The novel coronavirus pandemic has certainly disrupted liturgical life in the Orthodox Church worldwide: responses and changes to centuries-old practices have varied considerably from country to country, diocese to diocese, and sometimes even parish to parish.
Some within the Church have been calling for an end to the medieval Eastern Christian practice of distributing Holy Communion to the laity via a communal spoon.
Rather than examining the arguments — pro or con — related to such a suggestion, I would like to ask a more practical question: is an official change likely to happen, either worldwide or even within one autocephalous church?
The short answer is clearly no. What follows is an overview of why further change is highly unlikely, with reference to the statements of multiple synods or church leaders worldwide.
Above all, one must recognize that a change of this nature in the Orthodox Church would only come with formal synodal approval and would only become widespread after a global process of consensus-building amongst the “primates,” or heads, of the local churches.
In a May 17 letter to the Orthodox primates made public on June 1, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople announced that such a general consensus on the distribution of Holy Communion is clearly necessary. Allowing a variety of practices and following different suggestions is no longer tenable, despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
What, then, have primates or synods said on the matter so far?
Notably, the Ecumenical Patriarch himself did not allow for a change. The synods of Greece, Cyprus, and Crete (a semi-autonomous church belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate) spoke formally against any suggestion that a change is necessary for reasons of disease transmission. And the primates of Antioch, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania have likewise said no to any change in the method of offering communion.
A recent Associated Press article on Greece’s formal decision summarized it this way:
The Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, says any suggestion that illness or disease could be transmitted by Holy Communion is blasphemy, a stance echoed by the Church of Cyprus.
“Regarding the issue that is unjustifiably raised from time to time about the supposed dangers, which in these blasphemous views are said to lurk in the life-giving Mystery of Holy Communion, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece expresses its bitterness, deep sorrow and diametrical opposition,” it said in a May 13 circular on social distancing measures in churches.
The Synod “underlines one more time to all those who, either due to ignorance or conscious faithlessness, brutally insult all that is holy and sacred, the dogmas and the sacred rules of our faith, that Holy Communion is ‘the medicine of immortality, antidote to not dying, but to living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ forever.’”
The Patriarch of Romania did state about two months ago that sick people or those “whose faith is weak” could bring a special spoon from home (not a disposable one). Yet the Patriarch clarified that such a spoon is expressly not allowed for communion offered during the Divine Liturgy: a single-use spoon is only for those individuals who arrange for private confession and communion by appointment. In the Liturgy itself, no change is permitted. Finally, the Romanian Patriarch has emphasized that a worldwide consensus amongst the primates is necessary — until which a very clear set of emergency guidelines are in place.
The implication of all of the above is abundantly clear: the use of a communal spoon to distribute Holy Communion during the Divine Liturgy will not be changing in the Orthodox Church. If consensus is necessary, and if most churches have never changed or even formally condemned a change (especially one motivated by concerns over disease transmission), then the ultimate conclusion of a primatial consensus-building process is obvious.
The most significant exception to the trend described above has been the Russian Orthodox Church, with several dioceses of the Orthodox Church in America following Russia’s example. On March 17, the Russian synod promulgated a detailed set of guidelines for all sacramental, liturgical, and pastoral activities during the coronavirus pandemic.
The document insists that Holy Communion is for the health of soul and body, and yet notes that there is an established tradition of taking precautionary measures during times of epidemic or when communing those with infectious diseases. Thus, with brevity and without trying to offer any theological explanation — simply with appeal to two historical sources, one from the 18th and the other from the 19th century — the synod calls for the communal spoon to be sanitized with alcohol in between uses.
Yet it is clear from the document that these measures are temporary. Since being promulgated, these guidelines have been followed very unevenly throughout the Russian church, with some bishops and clergy following the official protocol closely, others opting to use multiple spoons plus sanitation with alcohol, and others using an entirely different method of intinction (dipping the Body partly into the Blood) followed by distribution into the hand. All these approaches attempt to increase the sanitary conditions when offering Holy Communion.
No doubt, a further decision of the Russian synod will be forthcoming, and it might move back to what appears to be the emerging global trend. Or perhaps it will remain a singular anomaly while concerns over the pandemic persist.
Although Russia is the only Orthodox Church to enact formal change within the Divine Liturgy itself, a very small number of individual bishops worldwide have taken their own pastoral measures. Notably, many of these pastoral accommodations respond to specific government restrictions and often entail a modified rite of distributing Holy Communion after the Divine Liturgy itself.
Some, such as Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, have instructed their priests to use multiple metal spoons: only one per communicant, in a special distribution of Holy Communion by appointment — not during but after the Divine Liturgy. Yet this instruction applies only to the Archbishop’s direct diocese. All eight of the other Greek Orthodox diocesan hierarchs in the United States have stipulated that distribution of Holy Communion should continue as usual via a communal spoon. A number have emphasized that the established method of offering Holy Communion can never transmit disease, although some hierarchs have required priests to wear a mask while communing the laity as a precaution against airborne viral spread.
A few other bishops have established various practices of intinction, sometimes drawing on aspects of the Divine Liturgy of St. James (in which the laity traditionally receive the Body in the hand and drink the Blood directly from the chalice) and sometimes drawing on other traditions. An example of the latter is Archbishop Kyrill of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, who instructed his priests to employ a post-liturgical private distribution of communion, but one drawing on aspects of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the traditional rite of communion for the sick.
In any event, as Orthodox synods worldwide continue to make formal statements, and as the primates of the churches converge around the emerging consensus, it seems unlikely that isolated pastoral adjustments will spread or gain formal synodal endorsement.
The clear trend — where primates and synods are concerned — leads only in one direction: no change, and the communal spoon will remain.
Editor’s note: We won’t be publishing comments here about whether communion distribution ought to change or why. Let’s keep comments focused narrowly on the topic of the post: Is change throughout the Church likely?