Such conversations occur quite rarely in a 2,000-year-old institution such as the Orthodox Christian Church, known for its continuity and adherence to traditions. But that doesn’t mean that Orthodox Christianity hasn’t changed or adapted at the time.
Years ago, the Orthodox Christian Church stuck firmly to the doctrine that paying or charging interest on a loan was a mortal sin. Divorce was out of the question. Even the “mixing of families” when separated spouses met new companions was prohibited. Holy Communion was served to the faithful from a single common cup directly into the mouth. And inter-church marriages were strictly prohibited.
But as society changed, so did the Church. Who doesn’t use a credit card today? Parishes even accept them for donations. Divorce is common and divorced people are allowed to remarry. The Church also changed its rules and allowed the faithful to marry non-Orthodox Christians from “approved” Christian traditions. And for a thousand years, Communion has been served with a spoon.
These changes did not happen overnight. In some cases, it took centuries to become the established practice of Orthodox Christianity – but they started out of necessity and pastoral sensitivity – a concept called “economics” in the Orthodox Christian tradition. And they’ve all brought about a major change in the doctrine of the church and the way things are done.
The Orthodox Church may very well know the start of a similar seismic change.
The Orthodox Church of Finland has been using single-use bamboo spoons for over a month, and the Church of Romania has plans to adopt a similar model. But Archbishop Elpidophoros of America – who is the exarch – or representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in America – has intensified the Church’s conversation about how to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful.
This is the first time in 1,000 years that a conversation like this has taken place.
In a directive sent to priests in parishes in New York over which he has direct ecclesiastical authority, Archbishop Elpidophoros instructed priests to use single-use metal spoons to distribute Holy Communion.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a complex problem for Orthodox Christian churches serving their most important sacrament from a common spoon and cup.
On the one hand, the Churches must maintain the fundamental belief and the principle of the Church that the wine and the bread become the body and the blood of Jesus Christ during a special part of the Divine Liturgy.
But on the other hand, Church officials were in a difficult position to protect their followers from a virus that spreads person-to-person through microscopic droplets.
The Archdiocese of America has launched a strategic education campaign for its faithful that tells the story of the use of the communion spoon. The campaign also reminds worshipers that this is a relatively new practice.
In a widely distributed article, theologian P. Alkiviadis C. Calivas traces the history of the use of the spoon and reminds the faithful that it is a relatively recent innovation.
“Prior to the 11th / 12th century, everyone, the clergy and the people, received the Holy Gifts separately, as the clergy still do today,” writes Calivas. “When the people approached, they stretched out their hands, from right to left with open palms, on which the priest placed a portion of the Holy Bread. After consuming the bread, the communicants were offered the cup by the deacon.
It’s unclear whether other metropolitan people in the United States – who rule their own regions – will follow the Archbishop’s lead in using single-use metal spoons.
In a report in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Metropolis of Pittsburgh says it will not incorporate single-use spoons, opting instead for a different method of serving communion.
Archdiocesan directives have said it will remain a temporary measure as churches overcome the pandemic and life returns to normal.
But the mere fact that a high-ranking ruler of one of the world’s largest Orthodox jurisdictions – a ruler whose roots come directly from Constantinople, considered the “thought leader” for world orthodoxy – educated priests to use single-use spoons, speaks volumes for the prospects in a potentially new and practical way in which the Church meets the needs of contemporary society, as it has done in the past.
John G. Panagiotou, theologian and professor at Erskine Theological Seminary and Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary, called this period a “defining period” in the Orthodox Church.
“What we are seeing in 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is once again a defining period in the history of Orthodox Christianity in which the liturgical practice of the common communion spoon is now seriously debated after a thousand years of standardized use, ”said Panagiotou. “The importance of this is more than the ability of the Orthodox Churches to adapt to the socio-cultural pastoral concerns that they have made repeatedly in their history. What this discussion has sparked today is the new articulation in very real terms of his essential belief in the nature of the Eucharist itself in relation to the balance of faith and science. Either way, it will shape ecclesiological understanding for generations to come, ”Panagiotou concluded.
George E. Demacopoulos, co-director of the Center for Orthodox Christian Studies and professor of theology at Fordham University, agreed that the adaptation proposed by Archbishop Elpidophoros “is consistent with how the Church has historically responded to the circumstances. changing “.
“There is nothing theologically significant about the use of a common spoon or a single-use spoon for the distribution of the Holy Eucharist. None of the early theologians who developed our theology of the Eucharist used spoons themselves – this was a further development born out of practical consideration, ”Demacopoulos told the Pappas Post.
“The theological significance lies in the belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, the adaptation proposed by Archbishop Elpidophoros is consistent with how the Church has historically responded to changing circumstances, ”concluded Demacopoulos.
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