ZOiS Spotlight 12/2020

The churches and the coronavirus crisis in Eastern Europe: Is faith the only protection?

by Regina Elsner 25/03/2020
A believer wearing a face mask during an evening mass at St. Peter's High Monastery in Moscow, Russia. © imago images / Sergei Bobylev / TASS

The coronavirus is no respecter of borders. Its lightning spread to all corners of the world presents politicians, societies and health systems with gargantuan challenges. The public response to the pandemic worldwide is partly dependent on the positions taken by their most trusted social institutions. Across much of Eastern Europe, this means the churches: largely due to the personal contact with their congregations, they play a very significant role in people’s lives, despite all the institutional conflicts. So how are the various Christian churches responding to these dramatic changes?

An existential challenge

The measures to contain the pandemic affect the churches in an existential sense: communal worship lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and regularly taking Holy Communion is the most important act of religious observance for the faithful, for it brings Christians together in healing fellowship with God. However, the act of receiving Communion involves close contact with the priest and other members of the congregation, and this is highly conducive to the spread of viruses. The same applies to the veneration – the kissing or, at least, the touching – of icons and relics.

In Western countries, the churches have responded to the pandemic by suspending all services and often closing their doors. This was accepted by the faithful – other than in a few ultra-conservative communities – without protest. One explanation for this muted reaction to such a radical curtailment of religious life is that in the West, faith has already largely moved to the private sphere. Although the virus-induced loss of opportunity to join in worship as an expression of Christian fellowship is painful, it does not challenge the nature of the church as a community.

Half-hearted measures

It is a very different situation in Eastern Europe. Here, none of the churches – from Poland’s Catholic Church to the numerous Orthodox Churches – has heeded the ban on public gatherings introduced by most governments. Some churches are holding more services each day to avoid overcrowding. In Lithuania, the use of holy water is now banned. The Georgian Orthodox Church has asked the government for help with disinfecting its premises. The Moscow Patriarchate has ordered the faithful in Russia and Ukraine to adopt specific hygiene practices when venerating icons and receiving the Eucharist. Only the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has called for services to be held behind closed doors and streamed online and for Communion to be received in the hand, not in the mouth with a common spoon.

All the churches say that the government-imposed restrictions on public life are necessary, but they also state that these measures do not apply to services and Holy Communion. Their message is clear: the sacred act of receiving bread and wine cannot transmit disease; on the contrary, the Eucharist is God’s gift to heal and cleanse us. Those who champion this belief say that there has never been a single case of disease transmission by the Holy Eucharist – not even in the pastoral care of patients with highly contagious illnesses. Admittedly, there is a lack of reliable research to substantiate this claim.

Restrictions: pros and cons

The reasons why the calls for drastic restrictions on church services are not being heeded are partly political. The fundamentalist factions which have gained considerable influence in many churches in recent years have no hesitation in threatening a breakaway whenever innovations are on the agenda. And in Russia, at least, the Church is at pains not to undermine the government’s efforts to downplay the pandemic.

But theology is also a factor. The Russian Orthodox Church’s refusal to modify any of the practices that lie at the heart of religious life can be partly explained by Russian ecclesiastical history. Reforms, especially those relating to the Divine Liturgy, have triggered existential crises within the Church on more than one occasion. What’s more, for many Eastern Europeans, any forced “privatisation” of faith is a painful reminder of the persecution of religion in the Soviet era. During social crises, the Church is a place of refuge, so a ban on worship is something that the faithful would never accept. And finally, the response to the pandemic also reinforces the belief that the Church is in some ways separate from society and its challenges and is therefore a safe haven where secular rules do not apply.

Yet there is potential for the churches to provide theological justification for the government-imposed measures. Abstinence from Communion during Lent could be presented as an occasion for prayerful reflection in preparation for Easter. The suspension of church services could be seen as a way to protect the weakest members of society and “love thy neighbour”. The Divine Liturgy should not be idolised, as the Orthodox liturgical studies expert Nicholas Denysenko has pointed out. After all, the rich hermit tradition in the Orthodox Church demonstrates that faith lived in solitude has its own intrinsic value.

Pandemic measures as “secularisation”?

Due to the steps that it has taken, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is already attracting accusations of secularisation from other Orthodox churches. The existential significance of communal worship and of Holy Communion is proving to be a highly contentious issue among the Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic faithful in the US as well. Both these developments indicate that some elements of the Churches worldwide are expressing their opposition to any form of alignment to the zeitgeist in the “liberal West” by rejecting secular strategies to combat the pandemic. Moreover, several church leaders even went as far as to draw a parallel between the coronavirus and gender-neutral education, homosexuality and general secularisation. Among them are Metropolitan Hilarion, the Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, Bishop Filaret (Denysenko) of the so-called Kyivan Patriarchate, Bishop Mark of the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany, and Cardinal Burke in Rome. In their view, only true faith offers protection against contagion with these worldly illnesses.

By a quirk of fate, two highly venerated relics are currently on display in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. The long queues of believers waiting to honour these relics make a mockery of the anti-virus measures being taken around the world. The same applies to the local processions that aim – and claim – to “pray away” the virus, some of which have attracted hundreds of participants. Church leaders must throw their full weight behind the government-imposed measures; instead of helping to inform the public about the virus, their current response creates space for conspiracy theories to flourish and leaves the faithful to deal with the apparent conflict between the spiritual and the secular worlds on their own.

Regina Elsner is a theologian and research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socio-ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.