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With the blessing of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, the Chancellor, Archpriest Alexander Rentel, and the General Counsel to the Orthodox Church in America, Judge E.R. Lanier, made the following statement:
While it is not the practice of the Office of the Chancellor to comment on every rumor or baseless charge published on the internet that cause scandal and aggrieved the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America, we have seen fit to make this comment now. The situation in society and the Church has improved because of the steps that were taken in response to the present pandemic, and so it seems fitting to take a moment a reflect on what has transpired in and for our Church. We offer this statement in order to testify to the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America that our Church has faced well the challenges posed by novel SARS CoV-2 and COVID-19 in a hierarchical and conciliar manner. The Church acted, in other words, in a manner totally and completely consistent with its high calling.
From the beginning of this pandemic, His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon and the Holy Synod of Bishops have met regularly to formulate policy and draft accompanying pastoral messages of encouragement to the faithful. Their work has drawn on and was informed by the immense talent found within our Church. Pastors, theologians, medical doctors, healthcare workers, lawyers, and insurance professionals meeting in small groups, or together, or even with the Holy Synod have, in fact, assisted the Holy Synod in their work. Out of love for their beloved children in the Lord, in consultation with experts who are faithful members of our Church, the Holy Synod reasonably decided to comply with the directions of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, as well as the further guidance and orders provided by different levels of civil government in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
An informed decision to comply with civil directives was also made by the Metropolitan Council, which has also met during this pandemic under the presidency of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon. In fact, the Holy Synod and the Metropolitan Council issued a joint statement regarding the response of the Orthodox Church in America to the coronavirus.
The diocesan bishops each took steps to engage different constituencies within their dioceses – diocesan councils, clergy meetings, parish councils – in order to carefully navigate the challenges posed by this virus. His Eminence Archbishop Mark and the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania even created a survey and called for all members of this diocese to reflect and respond to it. The results of this survey help guide His Eminence and his diocesan response.
Additionally, the steps that our Church has taken have been in accord with the Catholic nature of the Church. His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon has consulted with the heads of other, local Orthodox Churches where he has had the chance to discuss the precautionary measures these Churches have taken to prevent the spread of the virus. His Beatitude has also regularly joined meetings of the Executive Committee of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, where similar discussions have been held.
Almost simultaneously to the day when state governments began to issue their first regulations designed to thwart the spread of the coronavirus throughout the United States, lawyers from the Orthodox Church in America contributed to the work of an ad hoc Task Force of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. This pan-Orthodox Task Force, headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Gregory of Nyssa and composed of lawyers from different Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, took immediate action to establish and serve as a source of information and as an immediate counterweight to regulatory provisions which even remotely touch upon any aspect of the beliefs and practices of our Orthodox Faith. Consisting largely of experts in the fields of public health and legal affairs, that Task Force has labored long and hard to track the evolution of state regulatory measures where these bear on Orthodox praxis even tangentially.
Although the labors of the Task Force have largely been at the level of almost mind-boggling detail and backbreaking minutia, at least two fundamental lessons learned by the members of the Task Force in their contact with state authorities have made themselves apparent: (1) the regulatory environment established by the states is kaleidoscopic in nature and changes on an almost daily, sometimes hourly, basis, a fact which mandates constant, unceasing surveillance and monitoring; and (2) state administrative regulators are well-intentioned and hard-working civil servants burdened with an almost insurmountable task, but who are largely unfamiliar with the tenets and practices of the Orthodox Faith. The ongoing interactions of the Task Force with these state-level regulators has most often taken on the hue of an educational exercise.
Laboring in informal tandem with a significant number of other organizations and individuals committed to the protection and preservation of American constitutional religious liberties, the Task Force has recently witnessed substantial progress in relations with state officials charged with the onerous task ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of the American public. These advances have been real. A state along the East Coast, to take an example, originally stipulated in its administrative regulations that Holy Communion “administered person-to-person” … “is not permitted at this time.” That state has revoked this objectionable language which has now been replaced by a provision allowing “person-to-person” administration of the Holy Sacrament, requiring now only that the clergy must use hand sanitizers only when “he or she believes incidental [physical] contact has been made with the communicant.” States which had initially stipulated a one-hour limitation on religious services have now deleted that obnoxious and unnecessary restriction. In other instances, states have backed off of other religious restrictions and have reduced these to voluntary, hortatory recommendations. The Task Force is confident that, with the abatement of the current pandemic, all such regulatory provisions in each of the states will be abandoned and that state intervention in the religious life of all American faith communities will become nothing more than a footnote in history.