"Online Communion": why not?

There is debate in the OCU as to be or not to be.

The “priests” of the OCU held an “online communion”, “consecrating” the bread and wine in front of the monitor for the communicants “to partake”. How to relate to this?

On May 11, 2020, Dmitry Vaysburd, a “priest” of the Cherkasy Eparchy of the OCU held a “full online liturgy”, which was joined by some other OCU clerics, as well as the laity of this organization. The latter had “the elements consecrated” in front of the monitors, and then “communed”. Is this blasphemy or a new permissible practice for the canonical Church? How to relate to this?

Creators of a new reality

To begin with: What is Dmitry Vaysburd?

According to the kasparov.ru website, he was born in 1962 in Moscow, a chemical engineer by education. In the early 90s, he began to engage in political activities as part of opposition parties. The is the author of many articles on various resources criticizing the current Russian government. He reports on his religious life on narod.ru.

A screenshot of the site vaysburd.narod.ru

As we see, he also writes on religious subjects. One of his articles was even published on predanie.ru in the “Blog” section. It is entitled “Sacrifice in History and Modernity”. The content of the article is very controversial, but it ends with the following words: “It’s a pity that not all Christians are fully aware of the fact that, taking communion, they thereby take part in the Sacrifice of Christ, and not in a concert of sacred music or a flash mob depicting the Last Supper."

Until the autumn of 2019, D. Vaysburd lived in the centre of Moscow and did the repairs of electronics. However, at the end of September, he informed his clients that he was leaving for an indefinite time. A few weeks later, photos began to appear on his Facebook page, where he was “ordained” as “deacon” and “priest” in the Cherkasy Eparchy of the OCU.

A screenshot of Dmitry Vaysburd's Facebook page

Online Liturgy is not the only experiment by D. Vaysburd. There is his publication on ahilla.ru, in which he offers the "lay order of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom" of his own writing.

A screenshot of ahilla.ru

But Vaysburd didn't have a chance to experiment for a long time. For the service of "full online liturgy", he was laid off staff the next day, May 12, 2020.

A screenshot of Dmitry Vaysburd's Facebook page

It should be emphasized that such a reaction of the "ruling bishop" of Vaysburd, Ioann Yaremeneko, appeared only after these experiments were noticed by the OCU leadership in Kyiv.
Vaysburd himself stated that Yaremenko was aware of "online communions", accepted that fact and had to respond only "when asked uncomfortable questions".

A screenshot of Dmitry Vaysburd's Facebook page

On May 11, 2020, D. Vaysburd “led” the “online liturgy”, but the resonance, or rather the real scandal, was triggered by a message about his “concelebrant”, “Archpriest” Igor Savva, who was accepted to the OCU by the ex-Metropolitan of the UOC Alexander (Drabinko).

Photo of the "online communion", Igor Savva's Facebook Page

The OCU spokesperson Eustratiy Zoria wrote on his Facebook: “Priest Igor Savva from Zaporizhzhia, who for some reason single-handedly decided to conduct such experiments, belongs neither to the Zaporizhzhia Eparchy of the OCU (by place of residence) nor to the Pereyaslav Eparchy of the OCU, whose borders at the time of its establishment by the Holy Synod are marked so that they do not go beyond the borders of Kyiv and the Kyiv region." Drabinko also “disowned” Savva, although there is a publicly available decree signed by him personally to admit Savva to the OCU.

The decree on the admission of Igor Savva to the OCU

Arguments for and against

Even for the OCU, "full online liturgy" was too much. But this idea captured the attention of another extraordinary religious figure, Moscow deacon Andrei Kuraev, who was recently banned from the priesthood.

On May 13, 2020, he published a message on the LiveJournal, in which he approvingly commented on the "online communion": "The priest has an ordinary ‘lamb’ during a ‘virtual’ liturgy on the throne. He himself prays for it, and from it he himself will partake. But if the priest with the phrase ‘... and this sacrament’ prays for the bread that is on his flock’s table – what is there that radically changes the situation? <...> Anyway, this idea itself is not as theologically absurd as it seems at first. Do not rush into its anathema: life is diverse and there are still many pages of church history ahead. Once again: an isolated layman puts a piece of bread and a cup of wine in front of a video camera. At the same time, the priest in the temple (or where he will lay out his antimins) starts the Proskomedia, keeping in his mind and his prayer not only the bread that is offered to him but also the one ‘at a distance’. The layman is just listening to the prayers of the priest. Maybe, he sometimes censes (if he has such an opportunity). And in the end, he hears from the priest – "proceed with the fear of God and faith ". I am convinced that he will experience much deeper feelings than in the usual service".

Deacon Andrei Kuraev is a theologically educated man, therefore, he gave a historical example of "ordination" by correspondence as an argument for online "liturgy". The incident took place in Cappadocia. Bishop Phaedimus of Amasia wished to ordain Gregory, later called the Wonderworker, as the bishop of Neocesarea. And because the latter resolutely refused this honor, Bishop Phaedimus performed the ceremony of "ordination" in Gregory’s absence. However, Deacon Andrei Kuraev did not consider it necessary to mention that this action was perceived by all, and primarily by Gregory the Wonderworker himself, only as a sign of God, testifying to the heavenly calling of St. Gregory to bishop ministry. And the very consecration of him was performed a little later by the same Phaedimus of Amasia. All this was described in detail by St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Proponents of online "communion" ask the right questions to justify their stance:

“We pray that this bread and this wine become the Body and Blood of Christ and make us part of Him so that we become His Body. Does this prayer not ‘work’ at a distance? Maybe radio waves (WiFi) or the use of gadgets are an obstacle to our unification around Christ, His life-giving Body and Blood?” (Igor Savva).

“Is physical presence necessary for prayer and miracle?” <...> If a priest prays "Lord, send Your help to us", should these "we" be elbow-to-elbow with him? <...> And if the priest prays "Lord, send down your Holy Spirit on us", should these "us" be no further than within a hundred meters radius? <...> Can the priest consecrate something at a distance?” (Deacon Andrei Kuraev).

Critics of online “communion” mostly either ridicule this practice, comparing it to “charging” water through television by Anatoly Kashpirovsky and Alan Chumak in the era of perestroika, or simply call it absurd, without explaining why. And it is necessary to explain because today we are surprised at the “full online liturgy”, and tomorrow it may turn out to be the next open Overton window. After all, the Church is quite widely using the online broadcasting of worship services and this is not considered to be a sham. So why should the sacraments on the Internet be recognized as profanation? Maybe this will be just the next step in the development of our religious consciousness? Why not? Indeed, “the Spirit breathes where He wants ...” (John 3, 8).

Why online Sacraments are impossible 

There are now discussions around "online communion" mainly in the midst of schismatics, who have all their "sacraments" invalid. But there are people in the canonical Church who look with sympathy at these experiments, especially during the quarantine period, when not all believers can get to the temple. What can we tell them?

Proponents of "online communion" ask: “Is it possible for a person to receive communion without their physical presence in the church at the liturgy?” And they answer: “Yes, it is”.

But then let's go further and ask the following question: “Is it possible for a person to receive communion without bread or wine at all?” We must also answer this question: “Yes, it is”. The accounts of how the angels gave the Holy Communion are contained in the lives of both ancient saints (St. Paphnutius) and modern (St. Seraphim of Vyritsa).

Let us then continue our thought and ask another question: “Is it possible to unite with Christ (salvation, the inheritance of the Kingdom of God) without the Sacraments at all?” And we must also answer this question in the affirmative. For example, in the life of the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebastia, there is a story of how one of those soldiers who guarded the holy martyrs in an ice lake, named Aglaius, threw off his clothes and ran into the lake with a cry: “I too am a Christian" when he saw radiant crowns coming down on them. In the ancient Church, there even existed the concept of baptisma sanguinis (baptism by blood), when the holy martyrs were people who believed in Christ and accepted martyrdom for their faith but did not receive any of the Sacraments. Such cases are quite many, not to mention the fact that the first man who returned to paradise, the prudent robber, also did not receive any Sacraments.

And here we come to the fact that, firstly, these exceptional cases cannot be made a general rule. And secondly, the salvation of a person without the Sacraments does not cancel the Sacraments themselves and does not turn them into a certain convention, such as “online communion”, in absentia or in any other way. In other words, the Sacrament and salvation (the ultimate goal of all Sacraments) are not the same thing. Yes, God can save a particular person without any specific external conditions or actions, but only by the disposition of his heart. But the same God established the Mysteries as sacraments that must be performed by proper people (who have the holy ordinance), in the proper manner and using the proper elements (bread, wine, oil, water, etc).

For example, the rite of the Liturgy says: “The priest also takes a prosphoron with his left hand, the holy spear with his left hand, and blessing with it three times over the seal of the prosphoron, he says ...” This means that he must literally take the prosphora, the spear with his hand, and perform the above rite. This cannot be done virtually or mentally or in any other way. And without this, the Sacrament can’t be held.

In this context, the words of Deacon Andrei Kuraev sound rather funny: “... an isolated layman puts a piece of bread and a cup of wine in front of a video camera. At the same time, the priest in the temple (or where he will lay out his antimins) starts the Proskomedia, keeping in his mind and his prayer not only the bread that is offered to him but also the one ‘at a distance’. ”

And what will happen if the priest keeps in his "mind and prayer" all the bread "at a distance", that is, in shops, bakeries, canteens, and so on? That would be great, everyone would "partake"! By the way, let one patriarch celebrates the Eucharist while keeping in his “mind and prayer” all those who “joined him online”. Then priests are not needed at all.

Therefore, the assertion that Wi-Fi cannot be an obstacle to the Holy Spirit and the like is just verbal equilibristic, juggling rhetorical questions, and misinterpreted historical examples. As already mentioned above, each Sacrament should be performed only in that way, by those people and in those circumstances that God himself established. Derogation or adapting this to our modern technical capabilities turns the Sacraments into profanation. It is good that the leadership of the OCU, in particular Eustratiy Zoria, understands this. Now the members of this organization should understand that if the Sacrament cannot be performed on the Internet, it as well cannot be performed by a person who does not have a canonical ordination. Moreover, the grounds for the impossibility of both acts are the same.

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