legal regulations issued by the civil authorities of their respective countries.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate expresses its gratitude to all those working self-sacrificially within all health, medical, nursing, and research fields in order that this new pandemic be confronted and treated.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that the communion of Orthodox Churches, while agreeing on issues of doctrine, are free to adopt their own practices when dealing with circumstances in their own particular jurisdictions. Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate-affiliated Archdiocese in the United Kingdom, while warning the faithful to exercise prudence and discretion, has announced that its churches will remain open for the present. In contrast, the French Archdiocese has closed all its churches until further notice. The Primate of the Albanian Autocephalous Church, while confirming churches will now cease activity during the week and will only remain open on Sundays, has urged his followers to discharge their religious duties at home.
An official pronouncement has now been made by the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Archbishop Makarios.
While affirming church doctrine on Communion, he asks the faithful to stay away from churches during this time, while also requesting a cessation of clerical hand kissing. He identifies the focus both of the faithful’s fervour and the enraged’s ire as Communion, but also gives regard to the prospect of the virus being transmitted not via communion itself, but by other means, person to person, within the context of a church service, as prospective communicants line up to receive communion, asking the priests to dispense antidoron, the gift of bread at the end of the service, rather than allow parishioners to take it themselves. Significantly, the Archbishop asks that his pronouncement not be compared to those of other jurisdictions, as the conditions and legal and medical requirements of each region are specific to them alone. The announcement has been positively received by the community, as sensible, measured, prudent and responsible.
Differences between Orthodox jurisdictions
Archbishop Makarios’ announcement notwithstanding, there appears at present, no common stance as to Communion taken by the other Orthodox jurisdictions within Australia. Mainstream media reports, focusing on the Greek church, have largely ignored the existence of those other jurisdictions.
A priest in the Russian Orthodox Church has confirmed to Neos Kosmos that communion will be dispensed as usual, with instructions provided to include the traditional litany prescribed for times of pestilence in services.
A priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church has confirmed to Neos Kosmos that communion will also be dispensed as usual, except that instructions will be given that the faithful not touch the communion spoon with their mouths, as communion is being dropped into their mouths by the priest.
Some traditional Eastern churches are considering changes to the manner in which they dispense communion in order to allay the fears of the faithful. The Syriac Orthodox Church (Miaphysite) recently published an announcement whereby it will revert to ancient tradition, dispensing the bread separately, it first having been dipped in wine.
It should be noted that during the liturgy of the Rite of Saint James, which is performed once a year by the Greek Orthodox Church on 23 August, the bread and wine is also dispensed separately, according to the tradition of the ancient Church but there has been no indication by any of the Orthodox Churches that there will be a reversion to that Rite.
The Assyrian Church of the East, which dispenses the communion bread separately but has all communicants drink the wine from the same cup, has also confirmed it will not change its practice in the face of Coronavirus.
An Orthodox priest has opined that one way to limit the amount of faithful taking communion is to insist on the strict practice of compelling communicants to have undergone confession beforehand. The same priest expressed fears that should the epidemic increase in its spread and severity, that the Orthodox Church will be seen as a scapegoat and that its affiliated ethnic communities could be subjected to attacks.
Father Chris Dimolianis of Saint Eustathios Church in South Melbourne provides a light-hearted, yet no less fervent perspective, emphasising personal choice:
“The heated discussion and confusion on social media lately regarding Orthodox Holy Communion and the Coronavirus, reminded me of the scene in the movie [the Court Jester] where they discuss whether or not ‘the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!’
“No one wants ‘the pellet with the poison’ and they’re all searching for the ‘brew that is true’.
“Well, it seems to me that either you truly believe that Holy Communion is really ‘the brew that is true’ (the Body and Blood of Christ), or you believe that it is ‘the vessel with the pestle’ which contains ‘the pellet with the poison’.
“Put simply, those who wish to be (and wish to remain) in communion with Christ are welcome to come and receive Him. Those who are reluctant, afraid, unsure or even disgusted, may reject and refuse. Either way, we should not be judging or condemning one another. Let all, in good conscience, make their own decision!”