By Lawrence B. Wheeler
For what it’s worth, I believe that it is time for all of us in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOARCH) to leave our parishes. I myself will be gone by the end of the year. Most others will decide to stay, but it would behoove them to seek a change in leadership. The reasons that compel me and many people like me to leave are not trivial matters. In this article, I will list my primary reasons for leaving. These are not just subjective reasons, as though this problem were mine alone. Rather, they are objective reasons that should be persuasive enough to convince anyone that staying in the GOARCH is a fool’s errand at best or a matter of guilt by association at worst.
“To all things innovated and enacted contrary to the Church tradition, teaching, and institution of the holy and ever-memorable fathers, or to anything henceforth so enacted, ANATHEMA.”
Synodicon of the Holy Spirit
This may sound outrageous, but I submit that Patriarch Bartholomew has become a schismatic and a heretic. He didn’t always used to be one. In 1995, when Patriarch Bartholomew was still fresh on the throne, he made a statement that supported normative Orthodox church polity.
“This system of administration of the Church’s affairs, based on the joint responsibility and decentralization that our Orthodox Church applies, fundamentally explains the fact that as much as is humanly possible, she preserves the ancient tradition intact. Because, in the absence of centralized administration and responsibility, in order to introduce an innovation in teaching or praxis, this must be agreed upon by all the bishops…”
That was then, but times have changed.
Patriarch Bartholomew can now be called a heretic for one incontrovertible reason. His contention that the throne of the patriarchate of Constantinople is primus sine paribus violates Holy Tradition. When Rome seceded from the Orthodox Church a millennium ago, the see of Constantinople took first place on the diptychs. Since then, the whole Church has been content to honor the patriarch of that city as primus inter pares, i.e., “first amongst equals”.
Bartholomew’s recent contention, however, is an innovation that cannot pass muster with the wider Church. Orthodox Church polity is one of conciliarity. The episcopal hierarchs together rule the local churches in a spirit of collegiality, and the clergy and laity have a stake in their governance. The novel notion of primus sine paribus, i.e., that the patriarch of Constantinople is somehow “first without equal” is an offense to the canons that establish equality amongst Orthodox hierarchs and an insult to other patriarchs and prelates.
Bartholomew has been thirty years on his gilded throne. Over that long period of time, he has changed his tune. By fiat he has arrogated unto himself near-papal powers. He seems to think that he is an Eastern pope in a confederation of Churches that repudiates papism. As such a potentate, he mistakenly thinks that he represents the plenum of the Orthodox world when he naturally sidles up to the man who is everywhere called Pope: Francis of Rome. God hasten the day, of course, when the Roman Catholics will be once again reunited with the Orthodox Church. However, there are glaring disagreements between the two communions that simply cannot be overlooked in the process toward reunion. The first is the existence of the papacy itself. It’s a false claim that any one man can somehow consider himself to be the vicar of Christ, one who has hegemony over all the Christians in the world. That is Rome’s claim for itself, but such a claim is preposterous! We Orthodox don’t have a pope, and we don’t need anyone other than Jesus Christ himself as head of the worldwide Church.
Then there is the laundry list of the other mistaken dogmas and doctrines that prevent the reunion of the Roman Catholics with the true Catholic and Orthodox Church. Number one is the filioque clause in the Nicene creed, the erroneous statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. By unilaterally inserting the filioque into the Creed, the pope claimed an authority equivalent to that of an ecumenical council. There are other theological problems that simply must be solved before a true and honest unity can be declared between the two communions. Until then, any unity with Rome will be nothing more than a Potemkin village – all show and no substance. Constantinople may even be subordinated to a uniate position like the Eastern Catholics. It seems that Bartholomew is an old man in a hurry to enter into a union with Francis without counting the costs for his patriarchal see and, indeed, the entire Orthodox Church.
Patriarch Bartholomew is also a schismatic. He opened Pandora’s box in January of 2019 by illegally granting a tomos of autocephaly to a band of Ukrainian schismatics, and for appointing prelates who are nothing of the sort. He reaped the whirlwind by this act of defiance against Metropolitan Onuphry’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Countless people have suffered the loss of their precious parishes, and some have even suffered physical violence. What shepherd would do that to another shepherd’s sheep? Ukraine has long since ceased to be Constantinople’s bailiwick, but Bartholomew has gone meddling in its internal affairs anyway. As an American, I am ashamed that our own department of state has made use of the patriarch’s influence in Eastern Europe to prop up Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian geopolitical advances. Shame on us for breaching the wall that should have separated state from Church. Shame on Bartholomew for violating the canonical prohibition against extramural exertions of influence in a metropolis that was long ago – three and a third centuries ago – ceded to the oversight of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Now the ROC, which boasts 75% of the world’s Orthodox population, may soon cease recognition of Constantinople. The Church hasn’t experienced such a schism since the great one in 1054.
Archbishop Elpidophoros, being a loyal son of Patriarch Bartholomew, is also a heretic and a schismatic in my view.
Here is the primary reason that Elpidophoros is a heretic. It was he who made the spurious argument for Constantinople’s supremacy in the Orthodox world. In a misguided essay in 2014, he stated his hypothesis that Istanbul’s throne is primus sine paribus. To back that up, he assumed God the Father’s antiquity and supremacy over the other two persons of the Holy Trinity in an attempt to apply that metaphor to the prime authority of the Constantinopolitan throne over other patriarchates and metropolises. It does not work. The Athanasian Creed makes it crystal clear that the three persons of the Holy Trinity are coeternal and coequal, so using that argument to justify Bartholomew’s ambitions falls flat on its face. To deny that is heresy of the first order. Furthermore, his shoddy arguments betray Elpidophoros’ incompetence as a theologian. When the archbishop made his debut at our parish two years ago, I queried him on his hypothesis that Constantinople is first without equal, on Bartholomew’s Eastern papacy, and on his intrusions into Ukraine against the integrity of Metropolitan Onuphry’s Church. Elpidophoros had a rebuttal for every challenge, of course.
“One must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics.”
Canon XXXIII of Laodicia
Elpidophoros is a schismatic. The most glaring example of that was his scandalous decision to celebrate the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist during Pride Month of this year in a blatantly unOrthodox house of worship, i.e. St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. That was beyond the pale. What an abomination it was for him to place the holy antimins on the altar of a radical Protestant parish that not only tolerates the sexual licentiousness of the LGBTQ movement, but actually promotes it! As a cradle Episcopalian, a former Anglican priest, and a convert to Orthodoxy, I was utterly disgusted to read of such an abomination and to see him attempt to make nice with those who trample upon Biblical morality. Elpidophoros ill-advised stunt was an outrage.
In a previous blog post, I reported on my recent pilgrimage to Orthodox sites along the West Coast. Over the course of a month, I was fortunate to be welcomed into parishes and monasteries of various Orthodox jurisdictions. I sought the opinions of the clergy and faithful along my way. One priest commented that the misguided conduct of the patriarch and the archbishop did not take away from the benefit of the Eucharist. That sort of sloppy thinking doesn’t hold water. We are not a Congregational communion, where each parish stands on its own, independent of a hierarchy. We are the Catholic Church, in the original sense. It is essential that we understand the import of this doctrine of ours. I draw your attention to Archimandrite Cyprian’s statement themed: “What is the Church?”
1. The Church is the Assembly of the People of God for the celebration of the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, wherein the local Church actually becomes and is revealed as the Body of Christ, as a Theandric organism, in which the Holy Trinity dwells. (Cf. Ephesians 4:5-6 and I Corinthians 10:15-16)
2. The visible center and head of the Eucharistic Assembly is the Bishop: It is he who leads the Assembly and preaches the word of God; it is he who offers the Eucharist, as an Icon of Christ, the Great High Priest, and as the one who presides in the place of God, according to St. Ignatios of Antioch. (Epistle to the Magnesians, VI.1)
3. In the early Church, only the Bishop offered the Divine Eucharist in each local Church; that is, there was only one Eucharist, and this was centered on the Bishop. (Epistle to the Magnesians, VII.2)
4. The Bishop, when he offers the Divine Eucharist, offers Christ in His wholeness, imparting the Holy Mysteries to the Faithful with his own hands; in ancient times, the People of God partook of Christ only from the living Icon of Christ, the Bishop. (St. Hippolytos of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition, 22)
5. Therefore, the Bishop not only embodies the local Church, but also expresses in time and space the Catholic Church, that is, the whole Church; for that which embodies Christ in His wholeness, and wherein one receives Christ in His wholeness, is that which embodies the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Wherever Jesus Christ is, says St. Ignatios, there is the Catholic Church. (St. Ignatios, Epistle to the Smyrnans, VIII.2)
6. For precisely this reason, when one is united with the Bishop in the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, then he is also united with the Catholic Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage emphasizes this ecclesiological truth in the following striking terms: The Bishop is in the Church and the Church in the Bishop; and if one is not in communion with the Bishop, he is not in the Church.
We are one interconnected Body of Christ. The ordinations and the other sacraments of the Catholic Church flow from Christ through the bishop to the priest and the deacon. The principle of ex opere operato still applies. In other words, the efficacy of sacramental actions does not depend upon the moral uprightness of the celebrant of those sacraments. Nevertheless, there is a point at which the locus of sacramental validity, i.e., the bishop, once upon a time duly elevated to his office, has subsequently strayed so far from Tradition that the sacraments celebrated under his omophorion no longer have validity. Where and when that happens is impossible to tell unless the Church makes a declaration as to such. It is a thorny theological question indeed whether the sacraments of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are still valid, led as the Church is by Bartholomew and Elpidophoros. That gives one reason for pause.
The bishop is the sine qua non of the Church. Without him, there can be no Church. Extrapolating from Archimandrite Cyprian’s definition of the Church and his high view of the episcopacy, I cannot help but find my spirit outside of the Church – or its Greek Orthodox expression in my country – for I cannot wholeheartedly embrace my bishops’ leadership of it. So, I find myself in a vexing conundrum. After all the water that has gone over the dam in the last three years, I am a sheep who no longer recognizes its shepherds’ voice, for I do not perceive in their words and actions the voice of our great and good shepherd, Christ himself. God forgive me if I am wrong, but since I cannot bring myself to honor our bishops, I cannot go on as a member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. I have written to Abp. Elpidophoros to ask him why he did what he did at St. Bart’s. He has not answered me. I have dithered for months, hoping that he would repent, but since he has not it’s time for me to leave. And, since Pat. Bartholomew has recently finished his victory lap in our country without a hint of penitence, I have even more reason to leave. His arrogance astounds me.
I myself will sound arrogant to some. They may think that I should stay and pray. May they please note that I have not reached this conclusion hastily, but rather have tried to give the hierarchs every benefit of the doubt. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was an Anglican who was devastated by the heresy and rapid downfall of the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the ill effect that it had on the whole Anglican Communion. I was pushed out of TEC because I would not sign on to their immoral agenda. It broke my heart, but I had to leave. Others may have the stomach for what they now see the hierarchy doing to the Greek Orthodox Church in this country. It may sound like an exaggeration, but like a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, I find myself flinching at the outrageous claims and misguided actions of these two high-profile hierarchs, Bartholomew and Elpidophoros. Having seen what is plain for all to see, I for one am suspicious of every action that they take. For me to go on in submission to such heretical and schismatic bishops would be an act of continued support when, in truth, I no longer support them. I don’t want to gamble with my eternal salvation. What about you, dear reader?
When I became Orthodox, I committed myself to Holy Tradition. I am endeavoring to remain committed to that Tradition. I cannot in good conscience remain under the omophorion of Bartholomew and Elpidophoros for that reason. What is needed now is for the hierarchs outside of GOARCH to condemn Bartholomew and Elpidophoros for deviating from Tradition and to call upon them to renounce their heresies and schisms.
Finally, to the affairs of my own parish. I sit on the parish council, of which I am the secretary. For the last two years, I have been in the uncomfortable position of cooperating in the shutting down and subsequent reopening of the parish during the current pandemic. I witnessed the utter capitulation of Metropolitan Gerasimos, and our priest and council to the strictest of all health mandates set forth by the ecclesiastical, state or local authorities. For several weeks in the spring and summer of last year our people were denied access to the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ simply because attending the Divine Liturgy was a perceived threat to their health. That’s double-speak. How can the prime agent of Life make one sick, unless it is not received in the proper disposition? Even now, with the spread of the viral variants, there are still cumbersome protocols in place that have the net effect of obstacles in the way of worship. These things ought not to be. How long will this go on?
In so doing, our parish leadership has strained a gnat to swallow a camel. In their ostensibly responsible effort to protect the physical health of the people – or simply to avoid the liability of lawsuits – they have denied spiritual health to the people by restricting reception of the medicine of immortality. Auwe! My own objections have been ignored by the worldly mindset of the other people who sit on the parish council and the docile nature of our parish priest. In GOARCH, it doesn’t take much provocation for the priest to mysteriously disappear overnight, so he has been cautious. The sheep have been scattered and their shepherd is tasked with gathering them back into the sheep pen. Our attendance has been decimated. Who knows if it will ever recover?
Orthodoxy is the Faith of the martyrs. The martyrs were those who stared down death so that they could testify to their faith in the one true God and his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They received a crown for their loyalty unto death. What about us? It’s embarrassing to think that, although Orthodox Christians should know better, there are few who are willing to stand up in the face of this lunacy and call it what it is. They need to oppose the error and take the appropriate action to save themselves and their families. Those who should know better but decide to relax and stay where they are will be in danger of being as spiritually compromised as the hierarchs that they follow.
I am one of the fortunate believers who don’t have to retreat to the wilderness to maintain their Orthodox integrity. There is another parish not far away that has taken a bolder stance to maintain the normative Orthodox life in the midst of the pandemic. I can leave my parish and go there. Not all laymen have that option, since their Greek Orthodox parish may be the only one for dozens of miles around. To the laymen who feel trapped I say, Don’t give up hope! Reach out to others. Reach out to hierarchs outside of GOARCH and implore them for help and spiritual care. Surely God will hear your cries.
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Mt. 7: 13 & 14