Religious studies scholar, religious journalists, co-founder of Cerkvarium, Director of Religious Security Centre
In July 2021, the laymen of the OCU published a book entitled “The Phenomenon of Online Communion. Reflections. Polemics. Prospects”. This is a very controversial phenomenon that became publicly known in the OCU in 2020. It was a forced, even desperate attempt to maintain sacramental fellowship in the church during the horrific COVID-19 lockdown. After two Ukrainian priests publicly acknowledged the fact of holding the remote Eucharist, a wave of reaction arose - among priests, bishops and laity of various churches. These are important thoughts that it would be wrong and even “criminal” to ignore and bury.
The authors of the book, assuming criticism, rejection and even bullying, nevertheless took the risk to fix this controversy for history.
We are grateful to the Memorial Fund for His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr and its founder, Metropolitan Pereyaslavsky and Vishnevsky Alexander (OCU) for technical assistance in the publication.
What is the book really about?
The book "The Phenomenon of Online Communion" is a collection of polemical articles by priests and laity of the OCU with reflections on the nature of the Eucharist and the permissible combination of the Sacraments of the Church with the digital world. The authors reflect on where the line is between the spiritual world and the digital. This is an eternal dispute between faith and reason, between tradition and experiment, between the logic of rationalism and spiritual inspiration.
We are trying to comprehend the new technological reality from the point of view of church tradition, church ethics, ecclesiology, liturgy, canon law, anthropology, etc. From our point of view, the main problem is ignorance of the terminology of the digital world, misunderstanding of the essence of these phenomena, and hence the incorrect argumentation in the polemic about the online Eucharist. For example, "remote contact" is not "virtual reality".
When we started to rethink what happened, many questions arose at the same time. What is the Eucharistic community, what is the role of the laity and the priest in it, what is the Eucharist without thinking about the Blood and the Body of Christ, etc? Maybe this is not relevant for Greece - but it is very important for Ukraine.
The book includes comments from representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, who expressed their strongest opposition to the very practice of “online sacraments”. However, some have acknowledged that the tight lockdown and government quarantine measures are not just a problem, but a tragedy for believers. But this may only be the beginning of other, more extreme situations. And the Church must be ready for them - both psychologically and theologically.
Where did the "online communion" come from?
In fact, such experiments with remote sacraments began precisely in the Russian Church. Back in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic chaos, the Moscow Patriarchate in Europe began to practice remote confession and to give communion individually. Subsequently, such a possibility in extreme cases was recognized, for example, by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk (Alfeev).
And later it became known about the cases of the remote Eucharist in some dioceses of the Russian Church near Moscow - even before this happened in the OCU. This, for example, is mentioned by Andrei Shishkov, a researcher at the Synodal Biblical and Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, he writes: “In the Russian Orthodox Church, cases of online communion in Moscow and the Moscow region were not made public. When I asked Orthodox priests about remote communion, none of them doubted that the transmutation of the Holy Gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ could be accomplished at a distance. The main obstacle is the inability to control the process of communion. Suddenly, the one who takes communion on the other side of the monitor will do something blasphemous with the sacrament”.
Of course, the OCU rejected this practice. However, we must all acknowledge that today it is not enough to simply say, "this is wrong and this should be banned". Soon a generation will come to the churches, who need to be given reasoned answers to why this is wrong, and what church principles are violated when the sacraments are performed remotely. This generation often does not distinguish between the real world and virtual reality (VR), and they will not understand why something cannot be done. They will ask: “Why not? And what's wrong with that? Why does the Church look like a museum?" And if we don't analyze what happened today, if we don't try to look into the near digital future, our children can come to Christ, but leave the temples.
Discussion of the problem in the Russian Church
In his preface to our book, Metropolitan Alexander of Vishnevsky writes that it was God's providence that the youngest church - the OCU - faced this difficult theological challenge. But this does not mean at all that the OCU is ready to become a testing ground for dubious sacred experiments. To interpret the words of the ruler in this way is a lie and manipulation. Moreover, it happened first in the Russian Church, but its hierarchy lacked the courage and honesty to launch a public polemic about this.
However, this was done in 2020 by the laity and priests of the Russian Church under the leadership of the famous church and public figure Sergei Chapnin. They were not afraid to conduct a serious theological study "Systemic Problems of Orthodoxy: Analysis, Comprehension, Search for Solutions". Among the materials, there is also “Eucharist Online: Theological Aspects”. Here is a quote from this article: “All of this makes us wonder how far from the theological and practical points of view we can go in using the means of remote communication in worship. Speaking specifically about the sacramentology of the Eucharist - is it possible to perform this sacrament online?" How does this quote differ from what Metropolitan of the OCU Alexander says in the preface to our book? The rest of this article briefly describes the same polemical arguments as in our book. We highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the materials of this important seminar held in 2020 under the direction of Sergei Chapnin.
Why is the Russian Church lying?
Unfortunately, the speakers of the Russian Church (like Vladimir Legoyda), even without reading the contents of the book, immediately rushed to discredit not only its authors but the entire OCU. The media replicated their manipulative statements that “the OCU fell into blasphemy and approves of virtual sacraments”, that “they supposedly want to cover up the absence of believers in temples”, etc. We in Ukraine are no strangers to Moscow's dirty propaganda, but local Churches still take Russian church officials at their word. And we can see this in the messages in some Greek media, denigrating the OCU. Some Greeks obediently repeat Moscow fiction, pulling words out of context and imposing their perverse interpretation of the spoken words. Here is one example of such demonization of the OCU: “The devil put on a robe and pretends to be a priest. Are you still in doubt?"
First, this book (like many other laymen projects) is not the official point of view of the OCU. This is a collection of discussion materials. The same Vladimir Legoyda once explained that "the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church on all issues related to the Church's response to the situation with the coronavirus comes directly from the Holy Patriarch or the Working Group ... Any other speeches are the opinions of the speakers". So why does he now allow himself double standards, presenting the private initiative of the OCU laity as the official position of the entire Church?
Second, we are not in any way concerned with the apologetics of "online communion" and the implementation of this practice in the current life of the Church. We are talking exclusively about the first reaction in the church environment to the phenomenon itself - which, we recall, arose at the beginning in the ROC itself! Why does Legoyda not see the beam in his own eye and seeks knots in strangers? The answer is obvious.
And the church canons are taught by a representative of the church, which is trying to theologically prove that the Ecumenical Patriarch is a heretic!
Should we be afraid of such discussions?
Nevertheless, we must answer those primitive accusations that we read in some Greek sources. It is very uncomfortable for us, laymen, to remind clergymen that a thorough study of all new practices in the Church is their direct theological responsibility.
For some reason, it is generally accepted that all theological disputes in the Church are long gone, everything has already been comprehended, tested, investigated, discussed, and resolved. We say no! The Church faces new challenges every day, and it is too early to rest on its laurels. All the Holy heritage of the Church was created in polemics with previously unknown practices, teachings, and doctrines. Actually, one cannot separate church apologetics and theological polemics. Let us remind ourselves that the Pelagian controversy caused a major theological crisis in the 5th century and lasted for over 20 years. Blessed Augustine actively polemicized with Pelagius, the new doctrine was eradicated with the help of secular power - and only the Ecumenical Council of 431 delivered its theological verdict. Let's remember that at one time the whole East was Arians!
Can it be denied that the entire Symbol of the Orthodox Faith is the result of a theological controversy that lasted for several centuries? Are the great Greeks, famous for their most powerful theological school, in fear of ridicule the Muscovites, ready to admit that the Church no longer has theological immunity and can be broken even by the Internet?
Many Church people think that “online communion” is the greatest challenge to the Church in the 21st century. But what will happen when experiments on the human body - primarily the brain - leave the laboratory and become an everyday reality? How will the Church react to the fact that part of the functions of the human brain will be performed by devices? The development of chips that correct the "genetic breakdowns" of people is already underway, and it is Russia that is particularly active here - under the protection of its President Vladimir Putin. Why is everyone silent about the fact that Russians are engaged in the study of telepathy - the contactless transmission of information from the brain to the human brain - for military purposes? Doesn't this concern the church teaching on the preservation of the image and likeness of God?
Here is a quote from one of the authors of our book:
"It is no secret that the Church - not as a corporation, but as a community of people - is facing new issues and challenges. Today man himself has found himself in unprecedented conditions. Man's position is changing so rapidly that we can say that a new anthropological situation has already formed in front of our eyes, which is due to the blurring of the answer to the question “what does it mean to be human?” The answer to the question of the essence and nature of man becomes, to put it mildly, unobvious.
Where does a person begin and end? For the first time, man has acquired such technologies that allow him to actively change himself - this is transhumanism, cyborgization of the body, genetic engineering, etc. Man is on the verge of creating artificial intelligence, which will not be different from biological man. Human biology itself can be cyborgized - artificial arms and legs, or even an artificial brain".
These are the painful questions that we want - and should! - to raise for the future of our Church.
Let us remember how much debate was caused by the question of the practical necessity and spiritual legitimacy of vaccination in the Church of Greece. And the leadership of the Church, having carefully studied all the theological and medical circumstances, issued a synodal decree that this is not a matter of religion, but only medicine. And imagine that the Church of Greece would be afraid to study this? The church would still be split into several warring currents of supporters and opponents of vaccination.
It so happened that Ukraine for a long time was under the political and spiritual pressure of the Russian Church, which, being under the Bolsheviks, reduced church life to mechanical rituals. The head of the former Kyiv Patriarchate Filaret was also guided by Russian principles of governance. Under him, any controversy on such issues was excluded. We lived in the past and were afraid to analyze the challenges of the future, giving simple answers to the most difficult questions.
So far, we have encountered the Greek realities too little, and we do not know to what extent the problems raised in the book are relevant for the Greek churches. But for the post-Soviet and post-Russian Ukraine, which has survived the raids of pseudo-Protestant sects, this is more than relevant.
So yes, “the devil put on his mantle and pretended to be a priest” - but only in order to intimidate Orthodox theologians through the lips of “pious champions of truth” and declare a harsh theological lockdown to them! Is it really better to fight each other and curse each other - amid the laughter of the opponents of the Church, than to study all the details of the problem from the standpoint of Church Sacred Tradition, traditions, canons, teaching about the Church?
It is a pity that it is not yet possible to share our reflections in Greek so that the Greeks themselves draw their professional conclusions. However, we believe that polemics on these challenges are needed today - and this is recognized even by the Moscow Patriarchate. These statements are also published in our book. If this is not done, there will be a new lockdown, and the Church will again be torn apart by disputes and contradictions from within.