A heated debate has resurfaced in Greece over a spoon.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, one single utensil is used to administer the Holy Communion to the entire congregation. Churchgoers line up, and one by one, the priest spoon-feeds them wine and bread, which represent the blood and body of Jesus Christ. The mixture all comes out of the same cup, which the priest dips in and out of with the same spoon.
During a global health crisis, this mode of communion may seem like a bad idea. But not according to the Greek Orthodox Church.
As Greece was diagnosing its first COVID-19 cases in March, church leaders assured the public that the Holy Communion was safe and that no disease — including COVID-19 — could be transmitted through it.
“The 2,000-year history of the church allows us to say with certainty that germs do not thrive through Holy Communion.”
“The 2,000-year history of the church allows us to say with certainty that germs do not thrive through Holy Communion,” said Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas, a senior clergyman, during an interview on ERT TV in March.
But the bishop’s death earlier this month after he contracted COVID-19 has reignited the debate over communion and once again put the church on the defensive. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, was also hospitalized earlier this month after testing positive for COVID-19.
In a statement after the bishop’s death, the Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, wrote: “Some aspiring public leaders neurotically insist on engaging exclusively in Holy Communion and imposing unscientific correlations with the spread of the coronavirus, in defiance of epidemiological evidence.” It added, “We urge everyone not to indulge in the cultivation of social racism.”
While some have publicly criticized the church for being careless, many have been wary to antagonize what’s ultimately an extremely powerful institution in Greece — one that’s inseparable from the Greek identity.
Early into the pandemic, heated debates about the church’s response broke out on TV.
“The atheists can isolate themselves, they don’t have to join us,” said Adonis Georgiadis, a Cabinet member in the current New Democracy government during a TV panel. Georgiadis said he trusts the church and its judgment and questioned those criticizing it.
Today, there’s more information about the way the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads. The World Health Organization has listed saliva as a leading mode of transmission for the virus. In its most up-to-date guidance for faith communities, WHO recommends against distributing communion from a common cup.
And while church leaders have stressed safety and taking precautions, they maintain that communion is safe.
Even some epidemiologists have backed the church’s stance on communion. Appearing on a TV program earlier this month, Dr. Athina Linou, a well-known epidemiologist and professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said she wasn’t aware of any evidence that shows the virus can spread through the communion spoon.
“We can’t solve spiritual matters, matters of the Orthodox faith, with logic,” Linou said.
Many in Greek society have watched the church’s response since the beginning of the pandemic in horror.
Spyridoula Athanasopoulou-Kypriou, a theologian in Athens, said the way the church responded to the COVID-19 was “unacceptable.”
“It was a perfect chance to be proactive. To give alternatives, to find solutions, to educate people ... they failed.”
“It was a perfect chance to be proactive. To give alternatives, to find solutions, to educate people ... they failed,” she said.
In other parts of the Orthodox world, churches have taken extraordinary measures in response to the pandemic. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for example, instructed Greek Orthodox Churches in the US to use disposable spoons. In Romania, they allowed churchgoers to bring their own utensils from home. In Russia, they still use one common utensil but disinfect it after each use. In Ukraine, they started using a method called intinction — where the priest hands out individual wine-soaked pieces of bread to believers.
“I don’t understand why Greek hierarchy didn’t go for [an alternative] solution,” said theologian Athanasopoulou-Kypriou. “If they had done this, more people would go and have communion. So, I sometimes wonder: Do they really care about people? Do they really care about peoples’ spirituality?”
Other theologians have been troubled by the church’s stance on communion and the debate that ensued.
“It made no sense on any level,” said Sotiris Mitralexis, a theologian in Athens who has written two books on the Orthodox church.
The church’s claim about communion was not only scientifically questionable, he said, “but it didn’t make sense theologically as well. The promise that ... there are no viral infections at play is nothing that the Orthodox theology ever promised.”
But the hyperfocus on communion, he said, also diverted attention from other important questions about potentially risky behaviors inside churches.
“Even if the spoon, hypothetically, were not to be infectious in any way, you’re either way exposed to the possibility of infection by gathering in an enclosed space, by kissing icons,” Mitralexis said. “So, they were not actually discussing the issue which is: What are we going to do with the possibility of infection in the gathering that the churches are?”
The Greek government did impose some precautionary measures. During the first national lockdown that began in March, churches had to temporarily shut their doors. And when they opened, there were attendance limits — at one point, up to 100 people were allowed inside — and churchgoers had to wear masks and social distance.
On the whole, the church complied with these rules. Mitralexis said that at his church in the Athens area, he observed a level of compliance unparalleled to other parts of Greek society and that complied even with rules that went against its own teachings.
For example, he said, there were times the church had to turn people away from services after reaching capacity.
“This is a scandal for the church,” Mitralexis said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle for Orthodox churches worldwide, said Nicholas Denysenko, a professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana, and an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church of America.
“What is being asked of the church is antithetical to the way that it lives in the way that it exists,” Denysenko said. “It has adapted. It’s been forced to. But it’s a struggle, and that's understandable.”
In Greece, though, critics say, government regulations did not go far enough and the Greek Orthodox Church didn’t take any of its own initiative to protect the faithful.
The Holy Synod did not respond to The World’s request for an interview on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An outbreak following a church service
At the end of October, as COVID-19 cases in the country were rising, hundreds gathered inside and outside St. Demetrios church in Thessaloniki in northern Greece for services celebrating the city’s patron saint.
During an Oct. 26 service, which the church livestreamed, those in the pews can be seen wearing masks and keeping distances. But later, they took off their masks and walked around the church kissing icons and other objects considered holy.
In its guidance for faith communities, WHO advises against kissing or even touching common objects because “the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain on these surfaces for hours or days.”
The priests running the service did not wear masks or social distance. At least two of them, including Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas, later tested positive for COVID-19.
Within days, cases in Thessaloniki skyrocketed, and today, the region is the hardest hit in the country, which is now in its second lockdown as it grapples with record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths. Intensive care units throughout the country are nearly at capacity.
It’s impossible to say precisely how much events such as the St. Demetrios celebration contributed to the current situation in Greece. Compared to other nations, Greece doesn’t have a strong contract-tracing scheme in place.
“It’s a joke,” said Kostas Raptis, a journalist in Athens, of the country’s contact-tracing effort.
But critics and supporters of the church alike say it would be unfair to put the whole blame on the church. While people crowded churches and kissed icons, crosses and priests’ hands, buses were also full, and it was impossible to social distance. Bars and restaurants were packed, and people sat or stood in close proximity without masks. Schools were open for in-person education. And the country was open for tourism.
While churches are currently closed due to the lockdown, they could open as early as Dec. 14.
Athanasopoulou-Kypriou, the theologian in Athens, said she doesn’t expect the church to take a different course of action on communion and other issues.
“I don’t think they’re going to change their mind,” she said. “They had their chance and … they failed.”