"This lack of repentance over the Covid responses, the political missteps, and the ecumenist scandals is frequently discussed among Orthodox Christians. The attitude of the bishops has caused some Orthodox Christians to stop attending liturgy or to switch jurisdictions."
Fr. Demetrios has decades of experience as a priest. During his career, he has served under several bishops in more than one jurisdiction. He had reached out to us for technical assistance with a project he was working on. While we had him on the phone, we couldn’t help but ask him about the state of our Orthodox Church in the United States.
His response caught us by surprise. Fr. Demetrios said, “All we need in Orthodoxy is communication and repentance. That would fix everything.”
During the rest of the conversation, he explained what he meant. In his experience, most bishops were at least difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with. Often they have, at most, a small group of trusted advisors to whom they listen. Sometimes they only listen to a chancellor playing the role of “gatekeeper.” When mistakes are made, they are rarely acknowledged and repented of. Usually the goal is to just quietly “move on.”
As we talked, the truth of what Fr. Demetrios was saying became more and more apparent. Many of the problems we see around us are directly attributable to lack of communication and repentance.
Bishops are Largely Incommunicado
Fr. Demetrios explained to us that, in his experience, bishops are rarely interested in the opinions of their priests or the laity. We have seen multiple public confirmations of this. For example, most bishops did not ask for any input on how to deal with Covid at the parish-level. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon was thrilled that Bishop Anthony, via an administrative assistant, contacted him for his ideas 10 months into the pandemic:
As far as I know, this is also the first time, during these ten miserable months, an Orthodox bishop has asked for “creative ideas addressing this issue” from the local pastors of our congregations.
His advice was not heeded, but at least he was able to tender it. Via email. To an assistant. Did Bishop Anthony even read it? Or even a summary of it? Who knows?
A group of OCA priests wrote this in an article The Broken Covenant about the church lockdowns:
Without the sacramental rudders and moorings of the Church, the OCA bishops were cast adrift, as they tried to navigate the political landscape. They seemingly closed their minds to reason, as they closed the doors of the Church and they wanted no input from the priests fearing it would undercut their point of view.
The bishops didn’t want any input from the men directly serving in the parishes among the people. Or the people themselves. These bishops would rather be wrong in their suppositions, than to hear the truth from the local parishes. They were very out-of-step with many sheep in their flocks over the Church’s Covid response, and most still seem totally oblivious to that fact. You cannot govern in truth, if you refuse to hear it.
In addition to ignoring emails, phone calls, letters, and petitions, more than one Orthodox hierarch is known for blocking / unfriending anyone on social media who asks an unwelcome question or “steps out of line” in even the slightest way. On Twitter, whoever runs Archbishop Elpidophoros’ account is notorious for quickly blocking users, even priests, over seemingly trivial comments / questions. His Eminence even blocks accounts that have never contacted him on the basis of those accounts having interacted with blocked accounts.
Those wanting to have their concerns heard end up writing blogs, posting on their own social media, and signing petitions – all in the hopes of getting some episcopal attention. Orthodox Reflections came into existence for this very reason. As all private avenues of communication are cut off, there is not much choice besides going public. The lack of meaningful engagement and cooperation hurts and divides the Church. It also makes the men charged with making decisions and representing the Church look and sound completely tone-deaf.
In the secular world, before we issue a statement to clients or put out a press release, the text goes through multiple layers of vetting by different departments. Everyone brings their own expertise to bear. Much of our review effort is geared towards identifying ways any statement can be misconstrued. Anything you say or publish can instantly turn into a public relations nightmare. We could paraphrase Murphy’s Law a bit to say: Anything that can be misconstrued, will be. A good rule – don’t say and do things which can reasonably be misunderstood (or understood if that really is your point) as being contrary to your values and/or your previous commitments. Doing so provides ammunition to your enemies and demoralizes your supporters. In the Orthodox context, souls are literally on the line, so you had better be careful with what you say and do.
On a regular basis, bishops ignite firestorms. Sometimes it seems to be accidental. At other times, it is clear that they took controversial positions and steps on purpose, but it is hard to believe they were in any way prepared for the severity of the backlash that followed. If they listened to anyone at all in the preparation of their controversial texts or planning some of their controversial actions, then it was to individuals who agreed with them completely and looked at everything from the same perspective as the hierarchs. An echo chamber does not prepare you for contact with the real world.
The latest example was Archbishop Elpidophoros seemingly endorsing “many paths to God” and rejecting Christ as the only way to salvation: “When you elevate one religion above all others, it is as if you decide there is only one path leading to the top of the mountain.” We covered the speech here and here.
Of course, the unfortunate “new age” wording has already spawned many negative responses. Among them are humorous memes such as the one to the right.
In the best case, this speech was a blunder based on being completely tone-deaf to easily anticipated public reaction:
In my opinion, Archbishop Elpidophoros could have done a better job of bracketing his comment about having only one path leading to the top of the mountain, i.e., that he was talking about state-religion relations, not about theology in the usual sense. Loosely read, Elpidophoros’ mountain metaphor can be construed as an allusion to a universalist soteriology—an affront to Orthodoxy.
The Greek Archdiocese, so far, has not even attempted to explain the comments. At best, a major blunder. At worst, a case of using plausible deniability to advance heresy publicly. Either way, in a healthy organization with proper checks and balances, this speech would never have been given.
One has to pity priests and deacons in the Greek Archdiocese. Their own hierarchy makes their difficult jobs even harder, and then won’t even listen to their cries of pain.
More examples of tone-deafness abound. We’ll cover just a few:
- Bishop Benjamin of the OCA sent a letter to his priests mandating that anyone not wearing a mask could not receive communion, and warning his priests, “If I learn you are not strictly observing these directives and one of your parishioners dies of COVID 19, I will not hesitate to suspend you.” This letter was received so badly in his parishes, that six months later members of the Diocese of the West are still complaining about it. Some referenced that letter as the last straw in their leaving the OCA.
- Archbishop Paul (Gassios) of the Diocese of the Midwest suspended Fr. Mark Hodges after he legally participated in a Constitutionally protected rally, and suggested in a letter to the priest that he was “guilty by association” for having been in the presence of illegal activity. When contacted repeatedly, the chancellor of the diocese finally responded to state that Fr. Mark Hodges was not suspended for participating in the rally. Despite the fact that this suspension had become an international news story, the chancellor refused to comment on why Fr. Mark was suspended, if not for participation in the rally. So of course, as you can see from the comments on our coverage, a huge fight ensued among the Faithful all over the Internet concerning the justness of the suspension and the underlying causes. The diocese never clarified the reasons for the suspension. A few months later, it was quietly announced that Fr. Mark’s suspension had been lifted. No explanation was given as to what, if anything, had changed. All that bad blood between faithful Orthodox Christians, all that bad press coverage internationally, and just like that – it all gets dropped down the memory hole. The lack of transparency harms the witness of the Orthodox Church, and seems to be driven by bishops not realizing or not caring how much controversy their actions stir up among the Faithful.
- Archbishop Elpidophoros publicly endorsed extending Orthodox communion to unconverted spouses to help keep those in interfaith marriages from leaving the Church. That might help those in that particular situation, though in a way that actually harms those unworthily receiving communion. However, even discussing opening communion to the non-Orthodox caused faithful Greek Orthodox to denounce the idea as heresy. The Greek Archdiocese has already lost a large number of attending members in the past year (maybe as high as 30% in some surveys). If this change is implemented, doubtless more will leave. Priests and Faithful in other jurisdictions quickly began openly discussing the possibility of full-blown schism. If the Archbishop is trying to keep ethnic Greeks in the “fold” of the Church, this is going to backfire horribly. How could the Archbishop possibly be so isolated that not one faithful Orthodox Christian was there to tell him, “This is a terrible idea!”
- On the Feast Day of St. Bartholomew, June 11th, Archbishop Elpidophoros presided over a Divine Liturgy at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. On July 3, he was back at St. Bart’s in a more personal capacity to visit with their rector, Bp. Dean E. Wolfe. St. Bart’s has been criticized as “ground zero for the queering of Manhattan.” This level of engagement looks very much like an endorsement of the Episcopal Church’s homosexual-friendly agenda. As one commenter summed up this pattern of behavior by Archbishop Elpidophoros, “We cannot but conclude that the archbishop is sending the wrong message to his faithful followers.” Not only did the Archbishop do these things, but he highly publicized them. Does no one at the level of the Archdiocese understand how badly these actions are received among faithful Orthodox Christians? Or what ridicule the Orthodox Faith is being subjected to by those outside of the Church?
- A recent encyclical from Archbishop Sotirios of Canada asserted that supporters of a single communion spoon are “pagan.” That was not received well by the long-suffering Greek community in Canada, and will likely drive away even more people.
- Archbishop Elpidophoros famously marched with Black Lives Matter over a year ago. At the time, we wrote an article questioning the Archbishop lending his moral authority to a group associated not only with violence but also with abortion on demand, Marxist economic policies, homosexuality, transgenderism, and the disruption of the nuclear family. Not surprisingly, the progressive Orthodox over at Fordham University roundly applauded the Archbishop for his march. Many faithful Orthodox Christians were scandalized by his words and actions. The Archbishop’s support for BLM has never looked good, but it looks especially bad now since the group issued a statement siding with the
Cuban Communist dictatorship against the brave people of Cuba who are in the streets demanding their freedom.
- Even worse, in the middle of the pro-freedom protests, the Ecumenical Patriarch announced an official visit to Cuba this November at the invitation of the communist regime. This will be the EP’s second visit to Cuba. There is an Orthodox Cathedral in Cuba with the mosaic you see to the right of the EP receiving a key from mass murderer Fidel Castro. The plaque says, “THIS CATHEDRAL IS A GIFT FROM THE PEOPLE OF CUBA TO THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH AND TO ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW, FIDEL CASTRO RUZ -NOVEMBER 2003” Partnering with communists is not really a good look for Orthodox hierarchs, particularly when immortalized in a mosaic. A fact most normal parish priests and/or laypersons would be happy to inform the hierarchs of, if only they could.
- His Eminence Metropolitan Ambrosios, the former Metropolitan of the Metropolis of Kalavryta and Aigialeia in northern Greece, recently published a lengthy list of abuses of the Orthodox Faith including: sacraments of heretics being recognized, donating the Qur’an as a sacred book, common prayers and concelebrations of bishops with heretics, metropolises locking churches and threatening priests, masks in front of the Holy Altar, single-use disposable spoons for distributing of the immaculate Body and Blood of our Christ, and bishops prohibiting the sacrament of Confession. It was a blistering call to change course and repent.
Repentance is Needed
His Eminence Metropolitan Ambrosios also said in his article, “Wherever there is Orthodoxy there are wounds.” That is true all over the globe. But despite those wounds, most of the hierarchy simply goes on with business as usual. Most acknowledge only the pandemic, while ignoring any of the pain and suffering caused by the hysterical, harmful responses to it. The one exception we have seen is Archbishop Mark of Philadelphia and Eastern America (Orthodox Church in America) who at least seems to “feel our pain“:
The past year has truly been a rollercoaster ride for all of us and we need to be mindful and considerate of those suffering from isolation, fear, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and loneliness, as well as those who have lost loved ones. Additionally, divisions occurred as people lost the ability to discuss differing opinions on a variety of matters.
While a welcome acknowledgment that bad things have happened, the archbishop’s statement is hardly repentance for the role he, and his fellow bishops, played in the “rollercoaster ride.” This lack of repentance over the Covid responses, the political missteps, and the ecumenist scandals is frequently discussed among Orthodox Christians. The attitude of the bishops has caused some Orthodox Christians to stop attending liturgy or to switch jurisdictions.
This really can’t continue. The most sincere and holy hierarchs will find it within themselves to set a public example of repentance for their mistakes. We also recognize that there appear to be Orthodox hierarchs who are intentionally trying to change the Orthodox Faith – either out of conformity to the world (weakness) or under demonic influence. They need to be called to repentance and held to account, particularly by other hierarchs.
The people will forgive hierarchs who embrace public repentance and flock to them. To minimize future mistakes, the best hierarchs will commit themselves to open communication, accountability, and transparency. They will not always take the advice of their priests and laity, but they will at least give them a fair hearing and avoid openly scandalizing them.
Fr. Demetrios was quite right, all we need is communication and repentance.
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