US Orthodox Bishops Have Failed Miserably in Their Response to COVID

"It is my considered opinion that unless this changes, unless the bishops take stock of their mistakes and publicly repent of them, then Orthodoxy in America will wither on the vine. . ."

Originally appeared at: Monomakhos

Last month, Orthodox Reflections published an excellent essay. I highly recommend that you read it for yourself in its entirety. It’s that good.  

The crux of this essay is that the American Orthodox episcopate dropped the ball regarding the crisis brought on by the pandemic.  It is an eloquent and precise appraisal of the crisis in our considered opinion. It is in fact a diagnosis of how we got here.  Namely, that our episcopate lives in a rarefied bubble in which there is no feedback from the bottom up. Their only contact with their pastors (at best) is through their chancellors

Instead of asking the priesthood –the men on the ground who are most connected to the laity–they talk only to one another. Worse, they receive the overwhelming majority of their direction from the secular authorities; from the same people who gave us conflicting information from the outset of this pandemic –and worse–continue to do so. 

To add insult to injury, these are the same authorities who divided the American people into those who do “essential” work as opposed to those who do “non-essential” work.   In case you didn’t know, abortuaries, liquor stores, and cannabis dispensaries are “essential”.  Churches are not. That’s what the Federal gummint said and our bishops didn’t say otherwise.

This has caused a worrisome division where there are those who signal their virtue by wearing a mask as opposed to those who do not.  Unfortunately, this is not the end of the road.  Now, the division has widened to include vaccination status.  (Will a yellow star be far behind?)

As to why such a disconnect exists in the first place, one can look to the distortion of the episcopate under secular and/or anti-Christian regimes.  In Ottoman times, the Patriarch of Constantinople was the ethnarch of the Rum millet (the Christian nation). In the communist regimes, the bishops were informants for the various intelligence services of the Warsaw Pact nations. In neither instance was any of this spiritually profitable. 

The coronavirus has exposed yet another spiritual problem in the United States for the Orthodox Church. This is ironic because in this country (as opposed to the Islamic and Marxist regimes), we live in a country in which freedom of religion is one of the bedrock principles.  Yet our episcopate has not been able to break out of its Old World mindset. As a result, the fissures between the episcopate and the laity have been laid bare.    

In the great swath that makes up Middle America for example, many bishops are geographically far removed from their parishes, while there is a surfeit of bishops in the great cities of the East and West Coasts. Between California and the Hudson River, few Orthodox bishops are in actual residence. Therefore many of these coastal bishops are responsible for parishes of the hinterlands, which are hundreds of miles away. Under such conditions, it is hard to see how they could know what the pastoral concerns of their flocks could be. 

Indeed, given the fact that the secular authorities gave out wrong (or at least incomplete) information in the first place, even those bishops in the major metropolitan areas who were close to their flocks could not minister to their close-at-hand urban flocks in a thoughtful manner. 

The author makes copious mention of the misinformed and spiritually injurious dictates that erupted from the dictates of several of our bishops. (One bishop in Canada even called fellow Christians who disagreed with him “pagans”.) Unfortunately, these dictates did not end at the medical level:  equally uninformed and maladroit pronouncements extended to the political sphere as well. There is no reason to hash them out chapter and verse here (the original essay does a much better job of this anyway) but it is important to point out that all of these pronouncements indicated a decided leftward tilt. This was at a time in which hundreds of American cities were being destroyed by anarcho-leftist mobs (specifically Antifa).   

Needless to say, gestures such as these alienated Orthodox parishioners who had other opinions on these matters. 

And yet, there was more. One archbishop served the Divine Liturgy in an Episcopal cathedral in New York City. This cathedral is in its own words  “ground zero for the queering [sic] of Manhattan”. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he returned weeks later to thank the dean of that cathedral. Later, he went on to speak a few weeks later at an ecumenist conference in which he preached universalism, saying there was more than one way to achieve salvation.  

The author chalks it up to lack of communication. He is not wrong. He also posits that there is no repentance on their behalf.  Regrettably, he is right: only one bishop remarked on how tumultuous the “roller-coaster ride” of the past year has been. Note the passive tone. It just “happened”. Nobody was responsible. It was as if there was nothing that he –as a hierarch–could do. 

This logically leads to the question why do we need bishops in the first place? Are they merely curators of liturgical rites? Or regulators who merely hand out marriage licenses and baptismal certificates on behalf of the secular authorities? If so, then would we be wrong to assume that they answer to the government and no one else? 

The past is often a prologue. What guarantees do the average Orthodox laymen have that their jurisdictions will not be forced to succumb to ill-informed dictates down the road? What guarantee do we have that any future dictates will not be ill-advised or that they are not delivered to us in a spirit of ill-will, that is to say, fervid anti-Christian hostility?  

In the business world, stability is prized above all else. If the boards of directors of large corporations were as distant from their suppliers and customers as our bishops are from their flocks, they would soon go out of business. Corporations have an amazing capability of learning from their mistakes and bouncing back. That’s because the customer is their bread and butter. They even have been known to make public apologies. Sometimes they do this in a spirit of fun but correct their mistakes, they do.

Yes, I realize that the Church is not a business. We know that. But if our leadership class is this confused, this insular, this unresponsive, and this ecumenist, then why don’t our parishioners join any of the other Protestant sects that dot the American landscape?   

In any event, the purpose of the essay in question was to question the disconnectedness that exists between the American episcopate and their clergy and laity which only seems to be widening. Hopefully, the bishops will learn from their mistakes or failing that, from thoughtful essays like the one in Orthodox Reflections. The imperious nature of the episcopate does not inspire hope that this will be the case. Still, we are Christians. At the end of the day, repentance must be made for any number of things. As such, it is my considered opinion that unless this changes, unless the bishops take stock of their mistakes and publicly repent of them, then Orthodoxy in America will wither on the vine.

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