Home Antiochian Orthodox Church COVID Church closures Part II – In light of Christian history

COVID Church closures Part II – In light of Christian history

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In part I of this series, we began to examine the present issue of Church closures in the West – Europe and the United States in particular, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying illness, COVID-19. We tried to detach the hysteria and hype from this, and rather than make it a screed about the intrusion of the Dark Side upon the religious Christian right, we wanted to test current events against the following questions:

  1. Is this happening only to Christians, or to adherents of all religious groups?
  2. Is there any clear reason this is being done beyond the general “to keep everybody safe”?
  3. Why is it that Christians are obeying the secular authorities’ directives to close or restrict services?

We answered the first two questions quite fully (at least for now) in part I. The third question is where the problems begin; to refer to Part I briefly, we quoted from Lyman Stone’s piece in Foreign Policy (FP):

For Christians, it is better that we should die serving our neighbor than surrounded in a pile of masks we never got a chance to use.

And if we care for each other, if we share masks and hand soap and canned foods, if we “are our brother’s keeper,” we might actually reduce the death toll, too.

This statement is deeply intrinsic to Christian believers, even now, enough to have provoked a reaction across much of American social media, but in my view, this instinctive reaction is severely blunted no matter whether the pole is “We should not close the Churches!” or “We absolutely must obey the authorities and protect each other by not being around one another!”

The reason I say this is because these poles, as reflected on social networks, display hype and hysteria, neither of which are in line with the Christian response to crisis. Part of this of course must be in the nature of social networks themselves as the cesspools of thought we used to keep to ourselves and work out, lest others realize how foolish we were thinking. In a way, this quiet reserve was a matter of dignity or even pride, but it also energized us to take positive action. Now, those that comment are usually displaying their fears or judgements, but in neither case do we see signs of these people taking constructive action. They do get attention from other people in the socials but this also usually does not include any call to do anything more than wallow in one’s state of judgement or self-pity. This is a harsh statement, and hopefully the “real” life of these people is actually a lot more action-filled than the junkpile of thoughts and sentiments shown on Facebook for all to see.

A look into Christian history

The Christian response to plagues and other crisis historically was not to lament one’s plight on social networks. Borrowing from Kenneth Berding’s piece “How Did Early Christians Respond to Plagues?”, there is a reference from yet another work, Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and it has the following to say (we edited a bit for brevity, but please consider reading in full):

In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire… During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, a quarter to a third of the population probably died of it. At the height of the epidemic, mortality was so great in many cities that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who subsequently died of the disease) wrote of caravans of carts and wagons hauling out the dead. Then, a century later came another great plague. Once again the Greco-Roman world trembled as, on all sides, family, friends, and neighbors died horribly. No one knew how to treat the stricken. Nor did most people try. During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. But for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles. In a pastoral letter written during the second epidemic (ca. 251)…

We also used a deeper reference from another piece, Glen Scrivener’s “Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History” to amplify what comes next:

…Bishop Dionysius described events in Alexandria:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

“At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape”….

As for action, Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives!… It is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds! The fact that most stricken Christians survived did not go unnoticed, lending immense credibility to Christian “miracle working.” Indeed, the miracles often included pagan neighbors and relatives. This surely must have produced some conversions, especially by those who were nursed back to health.

We again step out of the quote for a moment to point at what is next: This point, while pragmatic, also underlines one of the basic problems that seems to be taking place this time:

In addition, while Christians did nurse some pagans, being so outnumbered, obviously they could not have cared for most of them, while all, or nearly all, Christians would have been nursed. Hence Christians as a group would have enjoyed a far superior survival rate, and, on these grounds alone, the percentage of Christians in the population would have increased substantially as a result of both plagues.

What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians… Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” But there was little or no response to Julian’s proposals because there were no doctrines and no traditional practices for the pagan priest to build upon…. Christians believed in life everlasting. At most, pagans believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so. Faith mattered.

Taken from the Webcast of the Divine Liturgy at St Symeon Orthodox Church, Birmingham, Alabama, April 5, 2020.

This is a stunning slap in the face to many of us who have become so secularized that now that a relatively minor plague is upon us, the whole world becomes shuttered. By currently available information, this is a plague, but it is relatively minor contrasted with the ones listed above. Now, to be sure, neither Rodney Stark nor Kenneth Berding make any reference to the matter of religious services during times of plague. We have to look a bit farther.

In the 1850’s, Charles Spurgeon was serving as pastor for the New Park Street Chapel in London during the cholera epidemic. He described the response of people to the plague he was witness to:

If there ever be a time when the mind is sensitive, it is when death is abroad. I recollect, when first I came to London, how anxiously people listened to the gospel, for the cholera was raging terribly. There was little scoffing then.

And when he visited a dying man, who had been part of his parish opposition, this is what Pastor Spurgeon reported:

That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips.

So there are two takeaways here: One, that people were going to Church, apparently MORE and with greater attentiveness. Two, that impending death is a great aid to humility and hopefully, repentance.

To date, most of the Orthodox Christian jurisdictions in the United States have gone public with the idea that self-isolation, deprivation from Holy Communion and the Divine Services is necessary, and indeed by implication, the only measure that can protect us from the virus.

Yet, the coronavirus plague (and it is a plague) is remarkably weak contrasted with past monsters such as the bubonic plague, cholera, Spanish Flu or smallpox. That is, unless there is something about COVID-19 that is more insidious than these. There is nothing so far that has been reported to that effect. At the time of this writing I have feelers out to try to learn more about the nature of the threat from medical experts, but so far there has been no conclusive “this is why you MUST isolate!”

In all fairness, we must note two further things before going to the conclusion of this piece: First, self-isolation and the practice of keeping distance from others is likely to be quite helpful in controlling and exterminating the virus (unless it can pass to wildlife, particularly insects and birds, which themselves travel great distances and could spread the virus). To support the idea that isolation helps, the American COVID map shows the greatest concentration of COVID cases to be in New York, America’s second most densely populated city, but with the most-used subway and mass-transit system. For weeks, this city had people passing the virus to each other simply by standing sardine style in the subway system. Rural locales, by contrast, have very few cases reported, probably because “social distancing” is built in to the lives of many people in the country. Hopefully, this is a reliable bit of information on the viability of the coronavirus.

Second, part of the problem with the Church response to the coronavirus may be a certain lack of proper pastoral perspective. The message coming from the hierarchs of most of the American Orthodox Episcopal Assembly contains a message that, while well-meaning, creates the sense for some that they are being almost “thrown out” of church, because for the average American Orthodox Christian, receiving Holy Communion every week is extremely important, and right now, the clergy and the limited number of servers are receiving it but the laypeople are barred from it. This does not seem fair to the laypeople, and so there is a tension between understanding the instruction as “we are trying to help, and this is how we think we can do it” and “we CAN and you CAN’T”.

The Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Antioch, located in Damascus, Syria, thus far has given the best response of all the people in this “don’t go to Church” camp.

In Wichita, Kansas, Antiochian Orthodox Bishop Basil Essey, a monastic himself, decided to abstain from Holy Communion during the course of this action. In his own words (emphasis added):

This Friday evening we conclude the Forty-Day Fast and, after a brief respite for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, we begin the final days of the Great Fast with the keeping of Great and Holy Week in preparation for the Glorious Pascha. Like our Christ-loving laity, I too have been keeping the “penance” of imposed absence from divine services and the most precious and holy Eucharist, and “with faith and longing” look forward to the day when we may together return to our holy temples and draw near to the chalice “with fear of God, and faith and love.” Why have I done this? First and foremost to share in the “exile” being endured by our people and, secondly, to make it clear that refraining from going to the church temple and approaching the Holy Eucharist is not a matter of the clergy being permitted to do so while the laity are not. May the words of my favorite Scriptural verse (Psalm 30:5b) be our encouragement: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” May that morning come quickly!

And the Patriarchate further adds some sensibility to its position (emphasis and formatting added):

Beloved Children

As you know, we have been committed to halting church services, and we have requested from you to abide by these general measures taken by the whole world and to stay at home. Our previous directives came in the context of our great concern for the physical, mental and spiritual safety of each one of you, as a way to incarnate our communities’ evangelical love concerned for the safety of each human being in the world, and as a sign of ourcommitment to the social measures taken by the official authorities for the safety of all.

These unusual measures come in the midst of our holy Lenten journey to Pascha. These measures increase our longing to the Holy Eucharist and to the common participation in prayers and supplications in our churches. It is a rightful longing that is held by us as a “mystery” of sonship.

However, our Church, whose history testifies to its several harsh episodes in which her children and saints were displaced, has remained gathered alive, following the concerns of her people. The Church is present in the prayers of her children, who associate themselves closely with the words of the Holy Scripture and form temples with their kneeling bodies a holy sacrifice on the Lord’s altar. Therefore, the first thing we invite you to contemplate these feelings, and to abide by the Divine joy which no suffering can impede.

You are called to do this through intensifying your daily prayers and reading of the Bible,  writings and lives of the Holy Fathers, and everything that makes your houses “little churches” filled with entreaties and prayers, while remembering that the “Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Beloved, lift up one another to the Lord, and pray for the whole world, for the sick, wounded, needy, displaced, kidnapped, and all the victims.

Pray for all scientists and physicians, for all nurses who are working to help people out of this tribulation. Pray for the workers and janitors, for those who keep the security and regulations, and for all those unknown soldiers that work for your well-being and social safety, who are endangering their lives in order to provide you with the basic necessities of life.

Pray for your shepherds.

See Christ in the needy and in all those who are suffering from these circumstances. Share your bread and your goods with them. Protect yourself from all fear and panic, remembering that you are the children of the Creator of life, Who said: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20). In doing this, you are the one gathered Church, longing to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church that the Lord desires, and in which He is pleased today.

Make out of your time, the time of confinement and staying at home, a desert of repentance and longing to Holy Communion, and an “acceptable time” to work for the Lord and for the neighbor (2 Cor. 6:2). Endure this stage in light of the experience of monastics who went out to the desert in the beginning of Great Lent, in order to focus on prayer and repentance, and to fuel the longing for the meeting of the brothers and sisters at the Risen Christ’s feast.

This comes from Syria, a nation whose Christians have suffered nightmarish persecution in recent years until Russia moved in to protect them.

So, is it right to close the Churches or is it wrong?

With history acting as our guide, it appears that this present move is certainly out of step with the experience of the Orthodox Christian Church. Now, to be sure, many, in fact, most of the Christian readers here are probably not members of the Orthodox Church, but instead belong to traditions and confessions which do not take the same points of view that we do – that Holy Communion truly IS the Body and Blood of Christ, and that miracles do still happen, and that there are such things as holy objects and holy space. So, this message is mostly pointed at Orthodox Christians but it could apply to anyone who takes Christ and His life and the Gospels in the way an ancient Christian understood Him and them – as completely trustworthy. For those of us who have this view, the notion of closing churches to the laity seems just wrong. So far, I have not been able to locate an historical precedent for doing this. During the Bubonic Plague, many priests met their death serving and helping the sick. I have found no reference to actually closing churches in order to protect people from the plague, though, in all likelihood, many churches were probably closed because their clergy died, so there was no one to perform the services. Perhaps this present move is meant to be proactive, with the Orthodox Christian clergy isolating themselves so as to offer prayer in behalf of the people. However, something still seems wrong about this.

Believe it or not, there is a part III to this series. In it, we probably will deal the harshest truth of all, because the reason for why the closures are in effect is something that could have been different, can still be different, but does not seem to be changing as it could.

Stay tuned. If you read this far, congratulations! You have done something fewer and fewer people seem to do anymore.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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