Peter Anderson reports from the Orthodox world.

Longstanding reporter of the news from the Eastern Church, Peter Anderson shares our dream or a unified Christianity. His love for Orthodoxy has driven him to this personal mission to share the news of East with the world through his email list. The Urbi et Orbi Foundation is proud to share his efforts and his insights with you.

After being closed to parishioners since April 13 because the pandemic, the churches in Moscow were opened for the faithful on Saturday, June 6.  On this same day, Metropolitan Hilarion described the precautions that the Moscow Patriarchate will require in connection with this opening.   The precautions include the wearing of masks by parishioners and markings on the floor of churches to ensure four square meters for each parishioner attending a service.  Metropolitan Hilarion also described the measures being taken with respect to the common spoon (лжица) used to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful.  During the last few months, the use of the common spoon,  which has been the practice of the Orthodox since the early years of Christianity, has been the subject of concern of health authorities in many countries and has given rise to heated debates between the churches and the authorities.  In this regard Metropolitan Hilarion stated the position of the Moscow Patriarchate during the pandemic:  “the spoon after each communion will be treated with an alcohol solution.”

As discussed in my last report, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has sent a letter to the primates of all of the Local Orthodox Churches seeking their views on the distribution of communion during the pandemic.  His letter was sent on May 17, 2020.  To date, there has been no report on what position the Ecumenical Patriarchate will take as a result of this survey of views.  Father Nikolai Balashov, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s DECR, has acknowledged that Moscow has received Bartholomew’s letter as well as a letter from Patriarch Daniel of Romania seeking Moscow’s views on the distribution of communion.  Balashov stated that Moscow had sent a detailed response to Daniel, but would not respond to Bartholomew as Moscow’s severance of relations with Constantinople includes correspondence.

On June 3, the Standing Holy Synod of the Church of Greece discussed both the May 17 letter from the Ecumenical Patriarch as well as a May 19 letter from Patriarch Daniel relating to the distribution of communion during the pandemic.  The Standing Synod unanimously took the position that the method of distribution of communion “remains as it is and as it has been handed down to us by the Holy Fathers and in accordance with our Holy Tradition.”   It has also been reported that Archbishop Chrysostomos, primate of the Church of Cyprus, has replied that his church would not discuss or negotiate a change in the traditional way of distributing communion to the faithful with a spoon.

I have seen no information from the Romanian Patriarchate with respect to responses to its letter of May 19.  However, there have been an interesting series of events in Romania with respect to the common spoon.  In a communique posted on February 27, the Romanian Patriarchate allowed an exception during the pandemic under which a believer who fears the virus “may exceptionally ask the priest to share, at any time of the day, the Holy Eucharist for the sick [reserved in the tabernacle at the altar], which can be offered in a teaspoon brought from home and used exclusively for this purpose.”  This exception resulted in criticism, and shortly thereafter Patriarch Daniel issued a clarification.  In it, he affirmed that a disease can never be transmitted through Holy Communion and that this limited exception was made only for those whose faith is weak.  He also stated that those who have such a weak faith should seek the counsel of their spiritual father.

In anticipation of a relaxation of anti-pandemic measures, the Romanian governmental authorities on May 9 published proposed rules, including one that required the use of disposable spoons for communion.  The same day, the spokesperson for the Romanian Patriarchate stated:  “The Romanian Orthodox Church will consult with the other sister Orthodox Churches to find together, in communion and in the spirit of fidelity to the liturgical tradition, the best way regarding the access of believers, in the context of the pandemic, to the heart of the Christian life: Holy Communion.”

The Romanian government did in fact issue the order requiring disposable spoons on May 15.  On the same date, the Romanian Patriarchate issued its own guidelines which included the following statement:  “Therefore, the Romanian Orthodox Church, according to its centuries-old liturgical tradition, cannot accept, even in times of pandemic, the use of the single-use chalice and spoon for Communion of the faithful during the Divine Liturgy.  In this regard, with the approval of the majority of members of the Holy Synod, consulted in writing on May 11, 2020, the manner of general Communion of believers during the Divine Liturgy, during a pandemic, will be decided after June 1, 2020, in consensus with the other Orthodox Churches.”   Four days after this statement, Patriarch Daniel sent his letter to the other primates.  However, on May 22, the Romanian government removed the requirement of a disposable spoon and substituted a requirement that the spoon be disinfected after every use.  The next day, the Romanian Patriarchate issued a communique which did not specially disagree with the disinfecting requirement, but repeated its intention to wait until the completion of its consultation with other Local Orthodox Churches.  The communique also mentioned the possibility of “individual communion” by a believer after the Divine Liturgy or at another time arranged with the local priest.

We must now wait and see what will happen from the initiatives of Bartholomew and Daniel.  Will there be some form of common statement reflecting certain principles on which all (or most) of the primates are in agreement?   Or will each Local Orthodox Church formulate its own position while perhaps acknowledging that it has first consulted with other Local Churches.  Will some Local Orthodox Churches reject the Moscow approach of disinfecting the spoon after each communion as a sign of lack of faith in the belief that Holy Communion can never transmit a disease?  One extremely conservative website in Russia has called the disinfecting process described by Metropolitan Hilarion as a blasphemy.   On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Ecumenical Patriarchate) has posted a 5-minute video in which Archbishop Elpidophoros discusses the possibility of an alternative, for those worried about the use of a common spoon, of using multiple (not disposable) spoons which are disinfected after every use.

On a completely different subject, Oleksandr Tkachenko of the Servant of the People political party was elected on June 4 by a large majority of the Ukrainian parliament as Ukraine’s new Minister of Culture and Information Policy.  The same day, President Zelensky stated his approval.  For the churches in Ukraine, this is an important position as one of its responsibilities is religious affairs.   Tkachenko was general director of the 1+1 Media Group, one of the largest media conglomerates in Ukraine including eight TV channels and media such as UNIAN and TSN.  Last summer he left 1+1 and became a member of the Ukrainian parliament where he headed its committee on humanitarian and information policy.  The Ukrainian service of BBC states in a June 4 article that “interlocutors of BBC News Ukraine in church circles call Tkachenko a very religious man and a supporter of Ukrainian autocephaly.”

Tkachenko, who was a very well-known journalist earlier in his career, is a prolific writer on his Facebook page.   I have spent a number of hours reading through his Facebook timeline.  His entries confirm that he regularly practices his Orthodox faith.  With respect to church matters, it appears that his closest friend is Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko, who since March 2016 has been rector of the  Open Orthodox University of Saint Sophia-Wisdom in Kyiv.  For example, the April 25, 2019 dateline entry on Facebook shows that Tkachenko and Kovalenko were together visiting Mt. Athos.  There is a photo showing Tkachenko and Kovalenko meeting together with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar (see BBC article).  Another photo shows the two meeting with Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem. (the statement in this article that Tkachenko is a Greek-Catholic is incorrect)  On December 25, 2019, Tkachenko posted on YouTube a 5-minute video in which he discusses with Kovalenko the date for celebrating Christmas.

Father Georgy Kovalenko is a familiar face in Ukraine because for six years he was the personal press secretary for Metropolitan Vladimir of Kyiv (primate of the UOC-MP from 1992 to 2014) and the voice of the UOC-MP.  On September 16, 2014, a month after Metropolitan Onufry was enthroned as primate of the UOC-MP, the Holy Synod abolished Kovalenko’s office and appointed him as the head of the Synodal Educational Department, a position that he held until January 2016.  In March 2016 he founded and became the rector of the Open Orthodox University.  According to its website (, “Open Orthodoxy is a conciliar community of Orthodox Christians with an open civic position, engaged in education and enlightenment and, based on the traditions of Orthodoxy and modern knowledge, trying to embody biblical values ​​in their own lives and joint projects.”  On January 7, 2019, Kovalenko, who has been a strong advocate for autocephaly, celebrated the Divine Liturgy with Metropolitan Epifany, newly elected primate of the OCU.   Metropolitan Onufry subsequently suspended the right of Kovalenko to serve as a priest.  Last December, Kovalenko was made a member of the OCU’s Synodal Commission on Inter-Christian Relations.

In February, Kovalenko presented at a conference at the Katholische Akademie in Bavaria his views on the two Orthodox churches in Ukraine.  His views included the following observation:  “We have two legally Ukrainian and canonically Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. This is the reality that both Churches have to accept and which they have to consider in their vision of the future.  Mutual recognition and rejection of the policy of ‘merging and absorption’ is an important step for a successful dialogue and the beginning of cooperation.” (Feb. 8, 2020 entry)  If this becomes the view of Tkachenko and both churches are considered by him as proper and appropriate, it may result in even-handed treatment by the Ministry of Culture with respect to both the UOC-MP and the OCU.

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA