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March 12, 2020

Number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts: 108

Faith-Based Organizations Should Consider Modifying Certain Practices to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19

Religious organizations have a mixed record during pandemics. On the one hand, as believers in a higher power, their adherents tend to feel that praying to that power (or powers) is the best medicine—which has been demonstrably false on numerous occasions throughout human history. On the other hand, many religious people have been willing to put their lives on the line to care for others during major health crises. So far be it from me to point the finger of blame at religion as a negative force in times of trouble. However, like any other human institutions religious groups make bad decisions. And we’re seeing that happen now in the present pandemic with people continuing to fill large houses of worship weekly when the best medical science says that people need to avoid such gatherings if they want to avoid getting sick. Like the good folks of New Rochelle, NY recently placed on military lockdown because of an illness cluster that emerged after a service at a Jewish temple there.

But to make this kind of argument, it’s probably most appropriate to discuss how the Greek Orthodox Church—the branch of Christianity I was raised in—is approaching the rise of the coronavirus. Because I think they’re making the wrong call. And since the Church believes I’m a member until I die; I have some standing to make a criticism—even if I feel that I left the fold long ago precisely over issues like this one.Before I do so, please take a look at this statement on the Church’s position dated yesterday March 11, 2020:

Communique from the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding COVID-19 Ανακοίνωση από το Οικουμενικό Πατριαρχείο για τον Covid-19



The Holy and Great Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, convened under the presidency of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and among other issues, thoroughly deliberated upon the events of the COVID-19 (Corona) virus and with a feeling of pastoral responsibility, points out the following:

1) Despite the seriousness of the situation, prudence, patience, and the avoidance of panic are advised.

2) The Church has and continues to respect medical science. Thus, the Church recommends that all the faithful adhere to the official directives of both the World Health Organization and the pertinent pronouncements and legal regulations issued by the civil authorities of their respective countries.

3) The Ecumenical Patriarchate expresses its gratitude to all those working self-sacrificially within all health, medical, nursing, and research fields in order that this new pandemic be confronted and treated.

4) The Mother Church of Constantinople knows empirically from its two-thousand-year existence that Holy Communion is “the antidote to mortality” and remains firm in its Orthodox teaching regarding the Holy Eucharist.

5) It is considered self-evident that faith in God, as transcendence and not as the abolition of human reason, along with prayer strengthen the spiritual battle of every Christian. Therefore, the Mother Church of Constantinople urges its spiritual children throughout the world to intensify their petitions so that, strengthened and illumined by God, this contemporary tribulation may be overcome.

11 March 2020
From the Chief Secretariat
of the Holy and Sacred Synod

The first three points are fine. But the last two are definitely not. Basically, the Church fathers are maintaining that the Church should continue business as usual. Holding regular public services that typically attract larger numbers of people on Sundays. And giving out communion—which is held in a chalice containing a very tasty sweet dessert wine and small pieces of bread.

In every individual Greek Orthodox church toward the end of every service, a priest dispenses spoonfuls of this mixture (representing the blood and body of Jesus Christ) to each person who wants it in turn. The spoon is wiped on a cloth after each penitent partakes. The priest then drinks the rest of the liquid in the chalice when the last person has received communion.

Which is a perfect means of transmitting coronavirus from anyone in the communion line that has it to anyone that doesn’t—and to the priest himself. Who can then transmit it to other parishioners at subsequent services.

Many other religious organizations have similar sharing rituals, and all religious organizations have regular large gatherings. So I think it’s important for those faith-based groups to consider temporarily modifying their practices while the coronavirus pandemic is active. Finding ways to worship in smaller groups and online. And changing rituals like communion so that people aren’t sharing the virus directly and significantly accelerating the spread of COVID-19 in the process.