An Orthodox Christian priest wrote an anonymous letter trying to justify how secular expediency aids sacred faith with regards to COVID-19, with the best and most reasoned approach we have yet seen. Nevertheless, his well-intentioned letter stumbles on Christ’s Gospel, because it tries to incorporate secular knowledge as beneficial when it is not. We will attempt to explain how this is so.
Obedience is one of the highest of Christian virtues. In fact, some have even called it THE highest, and there is good reason for that. The true practice of Christianity is summed up in the Gospel of Luke [9:23]: “And he [Jesus] said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
To deny oneself is to set aside one’s own desires and will and to instead do the will of the Master, that is, to follow Christ. That means we do what he tells us to do. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this directive is practiced through obedience to a person more advanced in the Faith, in the belief that the elder has learned how to follow the will of God very closely, and is able to teach the student how to do the same, maybe even to surpass the elder at some point. The practice of being obedient to another person makes the accomplishment of obedience tangible and real. Since God himself does not directly speak to us as one person to another, the task of setting aside our will and doing what someone else tells us (especially when it makes NO sense to us), is in fact understood as proof of our obedience to the Lord Himself.
While people from other Christian confessions may disagree with this concept, it is extremely important to us as Orthodox Christians, and it has been a vital ingredient to keeping the Orthodox Church together and unchanged for its 2,000 year history.
This is not pie-in-the-sky metaphysics. Students in universities learn and get their higher degrees through obedience and counsel from their advisors, Karate students learn this beautiful martial art from their sensee in the dojo, and a good employee learns how to run the company from the man or woman who runs the company. Obedience means we learn how to do something from the masters, and when we do it, it works for us, too.
However in the Eastern Orthodox Church, perhaps more distinctly than in other Christian confessions, the practice of obedience and the virtue of humility are very highly regarded and encouraged. Many of us as American converts found ourselves swept away on the romantic tides of the lives of saints who dazzle us with their feats of obedience. Rebels are few and far between in Orthodoxy, fewer still are those who display disobedience to their earthly brothers and sisters as a virtue.
However, there are times in the Church’s history where obedience to hierarchical decisions was soundly rejected. The Orthodox Church has never been a top-down organization such as we presently see in Roman Catholicism with the notion of papal infallibility ex cathedra, that is, that if the Bishop of Rome speaks from the Cathedra-chair, whatever he says is always true and is the law or belief of the whole Church at that point. Eastern Orthodox hierarchs do not have such power, though some do seem to want it. When one tries to get it, the Church – the laity often more than the clergy, pull that person down and get his ego chopped down to right size. Usually the case was that if there was a council of Bishops that met and agreed on something that turned out to be stupid, not in line with Christian teachings or heretical to the faith, there was always a bigger group of clergy and laity that rejected the council and its decision. This is understood as how the Holy Spirit operates in and through the Church as the entire body of believers, and not as people just doing what some higher-up tells them to do.
But sometimes there is little opposition from the clergy, usually for the sake of expedience, and it is only the laity who reject the council, or very few clergy with them.
Such was the situation with the Council of Florence in 1438-1439. This was an agreement on a compromise over the Roman Catholic filioque clause (“and the Son”) that the Romans had arbitarily added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith for the whole Church (there were no Protestants at that time). There was a motive for this agreement. The theological argument that this clause should not be in the Creed was extremely important to the Eastern Orthodox Church as a whole (these people are very, VERY interested in keeping the faith and teachings of the Church unchanged, lest they depart from Christ’s will). Yet, at this council there was a compromise being struck. Was it because of some breakthrough in theological understanding that led the two sides to be able to agree with one another?
The motivation was Islam and fear of invasion. In other words, earthly politics.
Constantinople, the Eastern Capital of the Roman Empire, and, by this time, the center of the Orthodox Christian Church, was under pressure from the Ottoman Turks, who sought to gain control of the East. The hope was that with the signing of the agreement, Constantinople would receive military aid from Rome and the West to help push the Muslim invaders back and guarantee security to the city. In light of this perceived threat, it seemed expedient to go ahead and allow the Bishop of Rome to have jurisdiction over the entire Church including the Orthodox East (Serbia, Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and more places).
Only one bishop refused to sign this document. Mark, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Ephesus, stuck to theologically Orthodox grounds that the filioque clause was heretical, that the Church of Rome (which had been in schism from the East already for nearly four hundred years) was continuing in schism; that the doctrine of Purgatory that had been developed in Rome was wrong, and so on.
Because of his dissension he was seen as a problem for the “whole Church” and he was the only bishop at the Council of Florence who refused to sign. Everybody else did, and so hope for the stronger united Church began.
But it did not last. The Roman aid proved insufficient. When the Russian Church learned of this agreement being signed, implying that Russia was now under Rome, that lasted about zero point zero seconds. The Russian Orthodox Church angrily rejected this union and declared itself autocephalous (fully self-ruled), and it held the line until the rest of the Orthodox Churches repented of this union. Meanwhile, Constantinople was sacked by the Ottomans in 1453, and it continues to exist under severe and struct Muslim domination to this very day, as Istanbul, Turkey.
This is widely regarded among Orthodox Christians as God’s wrath for all those signatories at the Council turning their backs on Christ, who then delivered them to their enemies.
Mark is known as a saint and even as “The Atlas of Orthodoxy” because he refused to obey the expedience and wishes of men, even though the times seemed very dire, that the Church must “bend” or “adapt” a little bit to keep itself alive against a greater threat.
Consider this bit of history while contemplating what comes next.
This year, most of the world came under the influence of fear of the novel coronavirus and its attendant illness COVID-19. Now, we have many pieces examining the Orthodox Christian response to this virus, all of which thus far have led to the conclusion that the clergy and bishops who decided that following the directives of health and medical experts and secular governments were wrong in doing so. We have laid out evidence supporting this, showing how the result in some places is fear of even entering a Church edifice for fear of COVID-19 infection, though of course, demonstrating for Black Lives Matter and Antifa is fine, even recommended by at least 1,000 of these same health experts.
Many of my own personal friends are hierarchs and priests in the Church, and they have been obedient to the directives, and I believe that they believed they were doing the right thing.
However, there is a very interesting letter that appears on the website of the Orthodox Church in America, often unfortunately reviled among “strictly traditional Orthodox Christians” for being liberal in its point of view. This criticism is not without basis, though to be sure, American Orthodox are often “instant experts” in the faith and are far too quick to slander and judge one another.
The letter is written as a response to a video post by Father Peter Heers, a teacher at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, a very, very traditional Russian Orthodox monastery and seminary. The post concerns a letter from an Athonite Elder, and we have run this piece here.
In reading the letter, I expected to find a bunch of liberal drivel. It was somewhat of a relief to see that the priest did write some comments fairly sensibly, and I sensed his desire to be pastoral and really, quite humble. It is worth reading and definitely worth consideration.
However, he actually describes the true nature of the problem that many of us have who reject the COVID-19 “regulations” about how we are supposed to serve, and who comes and does not come and so on. The true nature is remarkably similar to the situation facing the well-intentioned bishops in 1438:
All around the world Orthodox bishops in almost all of the Orthodox Churches have taken precautions to try to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This has involved primarily social distancing, limiting attendance at divine services, and changes in the practice of receiving Holy Communion.
The changes in practice to receiving Holy Communion are not primarily out of fear that someone will get sick from the spoon or the Eucharist, but are aimed at trying to prevent government interference in the Church. From the very beginning Christians have sought to live at peace among their fellow citizens when at all possible, i.e. when the law of the government does not conflict with the law of God. Additionally, our bishop has said that while he “doesn’t know that the grain alcohol is necessary,” he would prefer we enact a temporary measure that will console those who (out of fear) might otherwise refrain from Communion during these extraordinary times (reference Larchet on the Pandemic). Why would we protest when this request was made by our bishop for the sake of his flock?
Politics. And did the government leave our Church alone? No. Read other newspieces we posted, and that other news sources have written. Read Dr Anthony Fauci’s statement that in effect says “we are just going to have to do without Holy Communion for a while… it is too dangerous.” Read and contemplate the supreme weapon of the secularist left concerning behavior in our temples: that wearing a mask is necessary for you to protect your brother and sister from the disease.
Really? A secularist understands love better than a Christian should?
The further unfortunate character of this letter is that the priest again demonstrates something of the modern-day gospel that “nothing is more important than your health” rather than the Gospel of Christ. This may be difficult to see in the text without consideration of the whole, because at no point does the priest use the secularist byline mentioned earlier. He does, and rightly so, clearly state that there is a condition in which people who receive Holy Communion can be sickened or die – that condition being where they receive it unworthily, and also that there is no scientific research on this matter (at least that he could recall) to prove the effect of the Holy Mysteries one way or the other:
As most of you probably know by now, for the most part, Orthodox Christians do not believe that you can get sick from receiving Holy Communion, nor are the bishops indicating implicitly or explicitly that you can. I say “for the most part” because we all are aware, no doubt, of Saint Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that to receive the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily has caused some to be sick or even to die. This should tell us right away that to state categorically as some do that “you cannot get sick from Holy Communion” is wrong. Thus, our need to prepare for Holy Communion with confession, fasting, repentance, and prayers as we are taught.
Given that exception, however, we do not believe that you can get sick from Holy Communion. We have no scientific data behind this, even though some like to quote studies done in Protestant and Catholic churches over the past hundred years, but neither should we need or even want scientific data here.
This is spot on, and it demonstrates that this man is trying to keep things within the bounds of reason, and for this he must be credited and not chastized.
However, the basic underlying idea appears to be that the Church ought to change how she does things because there is a threat that God cannot handle. I am of the opinion that this attitude is deeply underlying the priest and indeed most bishops’ reasoning processes, and this attitude itself comes from a position of faithlessness. Christ Himself foretold this:
And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man deceive you: For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.
But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.
And the gospel must first be published among all nations. But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.
Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
This is true now, as it was during the Communist persecutions, as it was during every persecution of Christians through history. The key is “he that shall endure…” It does not say “he that shall compromise in order to endure.”
Yet this is what we are doing. We are compromising what has become sacred, holy, for the sake of that which is temporary, fleeting and in this case, really questionable. If we were talking about a REAL pandemic (not a weak one like COVID-19 is), one where millions of people were dropping like flies every day, then maybe such measures might have some meaning, at least logically.
But, there were times when millions of people WERE dropping like flies, and the Church was open, serving, and her people were usually out with the sick, helping them, often dying with them, because love for one’s neighbor and most importantly, for one’s enemies, is the ticket to salvation and eternal life.
How is masking in Church and telling people not to go anything like this?
The letter is extremely reasonable, and yet probably because it is ONLY reasonable, the conclusion remains wrong for the reason earlier stated: “The changes in practice to receiving Holy Communion are aimed at trying to prevent government interference in the Church.”
The government interference happened anyway!
There seems no way to carefully and respectfully address this COVID-19 issue without some careful and respectful attention given to what is being presented here. No doubt this piece will probably receive few views and even fewer thorough read-throughs in our hurried age. However, it does point out the problem – the Church’s willingness to cooperate with civil authorities has been used against Her in a way that is destructive. Christianity is either everything, the Source, the Foundation of our lives, or it is not.
If Christianity is not the foundation of our lives, then all these restrictions make perfect sense, because it is merely a religion, and one whose practices can be, and should be, governed by the “needs” assessed by the secular community over a threat more “real” than the Church Herself is.
However, for Orthodox Christians, Orthodoxy is not merely a religion. It is “the Faith which has established the Universe.” [c.f. the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, celebrated the First Sunday of Great Lent].
Our second part will offer the perspective of a layperson, one who considers the faith important enough to protect.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.