Seeking Sanctuary from Covid at an Orthodox Western Rite Parish

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Reflections

Editor's Note: The following article first appeared on the Orthodox Reflections website, discussing the experiences of some Orthodox Christians, who have been fleeing the radical changes a number of American churches have made in response to COVID.

The authors of this article found a safe haven in a particular Orthodox church, which is responding to COVID in a refreshingly different way.

Even though contributors here are normally GOA and OCA, lately we have been in exile at a Western Rite parish in a nearby, rural county. The parish is keeping some pews empty for social distancing, but otherwise things are very normal. No masks, no gloves, altar servers,  no sign up sheets, lots of smiles, kiss an icon if you feel like it, and a nice time chatting with the priest after each liturgy. It is practically normal at a time when our regular parishes are anything but normal.

All of us converted as adults and have raised cradle Orthodox children in Eastern Rite jurisdictions. While this parish is actually half the driving distance of our regular parishes, none of us had ever been there prior to the Covid-19 craziness. It has taken some adjustment, but our exile is going well so far.

All of us have written letters asking the GOA and the OCA bishops to come up with plans for resuming normal operations. All of us have received replies that boil down to, “If you don’t care about yourself think of others, and out of love for others do the extra thing that we need to do.” Evidently, the liturgy is just too dangerous not to take serious precautions. We must all comply, lest we endure a 1 in 19.1 million chance of dying.

The Western Rite Parish has the blessing of its bishop to operate without most of the restrictions present in other jurisdictions. Evidently His Grace and the parish priest don’t seem to have a case of Covid hysteria. The priest has even said as much in more than one sermon. We are certain that he and his bishop love their flock (of which we are currently a part) as much as any other Orthodox clergy love theirs.

Perhaps going forward, GOA and OCA bishops will take under advisement that bishops of other jurisdictions do not agree with their restrictions either.

The normal atmosphere at the Western Rite parish is a blessing, and the all-English liturgy is greatly appreciated. While cradle Orthodox from non-Greek families are used to liturgical Greek, they aren’t necessarily thrilled by it. The parents have noticed that the kids follow the service better without the long stretches in a foreign language. Our time there is also a welcome respite from the common spoon controversy in the GOA.

For those who have not attended, the Western Rite administers communion completely differently from the Eastern Rite. The priest dips a communion wafer in wine, and then places it directly in the mouth of the communicant.  There is no spoon, and so no controversies over one spoon versus multiple spoons, drop the communion in the mouth versus bite down, and wipe the mouth on the cloth versus wipe the mouth on a napkin.

As a group, our contributors have taken a very hard line on the common spoon issue. It might then seem strange that we would so readily accept a completely different method of receiving communion. The truth is that the Western Rite was using this method long before we entered the door. Liturgical diversity has been the norm for most of Church history. The historical reasons for the existence and use of the Orthodox Western Rite were evaluated and accepted by the various Orthodox national churches free from the influence of any disease-induced “hysteria.” The Western Rite, therefore, is just as Orthodox as any Divine Liturgy celebrated in the GOA or OCA.

Communion via a common spoon is the tradition of the Eastern Rite. As Faithful Orthodox Christians, we see absolutely no reason to change the method of receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord in the Eastern Rite. We feel that the spoon is safe, and that attempts to change communion could be part of broader agenda intent on introducing other changes to the faith.

On a side note, if you are Orthodox and object to the common spoon, perhaps you might be more at home in the Western Rite?

We are fortunate that this parish can offer us a warm and welcoming home in this time of restrictions. One of the older teenagers went recently to the the GOA parish in which he was raised. Arriving 20 minutes early with his catechumen girlfriend, he was already too late to get into the church due to limited seating. They watched the liturgy in the social hall on TV while sweating into their masks in the Florida heat. After receiving communion, they were quickly shooed out the door. We asked them later how it was. The response was, “Weird.”

Next Sunday, the two of them will be back with the rest of us at the Western Rite parish. Despite initial resistance, the young man has decided that the Western Rite is less strange than the changes in his home parish.

Our children miss the classes and the social groups at the bigger parishes in which they have been raised. Plus, for them Eastern Rite is simply normal, even the Greek-language parts, while the Western Rite is still a novelty. Truth be told, the parents feel the same way. Many of us have been Eastern Rite for over 20 years. Even though none of us came from liturgical churches (mostly Evangelical and some Seventh Day Adventist), at this point we can’t imagine our lives without the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

So we plan to go back to our “home” parishes someday. Our prayer is that the GOA and OCA bishops finally embrace science over hysteria and we can go back to normal by Fall at the latest. If the children are back in school, it is hard to see how the church could keep classes and social activities closed. It would be great to know that for certain, but no matter how much we ask, no plan for returning to normal is ever provided.

Obviously, we are quite fortunate in having a nearly normal option close by. Not everyone does. To further explore how parish restrictions are affecting families, we highly recommend reading this article Orthodox laity: The COVID directives to Orthodox Churches were WRONG

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