We hope that this series was helpful in shining some detailed and critical light on the matter of church closures, particularly in the various Eastern Orthodox Christian national churches in the United States and around the world. We looked at the historical precedents in Christianity that show the Church trying tirelessly to help her people. We provided information showing the uniquely unknown nature of the coronavirus and its accompanying illness, COVID-19, and the complications it brings. We also noted a little that Churches in Russia are generally still operating. We want to wind this series up with a few more observations, and then my own opinion (which is not necessarily the opinion of the Duran, but the opinion of me as a Reader in the Russian Orthodox Church. – Of course, everyone has an opinion and we all know what opinions are like…)
The ideals on both sides of the church closure debate are significant. Indeed, they represent utterly different frames of mind: One is the frame of mind that is secular, that nothing is more important than one’s health in this world; hence, doing everything possible to preserve one’s life is of tantamount importance. On the other pole, this life is seen as temporal, only the “training and proving ground” for life in eternity, hopefully with God. Certainly this is the case for very rigorous Christian believers, and this is not limited to Holy Orthodoxy, for there are people who recognize this as truth in other confessions as well. For them, the move to close Church services to the public seems scandalous, a sellout to Christianity, to Christ Himself, who suffered and died, and rose again from the dead, all for the life of the world and its salvation.
What we actually see in the churches that have closed or restricted services has been an attempt for the clergy to intercede for the faithful but an attempt to keep the faithful safe. In one instance, one of the American bishops for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America decided to forego Holy Communion as one of the laity, because he wanted the laity to understand that this was not a case of clergy being “allowed” Communion while the faithful aren’t.
In a weekly letter from another American Antiochian Church we read the following (names removed for anonymity):
I pray you and your loved ones are safe and well. For those who are ill, and for all the medical people and caregivers, I assure you of our prayers as a Church community. For those grieving, distressed, or with practical needs, we seek to be helpful as we are able. A parishioner… is making face masks freely. Others have delivered food to “shut in” people or to the food bank. Deacon …. is scanning some services to be posted on our Facebook page for people to read as they see the live streams. Our clergy are glad to talk by phone and offer guidance, or financial assistance in times of serious need. Let us know when you need us. We all seek to do what we can for one another.
Thank you to the ones who have been able to send tithes, offerings, and special gifts to our parish. This has enabled us to stay current with our obligations and provide for needs as they arise.
Tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday. We begin our Holy Week leading to Holy Pascha. Please keep our singers, chanters, readers, and clergy in your prayers for good health, strength, and voices.
Our Divine Services (which are as numerous this year as usual in Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha (called “Easter” by many Western Christians) will be “live streamed” on our private Facebook page…
I am attaching a Pastoral Letter that we received today from His Eminence, Metropolitan JOSEPH. It is encouraging to us in this on-going time of the virus crisis. In a separate email to the clergy today, we are reminded that the timing of the peak numbers of cases and hospital resources are coming in the next days and weeks. So we are instructed to allow only 5 people who are involved in the Divine Services, to be at our closed temple this week and until further notice. This means the few palms you will see on Palm Sunday will be kept for a later time of distribution (after the crisis), and the church will not be open for private prayers or lighting candles until further notice (a stricter change from previous instructions). Priests may have spiritual conversations by phone with parishioners, but absolution will be given later when we are allowed back in the temple or meeting in person. Blessing of Pascha baskets will happen at the end of the “live-streamed” Pascha Divine Liturgy. After Bright Week, we will “live-stream” the 4p Saturday Vespers and regular Sunday 8a Orthros and 9a Divine Liturgy, until that joyous day we are able to worship together again in person.
This will certainly be a Holy Week and Pascha we will never forget. It is not what we would desire, but in all circumstances – God is with us and He offers blessings and renewal in our hearts as we open ourselves to Him…
Now, where it goes wrong is where people who do not understand or want to understand the actions of people of faith go and bash them.
Take this piece from the Moscow Times, a fervently anti-Putin, anti-Russia publication that is not even owned completely by Russians, but with foreign investment. Their treatment of how the Russian Orthodox Church is continuing more or less as usual has been very condescending (emphasis not added, but see if you can detect it yourself):
On a quiet Saturday outside service hours, worshippers walk with reverence through the shadowy interior of Moscow’s Yelokhovo Cathedral, crossing themselves repeatedly in front of the rows of icons adorning the gilded walls. And then, in accordance with Orthodox practice, they end their silent prayers by touching their lips to the sacred pictures.
Nearly all of them are elderly, one of the most at-risk groups for the coronavirus that has swept the globe. Many of them believe that God, unlike the virus, will show mercy.
“The churches must not be closed. God sees all and will protect worshippers. In Italy the Vatican closed, and you see what happened there,” said Irina, a 59-year-old pensioner, pausing during a walk in Moscow’s Petrovsky Park this week.
As panic over the pandemic that has killed 21,000 has intensified — and churches worldwide have shut their doors to prevent its spread — the Russian Orthodox Church and its 164 million worshippers have been slow to change their ways.
Despite medical experts’ warnings that the coronavirus can be transmitted by saliva and survive on surfaces for days, thousands of worshippers lined up at Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg this month to kiss a holy relic with no form of sanitation except the occasional wipe with a rag. In the city of Kazan on March 15, video showed an Orthodox priest continuing to use a single spoon to serve communion wine to worshippers.
This seeming recklessness stems from a mindset within the Russian Orthodox Church — and in other Eastern Orthodox branches — that believes faith in God will protect the devout from illness.
On Sunday, a video of popular priest Andrei Tkachev entertaining his congregation by entering church to deliver his sermon wearing a gas mask prompted an outcry. “Turn off the television and there will be no coronavirus,” he told them. The video was later removed by the pro-Kremlin journalist who first posted it to Instagram.
After this snarky treatment (oh! the horrors! They believe in God!!), then buried in the piece is some information about measures the Church has taken to limit exposure to the virus.
Despite the indifference toward infection, the Church last week took some action by distributing sanitary rules to ensure people can continue to worship while minimizing the risk of transmission.
The list forbids worshippers from kissing the cross, the communion chalice or the priest’s hand during liturgies. It also calls for disinfection of the communion spoon after each use and the use of Q-tips to anoint parishioners. Worshippers will still be able to kiss icons, but churches are ordered to disinfect the icons between each use.
“If the virus spreads and the number of infections grows, if new orders from the authorities appear regarding the fight against coronavirus, the Church will respond to them,” said Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Church’s public relations department. “This applies both to the Church as a whole and to individual dioceses.”
Days after they were announced, it appears that some of the guidelines are not as binding as they may seem, with each diocese able to decide how strictly it wants to adhere to them.
And finally, my own point of view
I am very grateful to the contributing sources for this sequence of news pieces. Nurse Julie, who provided such excellent medical information, priests and other friends in the United States who weighed in on how they see things, my own spiritual father (called a father-confessor in the West), family and others. They all have a voice and everyone has many valid points to contribute.
It is clear that there is no desire among any of the clergy I know in the United States to “sell out” the faith to the secular authorities. The common factor in the United States is that people are indeed praying, watching streamed services, and they are doing what they can with for the most part, a pretty good spirit. They are to be praised for this, for their obedience and their humility and care for others by doing what they are doing. That is unquestionably true.
Yet at the same time, I find myself much more comfortable with the Russian practice, with the soul being oriented a bit more completely towards the fact that is the Great Fact in Christianity, that this life is not the be-all and end-all of everything. The best place to be is in Church during such a crisis, and the Divine Services of the Orthodox Church in particular boast a continuous and unbroken connection to Christ Himself as well as His Apostles.
In this very secularized world, such a statement certainly defies human logic. Yet many people sense that this is really the way we ought to be thinking about this, and they unfortunately get caught between two poles of a false argument, which leaves out consideration of one of the most important teachings in Christianity: Not to tempt one another through any particular acts of virtue or judgement.
Romans Chapter 14 makes specific mention of this principle in regards to fasting, the abstinence from various foods such as meat and fish for the purpose of strengthening prayer. All too easy the temptation for the one who fasts rigorously is to put himself or herself “above” the believer who does not or cannot do the same thing. Americans are culturally Protestant, which often means that the outward appearance of any given person is fiercely judged by those around him or her in their community. This characteristic violates the principle Paul set forth, to basically mind our own business about what we personally do for the sake of our salvation and to not look askance at other believers who may not be doing exactly as we are:
For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.
For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. (Romans Ch 14: 2-13)
The old country Orthodox, at least the ones I see here in Russia, seem to have this principle down very well. I never hear anyone talk about the failings of another person in the Church. They only talk about themselves if they say anything at all about this.
It is probably not our business to pass judgements about the COVID response then. While it is probably true that there are some clergy who for whatever reason have no real faith in God’s power, there are plenty of laypeople in the same boat. There are also very faithful dedicated Orthodox Christians (as well as dedicated people of other confessions of Christianity) who still are under the same conditions – unable to attend services because of government orders, amplified and supported by the declarations of local hierarchs. Making an assessment of the nature of these people’s faith is primarily God’s business, and while we might be right about others, assessing them does nothing for ourselves.
I think the COVID response is problematic. I think it simply appears to be guided by a worldly sense rather than a sacred one. That being said, our people have fallen a long way from living the kind of lives where we truly experience a reliance upon God for everything. So, perhaps this move may be the most merciful action the Church can take. It gives those who are not used to reliance upon God a chance to learn it with a minimum sense of cornering them into doing so, which might simply be too harsh for too many.
There is certainly a lot to think about here.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.