Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Beliefs and knowledges – Between a Purifying and Polluting Spoon
Milica Resanović, Institute for Sociological Research, Faculty of Philosophy - University of Belgrade, Serbia.
During the Covid-19 outbreak a lot of practices of everyday life that have been taken for granted suddenly became the subject of our assessment in terms of identifying their potential beneficial and risk factors for health. For example, that is the case with the Liturgy organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church, when there were several hundreds of people diagnosed with Covid-19 in the country. More precisely, a video of the Liturgy organized in a Church in Novi Sad appeared in the media on 22nd of March. On the exact same day when the Liturgy was organized, 222 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Serbia. In health crisis situations, when a lot of strict measures had been already adopted, the Liturgy – when believers are gathered in the same place to receive communion with a shared spoon – raised a lot of questions concerning the legitimacy of the practice, its implications for public health, and its potential effects on a vulnerable health care system in the pandemic context.
The chain of events initiated by the communion in Coronavirus times might be interpreted as a beginning of the process of “societalisation” . What Alexander calls “societalisation” roughly refers to “civil purification”, namely a five-stage process through which a social problem which has appeared in relatively autonomous social spheres (e.g. religion, economy, state, and family) becomes discursively constructed as endangering for the society by the civil sphere . Consequently, the cultural logic of the civil sphere leads to mobilization of legal and organizational resources for addressing the problem, in order to provide “civil purification” .
The concept of societalisation in the case of communion in Coronavirus times deviates from the original notion of Alexander , as he emphasizes that societalisation ideal-typically refers to the routine practices from the non-civil spheres that are in collision with broader social values. However, in the case mentioned above, there is no conflict between ritual practice (sharing the bread and wine with a common spoon), and values, norms, and institutions of the civil sphere in ordinary social conditions. Once the coronavirus pandemic outbreak started in Serbia, this previously routinized practice of the Church became subject to the cultural logic of the civil sphere. In other words, instead of long-standing problems that Alexander points out, in this case the regular practice of communion in the extraordinary social conditions triggered a societal reading of the event, which can be interpreted through the model of societalisation.
Up until recently, the communion ritual was important only for the active believers and Orthodox clergy in Serbia. But due to the Coronavirus pandemic, boundaries between the religious and civil spheres were interrupted, and this religious ritual rapidly developed into a public issue. Medical experts and independent media emphasized that this practice is dangerous for the health of people participating in the ritual. Moreover, because of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, communion is also potentially hazardous for public health. Not only did the doctors involved in this discussion stress their professional attitude towards this practice, but they also attached civil values to their argument. “As a citizen, I find civilisationally unacceptable that people at [in the] 21st century kiss the same object and eat from the same spoon. As an epidemiologist, I must warn that this is dangerous” (epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović). Independent media reports discursively articulated this ritual as a threat for citizens, and the Church authorities not being willing to adapt the ritual to the new circumstances as irrational and unreasonable.
Meanwhile, religious authorities angrily objected to experts and independent media, and highlighted an intra-institutional argument according to which ”nobody got sick from participating in communion for [the] past two thousand years, including priests who gave communion to people [who] suffered from plague and tuberculosis” (Bishop Irinej Bulović, 26th March). From the perspective of Church officials, it was considered more plausible to participate in the traditional form of the ritual than to change the established meaningful ritual in accordance with scientific knowledge about virus transmission mechanisms and with the universal moral obligation to stay at home that arose during the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, actors who articulated critique were pictured as archenemies of the “real” Serbs – as “traitors and foreign mercenaries”, as media and individuals financed by Soros. Symbolic boundaries existing in Serbian society from the 1990s until today were put into service once again as important rhetorical tools in symbolic battles aimed at reinforcement of the borders of the religious sphere.
The critique of the ritual articulated by communicative institutions (i.e. independent media), as well as the strict demands of church leaders to continue with regular practices, encouraged a response from regulatory institutions. The Serbian Government advised the Church to organize religious rituals without presence of the believers and to arrange funeral services within small circles of people in accordance with the preventive measures. Beside this recommendation, institutions did not propose taking any other intervention measures. In addition, in the public speeches of leading politicians, the church was not mentioned. Considering how often the president and politicians from the ruling party have meetings with the church authorities about various public issues (to illustrate with the latest example, Aleksandar Vučić met with Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church on 15th of March in order to discuss extraordinary measures that needs to be taken to control the spread of COVID-19), it is not surprising that they did not want to mention this ritual during their speeches. Meetings between Aleksandar Vučić and Patriarch Irinej, and ceremonial occasions when the church has handed prestigious orders to the president and other members of the political elite, are important performative aspects of this authoritarian regime. Therefore politicians, even though they harshly criticised citizens for not following established preventive measures, did not want to stress that this church ritual was a potential public health risk. Consequently, “government-friendly” media ignored this topic and they purposely overlooked medical experts’ opinion on this subject.
After the Government recommendation, the Holy Synod of Bishops made an appeal to believers to follow worship online or on TV and radio, and to organize with their local priest communion in their own homes. More liberal church representatives pointed out that delivering holy communion in the home might be very complicated, and stressed the importance of social distancing, avoiding direct contact, and following all the other preventive measures during the performance of the ritual (Vukašin Milićević). In addition, a priest and assistant professor at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology, Vukašin Milićević, emphasized during an independent political talk show (Utisak nedelje) the importance of solidarity among all people, as well as the importance for church authorities to listen to wider society and medical experts. In that way the church was represented in terms of the positive categories of civil discourse, and thereby the antagonism between church practices and civil discourse was reduced. However, such tolerance among church representatives was quickly suppressed from the very top, by Patriarch Irinej. Hence, the top of the hierarchical church organization denied both civil concerns and intra-institutional concerns more open to the civil perspective, because of the determination of the church’s ruling elite to ensure the status quo and their own positions, these being represented as a fear of abandoning the “real” intra-institutional values.
To sum up, the issue related to the communion in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic was partially alleviated after the Government, pushed by medical experts, had put pressure on the church to quit the traditional practice (use of a shared spoon, a lot of people at the same space, etc.) However, the article was submitted on April 9, 2020, ten days before the celebration of Orthodox Easter (Sunday, April 19, 2020). It is likely that the Easter celebration will trigger a backlash from the Church elites and thus that traditional practices (shared spoon, a lot of people at the same space, etc.) will re-emerge, in spite of established directives. Altogether, the situation demonstrated that the majority of the church officials are strongly against actors whose speech draws upon the language of the civil sphere in its broadest sense. In an authoritarian society, where some church authorities have strong relationships with the ruling party, it is quite unlikely to expect efficient articulation of the problem in civil sphere terminology coming from the inside of the religious sphere. What is more, actors trying to reconcile intra-institutional values and civil values are being sanctioned by the church authorities, which results in reducing the opportunity for establishing solidarity among citizens with different religious views.
 Alexander, J. (2018). The Societalization of Social Problems: Church Pedophilia, Phone Hacking, and the Financial Crisis. American Sociological Review, 83(3), 1049-1078.
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