Archpriest Victor Boldewskul. Holy Epiphany Russian Orthodox Church (Boston, MA), parish rector
In March of 2020, Orthodox parishes in the United States faced a unique set of problems as government officials closed down churches in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. This would test the faith of believers and put added pressure on the Orthodox hierarchy/clergy as they had to navigate through unprecedented challenges. On the one hand, clergy needed to protect their faithful from possible medical harm as they “gave unto Caesar” and on the other hand deal with a loud, disgruntled minority within their parishes who saw this as a betrayal of faith.
Two lessons can be drawn from this experience: the importance of trust and the need for accurate information. In the mass press and in on social media pages, one could find various opinions on the seriousness of the Coronavirus. Is it just a bad form of the flu or is it something more serious? Is this a real health care crisis or a manufactured crisis meant to enable government agencies to exercise their authority over the people? And the trust of their hierarchy came into question. Are the bishops and parish rectors who submitted to government directives limiting access to church services protecting their faithful from a real health threat and thus “showing love to one’s neighbor?” Or, are they betraying the faith in the face of persecution?
At Holy Epiphany parish in Boston, Massachusetts, the vast majority of the faithful calmly followed the instructions of the parish rector, although some complaints were heard from both extremes: some felt there should be nearly no access to the church while others suggested that if people die serving others (that is, by going to church and serving) “glory to God.” I noticed a shift in the discourse both in the parish and within many other parishes with the tragic news of the repose of Fr. Alexander Ageikin. While few, if any, changed their ultimate opinions, the seriousness of the crisis became more acute. During the shutdown, it was important that I regularly communicate with my parishioners through youtube, emails and Facebook. After each service I would speak directly to my parishioners through the camera and address their concerns. This helped keep the parish community together.
When our parish was able to reopen before the Feast of Ascension, we took several liturgical measures to conform to the state’s orders and to protect the faithful. The wearing of masks was (and remains) mandatory without exception. The so-called social distancing is enforced. The clergy modified the manner of censing to avoid the movement of people (note: the church building is long but narrow). The Old Testament readings on major feast days are not read, the 30 plus choir is reduced to six to eight people, the anointing of the faithful occurs now at the end of the vigil services, and the choir/clergy avoid dragging out the services. Masks are worn during confession. However, Holy Communion is distributed, per our First Hierarch’s instructions, as before without any modifications.