Why the Greek Orthodox refuse to give up Communion in times of coronavirus

The spoon of patriotism: why the Greek Orthodox are refusing to give up Communion in times of coronavirus (and are making it political)

I will begin with a personal anecdote. After a lindy hop dance lesson I went with a small group of friends and lindy hop amateurs to a Cretan restaurant near our dance school. Unlike other nights, we were the only customers of the restaurant because the coronavirus fear had begun to make itself felt.

Although we danced an American dance with African origins, we all had very common first names, such as George, John, George, Chrysoula (a more popular form of the name Christina, the Greek equivalent of Christine) and Nektarios – a more sonorous name with impeccable Christian Orthodox credentials, since it was the name of an early 20th century Orthodox saint who was a Greek citizen and a somewhat public figure that has a big church dedicated to him in the island of Aigina near Athens, visited by numerous pilgrims some of whom offer generous donations.

No foreign or ancient Greek names among our company that could raise the suspicions of traditionalists. Naturally our conversation focused on the question of the day; whether receiving Holy Communion in the traditional Greek Orthodox manner – that is from a common chalice and through a common spoon – posed a danger of transmission of coronavirus to the faithful and through them to the general population.

As our conversation unfolded the innate beliefs of each one of us began to manifest themselves.

Nektarios said that everyone should stick to his professional competence, therefore priests should not dictate issues of public health, as he could not ask a priest to conduct a mass instead of him.

John retorted that experience has never shown that priests who are obliged to consume the remains of Holy Communion with same same spoon used by all the faithful fell ill although many of them served in hospitals or even leper colonies.

He continued by pointing out that the political circles who question standard Church practice are the same as those that question the firm stance of the current government concerning the neccesity of safeguarding the Evros border against the pressure exercised by Turkey through the political instrumentalization of refugees and immigrants.

The owner of the restaurant told him that by insisting on the safety of Holy Communion he was jeopardizing the health of old people who blindly follow whatever the Church tells them.  The issue remained unresolved.

*

This non-fiction story gives a glimpse of why the Greek Orthodox Church  diverts from the European mainstream in its insistence on conducting Masses that require the physical presence of the faithful and to retain its traditional practice for offering Holy Communion.

But why has a topic that should seemingly interest only the faithful motivated secularist intellectuals, mainstream politicians, religious zealots and atheist ideologues to express their opinions, turning this seemingly arcane matter to a topic of national public debate?

The Greek Orthodox Church considers itself the mother of the Greek people who in their overwhelming majority are supposed to adhere to its creed.

Therefore, any way of questioning the manner in which the creed is manifested in everyday liturgical life – and the Eucharist is the most important manifestation of that life – is perceived by some as a questioning of the faith itself.

But if the faith is not totally valid then the institution that embodies it, the Church, is in doubt.

Since the Church is the mother of the nation, national integrity is at stake. Issues of social cohesion and national loyalty and allegiance and even national defence spring up.

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The political elites and the intellectuals do not believe in such things. But unlike Western Europeans, they live in a country where people believe or think they believe in such things.

Politicians and intellectuals do not like the fact that they have been born in the Balkans and wish to be transformed into Europeans, French or Germans, preferably.

The hope is that if the nomenclature of the European Union kisses them they will be transformed from toads to princes. They feel that what mainly separates them from their -elder- European brothers is the Orthodox Church.

Their problem is that their political clientele, the Greek people, still has some Orthodox references, although not always consciously and in a heartfelt manner.

The real feeling of the elites towards their electorate is very well-described by photograph currently circulating on the Internet of a Tyrannosaurus with huge feet, big teeth and very small hands accompanied by the words: “He did not wash his hands – he became extinct”.

They do not express their disdain towards what they consider popular prejudice freely though. But sometimes they do; take a look at the following comment by Stefanos Kasimatis, a columnist of Kathimerini, the flagship of the centre-right quality newspapers:

“It is ridiculous that in the year 2020 we are afraid to question the authority of religion when human life itself is on other part of the scales”.

He continues in a sarcastic manner: “They [the faithful – ed.] should buy single-use spoons from the Church itself! Blessed spoons which they should be able to keep at home afterwards. And- why not- very nice collections of them may be assembled”.

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Such frankness is not that common, but it gives a glimpse of the real feelings of the Greek establishment towards the Greek Orthodox Church otherwise perceived as a useful ally in the maintainance of the political and social status quo.

I do not envy the least the predicament of the Orthodox hierarchy which has to coexist with people that consider it as a serviceable dispenser of fairy tales for the masses.

The disdain of their political sponsors does not prevent the Orthodox bishops from proclaiming the richness and salvific monopoly of their faith.

Witness, for example, the words of the Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki Nikolaos, a graduate of Harvard and MIT reported by the ultraconservative religious weekly The Orthodox Press:

“Is it possible that the Body and Blood of our Lord and God, could pollute our body and our blood? Is it possible that the everyday experience of two thousand years could be smashed by the rationalism and the cold superficiality of our times?

“The fact that Anglicans and Catholics have decided, for preventive reasons, to interupt the offering of Holy Communion… does not show, as some people claim, prudence and freedom, but points out in the surest manner possible, the huge distance of our Church, which is Eucharistic in its theology and life – which lives, believes and preaches the Mystery – from the other Christian groupings, who indirectly confess the absence of grace and the signs of God from their so- called mysteries and the loss of their ecclesial identity.

“A life without mystery is like a disease without medicine”.

*

Not all Orthodox hierarchs believe those things. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archbishropic of America issued statements that were balanced or even lukewarm.

It is not by chance that the people who feel closer to the fervent words of Metropolitan Nikolaos than to the measured declarations of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of America are the same people who believe that the ties cultivated by the heads of those two most important Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdictions with the U.S. establishment are closer and more intense than they should be.

The wise know that societies – and the Church, which is also a society (although a societas perfecta according to its self-understanding) – are held together when their constituent parts adhere to what the French describe as “vérités moyennes”, that is tenets commonly considered as true by the average members of a given society, preventing them from following their own particular way and resulting in a social reality of mutually hostile and self-referential units, a situation described by another French word in vogue “communautarisme”.

Is it possible that intransingent attitudes might command the adherence of the majority or that only broad Churches can survive in the long run?

The attitude espoused by some Greek Othodox bishops, clergy and faithful reminds me of a metaphor that the foremost English-speaking vaticanist John Allen made in his book about Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic group.

Think of the Greek Orthodox Church instead of Opus Dei when you are reading the following text from the introduction of Allen’s book:

“In an era when the beer market is crowded with ‘diet’ this and ‘lite’ that, Guinness Extra Stout cuts the other way. It makes no apologies for either its many calories or its high alcohol content. It packs a frothy, bitter taste that has been compared by some wags to drinking motor oil with a head.

“Precisely because it resists faddishness, it enjoys a cult following among purists who respect it because it never wavers. Of course, if you think it tastes awful, its consistency may not be its greatest selling point. Yet while Extra Stout may never dominate the market, it will always have a loyal constituency”.

I experienced secondary education in a rather elitist private school called “Anatolia College”. It had been created by American Protestant missionaries in Asia Minor and then relocated in Thessaloniki because of some sad conjectures in the history of 20th-century Hellenism.

For six years I was in the same class with another pupil coming from a poorer background than me who had to try to renew his scholarship every year because his family could not afford the fees. He had a fine mind and was very successful both in the exact sciences and the humanities. He was offered a scholarship by Harvard University. All that happened years ago.

Since then many things have happened and I now live in Athens and not in Thessaloniki were I had spent my schooldays and university years. I started revisiting Thessaloniki a couple of years ago.

My first visit after a considerable absence was made in order to attend his ordination as a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Church. Technically he belongs to the Archdiocese of America but he wanted to be ordained close to his birthplace and in the presence of his parents

A few days ago, I read a text on his Facebook page in which he defended the traditional Orthodox way of receiving the Holy Communion based on experience and faith. I have been for six years in the same class with him and I know for sure that he is smarter than I am.

Ieronymos the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and all Greece has stated that the Church does not “count the faith”, δεν εχει πιστόμετρο were his words in Greek, which is not correct Greek but a word he coined himself and means aproximately “faithmeter” as thermometer, and manifests the political sophistication of the Archbishop and his mastery of the political jargon; the first time I heard something similar was from Lianna Kanellis, a prominent Greek political journalist and MP for the Greek Communist Party who had used the word αριστερόμετρο, meaning a machine that counts how left-wing one is.

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It is not by chance that the aforementioned Kathimerini columnist Stefanos Kasimatis has recently written that the Communist Party has a lot to learn from the Church, as a start-up has a lot to learn from a giant corporation; he was comparing them in terms of the duration of their historical existence.

He also implied the loyalty they demand from their members and their messianic zeal.

The Archbishop also said that the priests do not keep a record of how often the faithful attend mass. He knows, though, that church attendance and participation as well as reception of the Holy Communion will from now on function as an informal referendum and an indication of whether the Greek people still adhere to a traditional conception of their national identity or whether they will accept that it will melt within the European and globalized mainstream.

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I draw this conclusion from two recent conversations I had, one by telephone and the other face-to-face. The first was with a professor of mine from Anatolia College who taught me history as a young pupil and whom I respect greatly and contact regularly to discuss politico-religious affairs.

He said that that some people demand the total stopping of the liturgical life of the Church – something that has never happened before – treat it as if it were a shop. His actual term was bouzouktzidiko, meaning a place where a form of popular music and song is performed, a way of having fun, particular to Greece, which carries a negative meaning for many people because it is considered a cheapening and possibly unbecoming and insubstancial form of entertainment.

His point was that there is a tendency to trivialize the Church.

The other conversation was with the owner of a cafeteria in the centre of Athens who is also a personal friend. She said that when she was younger she always received the Holy Communion in St. Panteleimon, one of the largest churches in the Balkans, before Good Friday and she never fell ill.

Obviously among the large congregation frequenting that chuch some must have been ill but their illness was never transmitted to her despite the common spoon. She added that global capitalism strives to abolish all national and religious identities and turn us all to passive consumers.

*

I think therefore that many of the people who are going to attend mass and receive Holy Communion in Greece in the next days will do so in order to make a political statement.

They may subscribe to the following reasoning developed by the conservative American Christian  Rod Dreher:

“[The faithful – ed.] have two common enemies: On one side, a militant secularism that wishes to eliminate religion entirely. And on the other, a fanatical form of Islam that seeks a barbaric theocracy”.

Rod Dreher, who has converted to Orthodoxy, in his best-seller The Benedict Option: a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation, expounded the idea that by embracing their minority status, Christians can revive their faith.

He spoke for Western Europe and North America. In Greece the Constitution stipulates in the beginning of the first paragraph of article 3 which is concerned with the relations of Church and State that: “The prevailing religion in Greece is the religion of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ”. 

The leftist SYRIZA government which wanted to change article 3, which it considered anachronistic, lost the last general election.

Of course, written law does not correspond necessarily with social realities. I quote from Facebook to display the bitterness many practicing Christians felt when their way of life came under public scrutiny as unhealthy both in a metaphorical and a litteral sense:

“That we have abandoned Christ is well-known. That when we hear about Christ we break out in pimples is also known. That we make fun of those who believe and that we treat them more or less as mentally retarded is something we have come to terms with, from years ago.

“Let us not discuss how our children are treated. Sort of the idiots of the neighborhood in a way! And if they understand that they fast – you have to watch this!

“But if you say that you are a vegan then everybody respects you and goes out his way to find solutions about what you shall eat! You see a vegan has prestige [in English in the original Greek text – ed.]… It is different to declare yourself a vegan and different to declare yourself Greek Orthodox, the latter harbors a hint of “second-classness”, of lack of education, doesn’t it?”

“But brothers, you have spoken your mind, you declared you opinion loudly, you have made it known through a thousand and two ways.

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“Do not seek to impose it also. Leave us, us the stupid, the under-developed, the naive, to believe in Christ and to receive through Holy Communion His Body and His Blood.

“And you, do not touch us. Do not come into our homes. Do not keep us company. Do not come in contact with us. Preserve your health. We simply believe in Him and lay our life onto his hands. So simple as that”.

Such bitterness! Is it a case of “narcissism of petty differences” as Freud called them, when one group exacerbates minor differences with another so as to assert its identity and superiority?

Is it similar to the story that the psychotherapist and Orthodox priest Father Filotheos Faros told me in one of his public seminars (when public gatherings were still possible) about the funeral of the wife of a cousin he had attended and the comrades of his cousin were enraged because he as a communist was chatting with an Orthodox priest?

Is it similar to my experience as a young pupil  in Thessaloniki when, because I was born in Athens and supported a Southern Greek football team, I was bullied by an older pupil who threatened to burn me with his cigarette if I did not sing the praises of the most popular Thessaloniki team?

*

I hear the the objections of angry Orthodox Christians: how you can equate the differences in the manner of conducting the Eucharist with trivial differences between rival political parties or even worse football clubs? I don’t.

But there is an issue of tribal feeling and belonging here that nobody can deny.

I quote from the book The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity-Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Country by the apostle of postmodern co-existence New York university Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah:

“Human beings are prone to making new religious communities, as they are to defining their own by contrast to other ones.

“‘You are not doing it right’ is a powerful sentiment.

“There’s an old joke about a Jewish man shipwrecked on a desert island. Over the decades he builds three buildings. When he’s found, his rescuers ask him what they are. ‘This is my house. This is the synagogue I go to’. And this, he says finally, ‘this is the synagogue I don’t go to'”.

As the controversy about the refugees and immigrants at the Evros border, the subsequent controversy about the way to receive or not receive Holy Communion and attend Mass in the coronavirus era has for many people a political rather than a religious, humanistic or medical character.

Political identities have very much to do with dividing humans into friends and enemies.

Therefore the debate inside Greece will have much to do with the division of citizens into “Patriots” and “Traitors”.

Despite the injunction of Jesus to the Pharisees, the things of God and of Caesar remain inextricably linked.

Next on Novena:

European Bishops pray for deliverance from coronavirus as continental Churches increase precautions… with exceptions

Orthodox Churches hold out on COVID-19 bans, insist Communion cannot transmit virus

More of Athens correspondent George Karpouzas’ insightful analysis on Novena:

Opinion/analysis: Is invoking Catholic ‘fraternity’ enough to counter xenophobia?

Opinion/analysis: Greek Orthodoxy is not open enough to lend a hand to refugees

Novena reader feedback: Greek Orthodox Church takes very different perspective on Turkey refugee crisis… here’s why

What do French Catholics fear the most? The far right

‘La Manif pour tous’: the coming-out of French conservatism

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George Karpouzas

George Karpouzas is a Greek lawyer and journalist who lives in Athens. A contributor to the internet and print editions of The Books’ Journal (TBJ) – a monthly magazine covering political, social and literary topics in modern Greece – Karpouzas has a keen interest in the political and social aspects of organised religion, Church-State relations and news.