I should begin by noting that to the Greek-Orthodox Diaspora in Western Europe the church serves not only spiritual but also sociocultural needs, being an Ekklēsia indeed. This has diachronically been so, ever since the major Greek-Orthodox migrant communities emerged there between the late 1950s and mid-1970s. The church constitutes a point of reference, a constant; while other structures, e.g., ideological and/or partisan, collapsed under the weight of their own irrelevance and banality. It would then be fair to say that, to a significant percentage of the Greek Diaspora, church connotes belonging as it encapsulates collective references of being.
It follows that the outbreak and peak of the Covid-19 pandemic – ranging variably from one country to another – has had a significant bearing on these communities. The overall disruption took several shapes and forms, ranging from rendering decades-long habits temporarily obsolete, to upsetting major plans. One could name several examples as such: the founding of the first ever Greek-Orthodox monastery in Central Europe for instance, in St. Andrä am Zicksee, Austria, had to be postponed to a more convenient time, pandemic permitting. That is indicative of the fact that the Orthodox Church as structure and organisation is not impervious to worldly affairs and their consequences, as it is called upon to operate in this world, even though its own raison d’être is otherworldly.
As for the diasporic communities, those had to temporarily part from their religiocultural traditions and stay safe at home instead. This was a painful compromise, among other things, because of the unfortunate timing; the pandemic coincided with the Orthodox Easter, by far the greatest religious holiday of the Eastern Orthodox calendar. Apart from the obvious theological reasons behind this, this period is marked by exponentially increased church attendance and social participation. It follows that this had a negative impact on both church and community life. Moreover, prior to that, a public discourse on the Holy Communion was ushered in. At this point I should parenthetically mention that the Greek Diaspora is not insular; it is subject to incoming influences that often originate in the homeland, where in this case church and state found themselves temporarily at odds as regards social distancing measures and the possibility of spreading the coronavirus via the Holy Communion. Be that as it may, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EPoC), to which the Greek-Orthodox diasporic churches adhere jurisdictionally, reacted swiftly and sensibly.
But how does one reconcile, pure, unadulterated faith in a mystērion, which surpasses and exceeds human nature, with scientific thinking and rationalism; how does one possibly render compatible the other-worldly, the epekeina, the sacred, with the worldly and profane? Well, there is no easy answer! Mystērion, most commonly known as sacrament in the Western churches, stipulates preparation, while in turn it constitutes a form of theōsis. Moreover, to the church, the Holy Eucharist is indeed the lordly sacrifice and to receive it is to truly receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which constitutes an event of immense significance, regardless of the frequency it occurs in one’s lifetime, as a genuine expression of faith. Not to mention that the Holy Eucharist is in fact held as a healing sacrament.
And thus we return to the aforementioned question of whether to pay heed to either faith or reason: True, the answer is not easy, but the response is simple, as attested by the position of the Holy Synod of the EPoC and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, which was by extension implemented in practice by the Diasporic Churches. The EPoC steered clear of even partaking in that discussion, let alone triggering it for, in my view at least, to debate the sanctity and efficacy of the Holy Eucharist is, ultimately, to render it disputable. Avoiding controversy altogether, the EPoC issued a statement urging the body of faithful to follow the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and abide by the guidelines and laws of their states, while explicitly declaring its respect for medical science. At the same time, via its aforementioned statement, the EPoC stood by its own principles and Orthodox teachings as it communicated the church’s firm empirical conviction that the Holy Communion constitutes “antidote to death” (Gr.: «Ἀντίδοτον τοῦ μὴ ἀποθανεῖν»), in accordance with the Orthodox teachings.
The Greek-Orthodox Metropolis of Germany and Exarchate of Central Europe (GOMGECE) constitutes a pertinent example on the management of the pandemic. It has extensive geographical jurisdiction over a demographically considerable population and it is diachronically well-established. In Germany then, one federal state after another, the authorities enforced prohibitions on the basis of the traditional manner that the Holy Communion is offered to Orthodox Christians, as they considered it potentially hazardous for public health in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The Metropolitan of Germany and Exarch of Central Europe Augoustinos, having consulted with the EPoC, had no other choice but to align the GOMGECE with the legal framework and the above-mentioned patriarchal guidelines, and further, to disseminate the corresponding restrictions to the clergy.
This was done via a pastoral encyclical (Ger.: Hirtenbrief), issued initially on 14 March, in which the relevant legislation was highlighted and the EPoC guidelines of 11 March were disseminated. Thereafter, all necessary social distancing measures were taken, all religious and cultural events and gatherings – including the national holiday of 25 March – were cancelled and the body of believers was urged to abide by all necessary instruction in order to stay safe and contain the spread of the virus. As regards conduct in churches, believers would no longer receive the blessed bread (Gr.: Αντίδωρον) by the hand of the priest, but would pick it up themselves on their way out of the church. Self-evidently, offering Holy Communion was out of the question. Further church guidelines followed in succession on 30 April, 1 May and 13 May. The crux here, however, is that even though the mandatory exclusion from the Holy Eucharist was deemed by Metropolitan Augoustinos the most painful measure ever taken in his decades-long service in Germany, at no point did he venture to challenge the state and its laws.
It must be noted that this attitude is not an exception, but rather, the paradigm; the difference between Diasporic Churches has mostly to do with the timing of the implementation of social distancing measures, which by and large depended on any given state, government, the conditions and the legislation thereof. That was above and beyond the control of the churches that complied with the corresponding regulations. This general attitude seeks to reposition this discourse from the ‘antithesis of mutually exclusives’ to a ‘permissive synthesis’ that allows room for both worldviews and, in short, emanates from the church’s obedience to the state while firmly reserving the right to disagree as regards the fundamentals of the faith.
Yet again, I should reiterate that the aforementioned reconciliation of two diametrically different and seemingly incompatible perceptions of being is a difficult exercise indeed. But it is important to stress that there has been no confrontation with state authorities and the Holy Eucharist itself did not become the object of dispute between faith and reason. I wish to repeat and thereby emphasise that to be tempted to debate the sanctity and efficacy of the Holy Eucharist is, ultimately, to render it disputable. Hence, any amicable concession on behalf of the Diasporic Churches, in line with the EPoC, did not compromise their integrity as they steered clear of intransigence, which would be futile anyway – not to mention, the potentially harmful publicity for Orthodoxy’s reputation.
Georgios E. Trantas is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at Aston University, School of Social Sciences and Humanities.