How COVID-19 Led to a Spiritual Pandemic

As the Orthodox Church struggles to get back to normal in the wake of COVID-19, there is emerging a growing climate of division that threatens to engulf us long after the pandemic has subsided.

This is becoming increasingly evident to me as I travel around America talking to Orthodox brothers and sisters. I hear a range of concerns about how the Church responded to COVID-19. Some feel the churches should have done more to protect the vulnerable from getting sick. Others think the pandemic was over-hyped and that the Church capitulated to the mainstream narrative. Still others haven’t got over the fact that churches were closed down for Pascha in 2020. Some have even left the Orthodox church completely over COVID-related controversies. 

Everyone, including me, seems to have something to complain about.

Nothing I could say can heal these lingering divisions, which are likely rooted in insecurities, pathologies, and fissures that pre-date the coronavirus, and which the pandemic merely brought to the surface. But what I can do is use my perspective as an historian to combat one particularly divisive narrative that seems to be gaining traction even as the pandemic subsides. 

In its most condensed form, the problematic narrative runs roughly like this. 

The Church Fathers gave us a certain theological framework for understanding sacred space, the body, and the sacraments. This framework remains central to the liturgical experience of the church. When the churches capitulated to COVID restrictions by making changes that affected worship, they were functionally denying this theological deposit, without necessarily recognizing this. To the degree that these changes impacted how Liturgy was practiced and how Holy Communion was administered, this struck at the heart of Orthodox experience and even theology. Purely secular concerns for health and safety were allowed to take priority over our own theology of worship.

The above narrative is being propagated by priests who are using the internet to reach large numbers of the faithful. As this narrative gains traction, there is emerging a groundswell of individuals who feel that even if changes in worship could save tens of thousands of lives (for example, in the presence of a truly deadly and virulent disease), such changes would no more be justified than it would be justified to deny Christ Himself. If it is the case that consistency in worship and sacramental administration are worth dying for then, a fortiori, it is also worth the risk of death. In fact, altering worship and sacramental administration to accommodate safety concerns (whether real or hyped) is a type of operational Christ-denial.

There are numerous permutations and perceived consequences to this narrative. For example, sometimes this narrative is accompanied by the claim that it is impossible to contract disease in church, while at other times it is paired with the idea that you may catch disease in church but should not care since the spirit is more important than the body. (These two claims, though inconsistent, often act as strange bed-fellows and cross-fertilize each other.) Often these ideas are also mixed with libertarian notions of freedom, or various theories on the relationship between church and state. Such ideas also get combined with apocalyptic end-times scenarios and prophecies that associate the COVID vaccines with the mark of the beast. Just yesterday I heard a particularly colorful permutation of this narrative: my interlocutor claimed that it is a heresy for Orthodox Bishops to mandate mask-wearing. He added that even assuming a truly fatal and virulent pandemic, and even assuming that masks were highly effective in preventing transmission of said virus, it would still be a species of heresy for ecclesial hierarchy to mandate them in church.

Each of these ideas need to be evaluated on their own merits, and I have been gradually chipping away at that here and here and here and here and here and here. But if we confine ourselves to the central historical-theological claim behind these other ideas (i.e, the method of worship, including the method of administering the Holy Sacraments, lies at the heart of Holy Tradition and therefore cannot be changed without compromising the faith itself), we find this narrative to be anachronistic and a-historical. Worse, it is fueling a questionable ecclesiology and a distorted view of the sacraments.

Before jumping into the actual flaws with the above narrative, there is a significant methodological problem that should raise alarm bells. Through their blog posts, podcast, and online classes, the teachers who are propagating this narrative claim to contribute to our understanding of theology, ethics, liturgics, and Patristic studies, even while avoiding the checks and balances that exist in the universities and seminaries to preserve the integrity of these academic disciplines. These checks and balances include, at a minimum, the peer review process, academic debate, integration with existing scholarship, and—in the case of research performed at seminaries—ecclesial oversight. These checks and balances are central to the integrity of academic research and publishing, and yet are being eschewed by the teachers propagating the aforementioned narrative. Significantly, when interviewing the director of one publishing house that is aligned with this narrative,  he explained that they eschew the peer review process as a matter of principle because the academy, like the church hierarchy, is compromised and lacking in the necessary ethos. This pious anti-intellectualism may sound laudable, but what emerges is a highly insular form of pseudo-scholarship that trades heavily in ideology but is lacking in academic rigor. Methodologically, it is more akin to Protestant fundamentalism, because it treats the Church Fathers as if the meaning and application of their corpus is utterly perspicuous, thus rendering unnecessary the standard procedures of due diligence normally practiced in academia.

A consequence of this insularity is that those who propagate these narratives can neglect work being done in the academy that may be relevant to these topics. Over the last two years there has been a rich discourse within the universities about these and adjacent questions. It may surprise you to learn that some of the discoveries that have emerged from this scholarship are directly applicable to the types of in-house questions that have arisen within American Orthodoxy. Yet when I have spoken with Orthodox publishers and writers urging them to tap into this larger debate and associated discoveries, the reaction is the same: the academy, like the church hierarchy, is compromised and lacking the necessary ethos. This approach enables the self-appointed spokesmen of Orthodoxy to assume a false simplicity that ignores the wider work that is relevant to these questions.

But what about the actual content of the aforementioned narrative? Here we should avoid the temptation to be totally dismissive. The concern not to compromise the Church with the spirit of this age is laudable. Moreover, it is certainly true that the sacramental experience of the Church is rooted in the Patristic theology of sacred space, the body, and the sacraments. It is also true that how we worship, and what we do with our bodies in church is not arbitrary but full of spiritual symbolism and significance. But is it correct that the way we customarily do things like administer Communion is as fixed as our doctrine and, consequently, that it is a hill we should be willing to die on?

Well, no. 

Ironically, while this narrative appeals to the Patristic era, it was in the early church that there was the most variation in worship, including widespread discrepancy in how the sacraments were administered. These disparities were not a matter of impiety nor did they result from the influence of heresy; rather, widespread divergence often simply reflected local custom in an age before mass communication.

Consider that in the original celebration of the Liturgy of St. James, communicants received the Hosts in their hands. Consider again that for thousands of years there was no uniformity on things like spoons, napkins, and the chalice—the very things that have become a matter of frenzied focus during COVID-era ecclesial controversies.

Even the Liturgy itself was never standardized for centuries, as seen by the fact that for the first thousand years the canonical church practiced both Latin and Byzantine rites. Even as late as the eighth century, Latin Christians in Constantinople celebrated the Latin rite with approval of the canonical church. And contrary to common belief, the present form of the Divine Liturgy was not written by St. John Chrysostom (only the Eucharistic canon was) but emerged in the Middle Ages as the rich hymnody of cathedral services combined with the Psalmody-rich services of the desert.

Liturgical customs were gradually standardized because of empire, increased communication, and various non-theological factors. Whether this increased standardization was inspired or not is outside the present set of concerns. The relevant point is this: those who now maintain that uniformity in worship and sacramental administration are worth dividing over (or even worth dying for) should at least recognize that, historically speaking, this is anachronistic. To take the uniformity that Orthodox churches have achieved in the last century and read that back into the past is nothing short of historical revisionism. 

Significantly, in the past when the faithful were willing to die over changes in worship, it was when those changes were specifically connected to heretical theological claims, as in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth century. By contrast, in 2020 and 2021 when the Bishops of certain jurisdictions told us not to kiss icons, or not to touch our mouths to the spoon, or to use disposable rather than cloth napkins, or to practice social distancing, etc. etc., no novel theological claim was being touted; they simply wanted to protect the vulnerable from getting a potentially deadly disease. Whether or not we agree with how our bishops handled the COVID crisis, the decisions they made were within their prudential scope since they were not asking us to deny our faith. (Significantly, in the one case where a change in practice did potentially implicate a novel theological claim, namely separate spoons, the response was widespread rejection from the hierarchy.)

The spiritual stakes in recognizing this are very high. Here’s why. For the last two years I have performed qualitative research among both clergy and laity who were disaffected by the church’s response to COVID. And what I found is that these uniformity narratives are wreaking havoc in the churches. Some shared with me that their parishes split over these issues, while others felt justified condemning their priests and bishops, announcing to me that our clergy are now functionaries of the anti-Christ. 

One group of anonymous priests, who call themselves “The Brotherhood of the Burning Bush,” went so far as to publicly vow to disobey their bishops should the hierarchs ever again require masks, or change the method of administering Communion, or limit the occupancy of the church, etc. Significantly, because this anonymous brotherhood have made their concerns a matter of principle rather than prudence, they have painted themselves into a corner with vows that would apply even in the case of a more deadly pandemic. But worse, by drawing a line in the sand over things like masks, social distancing, etc. they have inadvertently created a criteria that lay people are now using as a litmus test for determining a churches’ purity.

Consider the case of Katherine and John. They are a pious couple who converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism six years ago. In 2020, they became troubled and confused by how the churches responded to COVID. Their confusion started after John began reading on the internet that it’s impossible to spread disease in church. Now they routinely listen to podcasts put out by an “internet priest” (a priest who doesn’t have a parish but shepherds large numbers of Orthodox believers over the internet) who claim the Orthodox hierarchs are heretical. Having only a cursory understanding of church history, Katherine and John have become victim to anachronistic ideas about liturgical uniformity. Now they are traveling around America in the desperate hope of finding churches that refused to follow COVID restrictions, because they want to remain faithful amid widespread apostasy. John has even become convinced that he cannot take communion from a priest who has been vaccinated. This couple is part of a growing and well-connected network of individuals sharing information about which Orthodox churches and monasteries represent the more pure manifestation of the faith, as determined retroactively by a church’s record of non-compliance to COVID-era restrictions.

Katherine and John are not a real couple; rather, they are a composite of various people I interviewed when researching for this article. Their story illustrates how allegations of apostasy have left the faithful unsure where true Orthodoxy is to be found; how the simplicity of the faith is being disrupted by widespread fear; how a type of functional ecclesiology is emerging whereby the Orthodox churches in America are perceived to be divided between those churches that are pure vs. those that abandoned the tradition. This new type of ecclesiology—which essentially posits a type of church within the church—resonates with Americans because of the implicit Donatism of our Puritan background.

Donatism was a heresy at the time of St. Augustine, based on the theory that churches could only be effective if clergy were faultless in their ministry. In their crusading zeal, the Donatists sought to achieve a pure church, eviscerated of anyone who was compromised (which, after the Roman persecutions, included large numbers of the faithful). The Puritans who came to New England were animated by similar impulses as the Donatists, believing they were called out from a compromised church. After settling in New England, the impulse to achieve a pure church continued, spawning increasing denominations each claiming to represent the church in its most pure manifestation. Hundreds of years later an incipient Donatism forms part of the taken-for-granted background for many American Protestants, and is often imported into Orthodoxy through converts. 

The story of Katherine and John also encapsulates another phenomenon, namely that it is through the internet that these narratives are spreading. When I interviewed one priest who has been teaching some of the aforementioned ideas, including that the Orthodox hierarchs implicated themselves in heresy because of how they responded to COVID, I expressed concern about some of the ways people have been responding to his teachings on ground level. He replied that because his audience is the internet rather than a specific parish, he is not responsible for how people react to his teachings.

It seems that, whatever else COVID did to our society, it revealed weaknesses in our spiritual immune system, highlighting a type of spiritual pandemic. In the process, we have become open to divisions that could never have arisen outside the modern world, insofar as these divisions are dependent on a uniquely modern type of revisionist historiography, and dependent on the internet’s tendency to fuel binary thinking.

As an antidote to these unhealthy tendencies, I want to highlight two figures from church history. The first is St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD). In the first two centuries of the church, there was widespread disagreement about the appropriate way to calculate Pascha. Around 195, Pope Victor I was preparing to excommunicate the churches on one side of the debate. St. Irenaeus intervened and urged the Pope not to destroy the unity of the church over the date of Pascha. Peace prevailed and the church remained united.

The other example is St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397), mentor to Augustine of Hippo. When the latter was planning to visit Rome with his mother, St. Monica, they learned that the Roman Christians observed Saturday as a fast day. Not knowing how they should respond to this seemingly novel custom, St. Augustine wrote to his mentor, St. Ambrose. In his response, St. Ambrose said, “When I am here (in Milan) I do not fast on Saturday, when in Rome I do fast on Saturday.” This reply is thought to be the origin of the oft-quoted maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The parallel to the controversies in our own day is not exact. Yet I think the wisdom of St. Irenaeus and St. Ambrose can help inform our approach to COVID-era changes in the Orthodox Church. When you are in a church that, in the interest of protecting the vulnerable, asks you to stand six feet apart, or practice masking, or receive Holy Communion in a way you are not accustomed to, follow the spirit of St. Ambrose’s advice to St. Augustine. Rather than getting worked up over the minutiae of liturgical controversies, submit to whatever local traditions of piety you are asked to observe.

The bishops today are agreed in seeking to care for the faithful, even if their directives show some discrepancies, variation from one another, and deviation from wishes of individual priests and parishioners. In hindsight, based on our more accurate knowledge of COVID-19, it is easy to criticize some of these directives, especially the decision to close the churches in 2020. But instead of succumbing to the spirit of division and schism, we would do well to heed the example of St. Irenaeus and St. Ambrose. Their wisdom can be summarized by an oft-quoted maxim that, though not Orthodox in origin, nevertheless offers wisdom as we move into the new post-COVID era: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”