Monday, March 25, 2019

An American Perspective on the Ukraine Crisis

With Fr. Sergei Baranov, who translated 

This is the text of a talk that I gave at St. Tikhon University in Moscow, at a conference entitled "Causes and Challenges of the Current Crisis of Inter-Orthodox Relations," on February 25th, 2019.


I discovered Orthodox Christianity a bit more than 30 years ago. I was studying to be a Protestant minister, and was serving as an associate pastor at a church which organized a pro-life group in Oklahoma City, and invited other churches in the area. At the first meeting, I was sitting with my wife, and in came a Russian Orthodox priest. I had never seen anything quite like him. He was wearing a black cassock, a gold pectoral cross, and had a long gray beard. I said to my wife, “Could you imagine me dressed like that?”

As time went on, I got to know the priest, and began asking him theological questions, and was intrigued by his answers which made a lot of sense to me. Then one Saturday I visited his parish for a Vespers service. It was not in a beautiful Church like you have here in Russia. It was in a small storefront, in a rundown shopping center. But the beauty of the service and of the hymns had a deep impact on me. I was not ready to convert just yet, because I had a lot of theological objections that I had to work through, but about a year later, I did. And since I became Orthodox, I have devoted a great deal of time and effort to bringing others into the Church. I had discovered a great treasure, and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

This brings us to the topic at hand. You might wonder why Orthodox Christians in America would care about what is going on in Ukraine, but even though it is far away from us, one reason why this matters to me is because it harms the witness of the Orthodox Church, and it makes it a lot more difficult to explain to people what the Orthodox Church is, when we have the waters being muddied by the uncanonical actions of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Many speakers have already ably discussed the history, and the canonical issues in question here, and so I will not attempt to rehash those issues, but will simply talk about how this issue is viewed by the Orthodox in the United States, how it is impacting us, and what the long term implications are.

I. Background in America

In order to understand the situation we are in, in the United States, let me explain briefly a few things about the Orthodox Church in America. The Russian Church sent missionaries to North America 225 years ago. But for the most part, Orthodoxy was brought to the United States by immigration from various parts of the Orthodox world, and so we have different jurisdictions reflecting the various ethnic groups that established parishes in in the United States. Of these groups, the largest are the Greeks, though they have been experiencing a decline in recent years. Orthodox Christians represent about one percent of the total population. The Greeks in the United States were originally under the Church of Greece, but were transferred to the jurisdiction of Constantinople in the 1922 by Patriarch Meletius Metaxakis, of whom we will talk about more later.

However, the Russian Church began the process of translating the services into English in the late 19th century, with the hopes of reaching out to the non-Orthodox people of the United States, and this eventually began to bear fruit – particularly beginning in the 1980’s, and today there are now many converts to the Orthodox Faith in the United States.

II. Reactions to the Ukraine Crisis in America

The reactions among the Orthodox in the United States to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s actions in Ukraine have varied. In the Greek Archdiocese, there are of course company men who support the the Patriarch, regardless of the merits of his actions; there are those who are confused by what has happened, and there are those who are indifferent. But there are also those who are opposed to what the EP has done. For example, we now have a new ROCOR parish in Lubbock, Texas, because several families from the Greek parish there could not in good conscience stay under the EP, and so have now formed a new parish. There are many more who are waiting to see what will happen, but I have personally spoken with quite a few of them, and if the EP does not change course, they intend to leave too.

Most other jurisdictions in the United States have been very negative towards the actions of the EP. On the other hand, we have Ukrainian Nationalists who are very anti-Russian, and very supportive of what the EP is doing.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is very supportive of the stance taken by the Moscow Patriarchate, and I have not seen much evidence of dissenting opinions on the matter. And this is certainly not because ROCOR has anything against Ukraine or Ukrainians. Our Metropolitan is a Ukrainian. My Archbishop is of Don Cossack descent. Our most important monastery, Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, was founded by monks from the Pochaev Lavra. We also have a large number of Ukrainians in our parishes. In my own parish I have quite a few Ukrainian families, from various parts of Ukraine.

III. How it is Affecting Us.

In many ways this crisis has a bigger impact on those of us in the US, then it does in Russia. Of course, those in the Ukraine are impacted the most, by far. But in Russia, you don’t have Greek parishes around you, and so the fact that we have broken communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not disrupt fellowship with parishes in your area, but for us, this is a big issue.

I have personally spent many years working to strengthen inter-Orthodox relations in my area. We have had a very strong clergy association, that includes all the Orthodox Churches in the Houston area, and I was the president of that association for many years until just this last year. Now the current head is a priest of the Greek Archdiocese, and so I cannot even attend the meetings. In my parish I have many people who have family who attend Greek parishes, and I have some parishioners who have moved to places where the only parish is a Greek parish. In Texas there are two very pious Greek monasteries, and quite a few of my parishioners have frequently visited those monasteries, and they love to go there to pray. And so this is very painful to us, because there are many good and pious people in the Greek Archdiocese, they are our friends, and parts of many of our families, but now these relationships are being disrupted.

As I mentioned, this impacts our ability to reach out to the non-Orthodox in our country. One of the common questions I am asked by non-Orthodox people is, “What is the Orthodox Church?” And one of my quick answers to that question has been, “You have probably heard of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church… well it’s the same Church.” That’s an answer that has been made more complicated by this mess.

IV. What is the Cause of this Crisis?

I would like to talk about the observations made in 1938, by St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai, in a report to the 2nd All-Diaspora Sobor, which was held in Yugoslavia. It is interesting to note that what he observed then is only all the more apparent today. To summarize the points that he made, he noted that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had been greatly diminished as a result of the Balkan wars of liberation, and then the after effects of the Turkish Ethnic cleansing of Greeks from Asia Minor after World War I, and that ever since that time, the EP has been trying to make up for lost territory and lost revenue. The EP has also been trying to find some way to make itself relevant to the rest of the world. The EP also began to take advantage of the chaos the Bolshevik Revolution was causing, and to slice off portions of territory that had belonged to the Russian Church – and did so, for the first time, under the pretext that the Kiev Metropolia was really under their jurisdiction. It was also around this time the EP assumed control of the Greek parishes in North and South America, which had been under the authority of the Church of Greece, and to establish dioceses in Western Europe and Australia. St. John also pointed out that during the 1920’s, the EP recognized the renovationist “Living Church” as the legitimate Church in Russia, and entered into communion with it.

St. John closed his report with these words:
“The moral authority of the Patriarchs of Constantinople has likewise fallen very low in view of their extreme instability in ecclesiastical matters. Thus, Patriarch Meletius IV arranged a "Pan-Orthodox Congress," with representatives of various churches, which decreed the introduction of the New Calendar. This decree, recognized only by a part of the Church, introduced a frightful schism among Orthodox Christians. Patriarch Gregory VII recognized the decree of the council of the Living Church concerning the deposing of Patriarch Tikhon, whom not long before this the Synod of Constantinople had declared a "confessor," and then he entered into communion with the "Renovationists" in Russia, which continues up to now.
In sum, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in theory embracing almost the whole universe and in fact extending its authority only over several dioceses, and in other places having only a higher superficial supervision and receiving certain revenues for this, persecuted by the government at home and not supported by any governmental authority abroad: having lost its significance as a pillar of truth and having itself become a source of division, and at the same time being possessed by an exorbitant love of power – represents a pitiful spectacle which recalls the worst periods in the history of the See of Constantinople.”

V. Meletios Metaxakis 

It is interesting to note that the “Living Church” held its first “Council” in April of 1923, and that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Meletius (Metaxakis) held a so-called “Pan Orthodox Congress” in May of 1923. Although this “Pan Orthodox Congress” issued a statement supporting Patriarch Tikhon, its agenda was remarkably similar to that of the “Living Church.” This council was called “Pan Orthodox” despite the fact that Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all refused to take part in it. In addition to the introduction of the New Calendar, they supported allowing clergymen to remarry, the shortening of the fasts and the shortening of the services.

Patriarch Meletios had a very interesting career. He began as a priest of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, but was expelled for "activities against the Holy Sepulcher." He then went to the Church of Greece, and was even made Archbishop of Athens, but was deposed by it because of his active participation in an Episcopalian service in the United States (he was fully vested, venerated their holy table, gave a sermon, and blessed the people). However, the Church of Greece was pressured into lifting his deposition because he was elected Patriarch of Constantinople. And even this election was highly questionable. Another candidate was actually elected with 16 out of 17 votes, but he was pressured into withdrawing his candidacy, and Meletios (Metaxakis) was elected instead. Not long after his election, he held this “Pan-Orthodox Congress”. The faithful were so incensed by the decisions of that council that he was forced to resign. He was then elected Patriarch of Alexandria, through the influence of the British, who then occupied Egypt. In fact, at each step in his career, foreign governments used their influence to advance him, because they knew he would favor their agenda. At the second council of the “Living Church,” held in 1925, both Constantinople and Alexandria sent representatives and gave their support to the “Living Church” against the canonical Church of Russia. And also, soon after Meletios became Patriarch of Alexandria, he switched that Church to the New Calendar as well.

And we see from recent proposals of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that they have very much the same agenda as the Living Church even today. However, today, they make the Living Church look Traditional by comparison.

In the United States and in the English-speaking Orthodox world generally, we hear many voices from within the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which are supporting homosexuality, openly. The Archons have helped fund an Orthodox institute at Fordham University. The heads of this institute have used this platform to launch a website called “Public Orthodoxy” which regularly promotes homosexuality and other forms of deviancy. And it is not bad enough that they publish this material in English, but they now translate their articles into Russian, Greek, and Serbian. And they do this without the slightest hint of any rebuke from the Greek Archdiocese of America. In fact, whenever they have a big event, Archbishop Demetrios of New York is usually present, adding his authority to that event. For example, one of the heads of this institute, Aristotle Papanikolaou, in an article in another pro-homosexual journal, The Wheel, wrote that expecting people who suffer from same-sex attraction to remain celibate is “unrealistic” and unhealthy, and that such desires should best be expressed in the context of “long-term committed relationships or marriages” (The Wheel 13/14, Spring/Summer 2018, p. 97 [emphasis added]. See also "Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top," "The Living Church 2.0," and "Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy").

Patriarch Bartholomew’s Archdeacon, Fr. John Chryssavgis, has made a number of pro-homosexual statements. For example, he wrote a review of a book that was a simple piece of pro-homosexual propaganda written by a homosexual Episcopal priest, and he gushed with praise for what a great contribution this book was to the important “dialogue” on homosexuality. The only slight criticism he made of this book was to say that he remained “unconvinced” by some of the book’s arguments that the Scriptures support homosexuality. This is from a man who has no difficulty expressing his disagreement, in eloquent and striking terms… when he wishes to.

Many of you are aware of the call that was made to “Metropolitan” Epifany, by a Russian prankster, who pretend to be a western diplomat, and congratulated him on the “autocephaly” of the Church in Ukraine, but expressed his hope that the Epifany would take a different stand on homosexuality than the conservative one taken by the Russian Church. Epifany assured him that he would not take such a conservative stand against homosexuality.

And what I have noticed, in the English-speaking Orthodox world at least, is that those who promote the acceptance of homosexuality in the Orthodox Church have all been consistently lining up behind the EP’s actions in Ukraine.

One other agenda item that I think is clearly behind the EP’s actions in Ukraine is the goal of union with Rome. We already see the schismatics in Ukraine concelebrating with Uniates with increasing frequency. One thing that is certain is that Patriarch Bartholomew’s actions in Ukraine make no sense, if he intends to remain in the Orthodox Church.

Furthermore, there are very strong indications that the United States State Department has had some role in pushing for these actions, but to what extent, or in what form this pressure was applied, we do not yet know.

VI. Where We Seem to be Headed

It does not appear to me to be at all likely that Patriarch Bartholomew will change course. The best-case scenario, that might yet minimize the damage to the Orthodox Church would require very swift and strong stances taken by the other local Orthodox Churches, leading not just to a call for a Pan-Orthodox Council, but to actually holding one, which would formally condemn the EP’s actions. This would have the best chance of forcing the EP to back down from the positions he has taken on Ukraine – but it seems unlikely that he would do so, even then.

If this schism becomes permanent, I believe we will see further divisions in other local Churches that will ostensibly be about the schism in Ukraine, but will really be driven by divisions over the moral issues that are really behind the EP’s agenda. I think that the Russian Church Abroad, Antioch, and the Serbian Patriarchate will all remain firm. However, I think the Greek Archdiocese in America and the Orthodox Church in America will likely see a split.

Most of the Greek Archdiocese will probably remain with the Ecumenical Patriarch, because of the financial costs that would come with opposing him. However, there are very Traditional and conservative people in the Greek Archdiocese that will place fidelity to the Tradition over any financial considerations they may have to face.

I think most of the Orthodox Church in America will likely stand with the rest of the Church, but they do have a liberal faction that will likely side with the EP.

I hope that I am wrong, and that this whole question is resolved in the right way soon, and we are all united in the Faith at the end of the day.

I would note in closing that I believe it was providential that the New Calendar Patriarch of Constantinople chose the Old Calendar Feast of St. Maximus the Confessor for the enthronement of the schismatic “Metropolitan of Kiev” – who at least for the time being, observes the Old Calendar. St. Maximus stood firm against a heresy that was motivated by purely political purposes, which was aimed at uniting the Empire with one faith and one Church, but had little concern for the Truth of the Orthodox Faith, and so attempted to compromise that Faith. St. Maximus went to the West, participated in councils that condemned what the Patriarch of Constantinople was doing, and then when he was captured by the emperor, and brought back to Constantinople, he was threatened in every way imaginable to try to force him to accept entering into communion with the heretical Patriarch of Constantinople. They even lied to him, and tried to convince him that all of the Church had now accepted the compromised teachings of the EP, and had entered into communion with Constantinople again. St. Maximus replied:
“Even if the whole universe holds communion with the Patriarch, I will not communicate with him. For I know from the writings of the holy Apostle Paul: the Holy Spirit declares that even the angels would be anathema if they should begin to preach another Gospel, introducing some new teaching.”
"…This is the reason why I, your servant, will not enter into communion with the Church of Constantinople. Let these offenses, introduced by the aforementioned men into the Church, be removed; let those who have introduced them be deposed; and then the path to salvation will be cleared of all barriers, and you will walk on the smooth path of the Gospel, cleansed of all heresy! When I see the Church of Constantinople as she was formerly, then I will enter into communion with her without any exhortation on the part of men. But while there are heretical temptations in her, and while heretics are her bishops, no word or deed will convince me ever to enter into communion with her."
Fortunately, we see many people in Ukraine who like St. Maximus, are willing to suffer the loss of property, and are even being beaten for their Faith. St. Maximus was beaten, and had his tongue cut out, and his right hand cut off to silence him. But when the Sixth Ecumenical Council was convened, it was St. Maximus who was affirmed, and all those who opposed him who were condemned by the Church. So I pray that the Church in Ukraine will stand firm for the Faith, because that is the treasure that I want to preserve, and that I want to pass on to others in the United States.

I also want to thank you, the faithful in Russia, for having stood firm for the Faith in your country, and to thank your ancestors for having brought that Faith to United States so that people like me could come to know that Faith as well.