EDITORIAL: ORTHODOX POPERY COMES TO AMERICA? or TIME FOR A GREEK ORTHODOX REVOLT IN AMERICA?

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Archbishop Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of America
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Here at Orthodoxy in Dialogue our freedom from oversight by any ecclesiastical or academic authority allows us to say the hard things that we feel need to be said and to ask the hard questions that we feel need to be asked. While this is bound at every step of the way to offend someone somewhere—whether hierarchy, clergy, monastics, or laity—giving offense never motivates our activity. Our sole purpose has ever been to contribute in what small ways we can to unfettered dialogue within the entire Body of the Orthodox Church, in a forum where there are no forbidden topics and no forbidden opinions.  

Early in the day yesterday, May 11, we noticed an enormous and seemingly unaccountable upsurge of readers of The Ecumenical Patriarch: First without Equals, a 2014 article by then Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of Bursa, reprinted by Orthodoxy in Dialogue in January 2019. By the end of the day the number of readers had increased by a full 50% over the previous three and a half months. 

Only later in the day did the news reach us that the Metropolitan had just been appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the new primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. This explains the sudden appearance of his name in internet searches around the planet, which has brought and continues to bring so many new readers to his article at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

We  reprinted Metropolitan Elpidophoros’ article as a companion piece to Joseph Zheng’s When Andrew Reigned Alone on the Earth: Ecclesial Implications of the Ukrainian Tomos, in which the author raises important questions touching on Orthodox ecclesiology and the nature of Constantinople’s primacy. We prefaced Mr. Zheng’s article as follows:

When Orthodoxy in Dialogue published the full text of the Ukrainian Church’s Tomos of Autocephaly on January 16, 2019, we appended the following note: “Orthodoxy in Dialogue welcomes discussion and debate on the ecclesiological assumptions implicit and explicit in the Tomos—particularly in its understanding of the primacy and canonical prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate—which might seem contrary to other modern articulations of Orthodox ecclesiology.” Mr. Zheng’s commentary presents a well-written and thoughtful response to these kinds of questions.

and Metropolitan Elpidophoros’ as follows:

Earlier today Orthodoxy in Dialogue published Joseph Zheng’s When Andrew Reigned Alone on the Earth: Ecclesial Implications of the Ukrainian Tomos. In it he draws our attention to the following interpretation of Constantinopolitan primacy and its attendant canonical prerogatives.

Metropolitan Elpidophoros turns 52 this year. Since he was born in Istanbul, and Turkish law requires that the Ecumenical Patriarch be a Turkish citizen by birth, it seems plausible that he could become the next Patriarch of Constantinople and have a very long reign on the Ecumenical Throne. We offer his understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s personal primacy for careful study and robust debate throughout the whole Body of the Church. 

An especially urgent light has now been shone on these questions of ecclesiology and primacy by events at the Phanar over the past week: namely, the “voluntary” resignation of Arcbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on May 4 and the “election” of Metropolitan Elpidophoros to replace him on May 11, a mere week later—”voluntary” and “election” both apparently being, by all reports, up for debate.

In actuality we began to experience concerns about the Ecumenical Patriarchate toward the latter half of 2018, when the project of Ukrainian autocephaly started to move forward more decisively. While Orthodoxy in Dialogue has wholeheartedly supported and continues to support the administrative independence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate’s control as not only ecclesiologically and pastorally necessary, but also as a matter of Ukraine’s national security vis-à-vis the enemy state of Russia, and while we have deeply appreciated and continue to appreciate Patriarch Bartholomew’s unflinching courage in the face of fierce opposition from Russia and other quarters in the global Orthodox world, we grew more and more uneasy about some of the Phanar’s popish rhetoric in justification of its actions. How far would that rhetoric go? To what other situations might it be applied?

Yet we took some comfort from the fact that the Phanar took action in Ukraine only after decades of failed attempts to resolve the issue in consultation with Moscow, and only in consultation with the then schismatic Ukrainian hierarchy and people and even with the Ukrainian state.

We had not long to wait. In November we were just as stunned as the rest of the Orthodox world by the unilateral dissolution of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (aka “Rue Daru”)—a decision delivered as a fait accompli which must be obeyed, without warning and without consultation even with Archbishop John (Renneteau), let alone with the clergy, monastics, and laity of his flock.

Immediately some of our readers from the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s other smaller jurisdictions—the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada—began to communicate their anguish to us that they, too, might wake up one morning soon to find that their Church had been dissolved overnight by imperial decree from Istanbul. 

The foolhardy statement by one Metropolitan from the Phanar that even the autocephaly of a longstanding Church—namely, the Russian Church—could be unilaterally rescinded at the Ecumenical Patriarch’s pleasure did nothing to allay the growing sense of alarm among Orthodox Christians of good will around the world. Even Orthodox who are generally supportive of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the person of Patriarch Bartholomew wondered what on earth was going on.

It was in this context that Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa—now the new Archbishop of America—emerged in our awareness as the apologist for a disturbingly popish understanding of ecclesiology and primacy through his 2014 article cited above. It seems beyond paradoxical to us that, while the Roman Church has stumbled and floundered in fits and starts toward greater collegiality and lay participation in the more than half century since Vatican II, the Ecumenical Patriarchate should appear destined to lay hold of the old “papal claims” for itself.

Yesterday’s “election” of the new Archbishop of America in faraway Istanbul—by all reports, not only without consultation with the hierarchy, clergy, monastics, and laity of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, but even against the express wishes of the Archdiocese—simply serves as a case in point. Demonstrative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s increasingly imperialist views of its own role in the Orthodox Church, such unilateral fiats, handed down from above, will only occur with greater frequency as power, status, territory, and probably money take precedence over the preaching of the Gospel, the drawing of new disciples to the risen Christ, the feeding of the hungry and sheltering of the homeless, and the salvation of souls.

To the best of our knowledge, Phanariot ecclesiology finds no resonance anywhere in modern Orthodox ecclesiology—especially, and most ironically of all, in that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s own celebrated Metropolitan John (Zizioulas).

(To be sure, Muscovite ecclesiology fares no better, with its own brand of popery predicated on its “Third Rome” foolishness. Our remarks here must in no way be construed as pro-Moscow Patriarchate in its present quarrels with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Russian Church has tragically turned its back on the bright hopes of the 1917-18 Council of Moscow and become—institutionally— little more than a Kremlin tool, just as it was in the Soviet era.)

Orthodox ecclesiology is never “democratic” in the secular sense of the word. Yet in its purest form—articulated germinally by such pre-Constantinian church fathers as St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108) and St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258)—neither is our ecclesiology autocratic and dictatorial. Just as the people must do nothing without the bishop, so too the bishop must do nothing without the people. Just as the Church is in the bishop, so too the bishop is in the Church—the whole Church, constituted by her hierarchy, clergy, monastics, laymen, laywomen, and even children. Just as the obedience of marriage operates reciprocally in both directions between husband and wife, so too obedience in the Church flows simultaneously in all directions to and from the episcopate, the presbyterate, the diaconate, the monastic order, and the laity. It is for this reason that the Holy Apostle Paul likens the Church to a biological body in which the head is the servant of the foot no less than the foot is the servant of the head. 

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America—the hierarchy, clergy, monastics, and laity—must insist on electing their own Archbishop and proceed to do so. The Archbishop-elect might, or might not, be Metropolitan Elpidophoros. Yet it seems more sensible on every level to elect a man born and raised in the US, and possessing decades of actual pastoral experience in the US.

The fact that Metropolitan Elpidophoros is touted as the “abbot” of a “monastery” which—to the best of our knowledge—has no monks speaks volumes in and of itself. But then the Ecumenical Patriarchate has bishops of places that not only have no Orthodox Christians living there, but even of places that have no human inhabitants of any kind.

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The importation of Metropolitan Elpidophoros’ popish version of Phanariot primacy to American soil will have repercussions beyond the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. This is because, the moment this man who has never served as a bishop in the US ascends the archiepiscopal throne, he becomes ex officio the president of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America. As we reported in Orthodoxy in America: Broken Promises and Shattered Dreams? last July, while the Assembly is ostensibly dedicated to the creation of a united, autocephalous Church for America, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s handpicked “Archons” consider any such talk to be treasonous. We quote that article at length:

In May of this year, Steve Efstathios Valiotis received an honourary doctorate from Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline MA. In his acceptance speech he called for the autocephaly of the American Church—a presumably uncontroversial remark, ecclesiologically and canonically, especially given the stated purpose of the Assembly of Bishops over which Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese presides.

The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle-Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America—a male-only lay organization of honourees designated by the Ecumenical Patriarch—issued a swift condemnation of Valiotis’ remarks as an attack against the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, express their concern and disappointment that at the commencement exercises at our beloved Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, the reported public discourse included sentiments against the Mother and Great Church of Christ, as well as inopportune references to ‘autocephaly’ for the Holy Archdiocese of America. As any cleric or layperson should know, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is an Eparchy of the Most Holy Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — the First Throne of the worldwide Orthodox Christian Church — and as such, has its ecclesial, canonical, and liturgical bases rooted in the Vineyard planted by the Right Hand of the Lord through the First Called Disciple, the Holy Apostle Andrew. All of the Hierarchy, clergy, and laity of the Holy Archdiocese owe their allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and we, the Archons, express our deep concern that while one spoke against the Mother Church, no one seems to have spoken for Her.

We pray earnestly and with every good intention that such foolishness not afflict the Body of the Church any longer, and that all of us, clergy and laity, remain steadfast to the Mother Church of Constantinople with gladness and gratitude for the blessings She has bestowed, with blood and tears, upon Her children in this great Land of Freedom and Promise. [See full report in The National Herald.]

Do the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its American Eparchy—the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese—support the normalization of the Church’s organizational structure in America, or do they not? The answer becomes considerably less clear, considerably more disheartening.

It’s hard to imagine how Metropolitan Elpidophoros’ archiepiscopacy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and his presidency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops will advance the cause of canonical Orthodox unity in the US.

The time has long passed for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops to reject the model of governance imposed on it by foreign bishops and to elect its own president from any canonical jurisdiction in the US. Why does the American Orthodox Church continue to accept being infantilized by the so-called “mother churches?”

No one denies the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Orthodox Church. Yet it is not the Phanar’s prerogative to decide, on its own, in what its primacy consists in the 21st century. Have we not learned our lesson from Rome about what happens when a See gets too big for its britches, and unilaterally articulates and tries to impose on the Body of the Church its own understanding of its role? But this is the subject for another editorial.

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