By Robert Arakaki
On 10 November 2021, Lawrence Wheeler posted on his blogsite Handwritings on the Wall (weborthodox.com) a forceful and eloquent essay about his reasons for cutting ties with GOARCH. One of the best lines in the article was:
When I became Orthodox, I committed myself to Holy Tradition. I am endeavoring to remain committed to that Tradition.
The article was written from the standpoint of a conscientious Orthodox Christian, not from a personal agenda. It is apparent from the article that Mr. Wheeler has wrestled long and hard with the decision to leave the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOARCH). For many people, changing churches can be deeply unsettling, creating emotional wounds that take a long time to heal. One ought not to leave a parish unless there are good, compelling reasons for doing so.
In this blog posting, I reflect on the possible consequences of Mr. Wheeler’s departure for GOARCH. I suspect that there are many other people within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese who are struggling with these issues of conscience. Mr. Wheeler’s article “It’s Time to Go” lists several issues: (1) Patriarch Bartholomew’s neo-Papist ecclesiology and his controversial intervention in Ukraine, (2) Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Elpidophoros’ ecumenical interactions with the non-Orthodox (Roman Catholics and Episcopalians), and (3) the way the Metropolis of San Francisco and local parishes have responded to the public health measures imposed by civil authorities. One does not have to be in agreement with all the issues raised by Mr. Wheeler, but some are significant enough and problematic enough to raise questions about GOARCH’s canonicity.
So, what are the possible cascading consequences?
- Diminishing parish resources—The loss of conscientious Orthodox Christians like Mr. Wheeler will weaken local parishes. These people are hardworking, financially generous, and well-informed about Orthodoxy. These include godly cradle-Orthodox and recent converts, both of whom sincerely love Christ and his Church. Local parishes can expect to see a slight but noticeable reduction in financial giving or volunteers available to fill leadership roles or provide manpower for parish programs. The loss of their perspectives will diminish the quality of discussion about Orthodoxy.
- More inward-looking parishes—The diminished influx of converts will change the internal dynamic of local parishes. Converts represent new blood that invigorates the local parish with their enthusiasm and their different take on things. The local parish leadership may become more inward looking, more concerned with institutional survival than advancing the kingdom of God. Parishes may revert to their ethnic roots rather than being a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17).
- More nominal leadership—Desperate to fill leadership slots, parish councils may end up becoming comprised of nominal Orthodox whose thinking is shaped by secular culture than faith in God. The parish leadership may become indifferent to the historic teachings of Orthodoxy and to godly living. In addition, struggling parishes may find themselves beholden to those with deep pockets with personal interests. It will become harder for parish priests to shepherd the flock along the lines of historic Orthodoxy. The diligent priest may find himself more a religious functionary paid to perform religious rituals than a holy priest who administers the life-giving Mysteries of Christ. For example, the parish priest needs the approval of the metropolis in order to impose disciplinary measures for major transgressions. Yet, there are reports of the hierarchs being reluctant to approve the appropriate discipline despite the recommendation of the local priest. One wonders if this is because the metropolis is afraid of alienating its ethnic base or losing the favor of a wealthy benefactor.
- Radicalization of GOARCH—The loss of Orthodox Christians zealous for upholding historic Orthodoxy will make it easier for those who are supportive of false ecumenism to advance their agenda inside GOARCH. In other words, we can expect to see the Patriarchate of Constantinople and GOARCH to take more extreme and scandalous steps towards false union with Rome and other religions. Within modern Orthodoxy there has been a dynamic tension between living in the modern world and holding fast to the Ancient Faith. The recent actions by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the GOARCH leadership are destabilizing this internal tension, resulting in a growing polarization within GOARCH, and between GOARCH and the other Orthodox jurisdictions.
- Scandal and shame—If word gets out that people are leaving GOARCH, then prospective converts and inquirers may begin to steer clear of GOARCH-affiliated parishes. People may start to advise their friends to visit Antiochian, OCA, or ROCOR parishes, but avoid Greek Orthodox parishes. This will pose a major problem for outreach and evangelism among Greek Orthodox parishes. The scandal and shame of disunity will make it harder to convince the non-Orthodox that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church. The shame and scandal of disunity will fall not just on GOARCH but on all the other jurisdictions within the United States. For those of us who have discovered the Pearl of Great Price in Orthodoxy and who desire to see the spread of Orthodoxy within American society, this is truly a distressing state of affairs.
Stay or Leave?
So, what does one do if the building is on fire but the room one is in is still untouched? One option is to pull the fire alarm. But what does one do if the fire alarm is pulled and no fire truck pulls up? What does one do if one calls 911 and no one takes the call? Then, the time comes to seriously think about leaving the room and exiting the building. Should one leave quietly or should one lead a group as well? The danger of staying is that one could end up being trapped in a raging inferno.
The hour is late, but not too late. There is still time for the clergy and hierarchs within GOARCH and from the other jurisdictions to speak out against the scandalous statements by Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Elpidophoros. My suggestion is that clergy and hierarchs call for an American council to be convened in the next year or so (2022 to 2023) to discuss the current state of affairs that bear upon Orthodoxy in America. Rather than each parish and diocese echoing the position of their respective mother church in the Old World, we need a unified American Orthodox position on the Ukrainian situation. We need clarification on Orthodox relations with the non-Orthodox in the religious pluralism of the United States. We need a policy that is informed by historic Orthodoxy, not modern liberal ecumenism. And we need a unified policy on church-state relations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than have a hodgepodge of responses that vary from parish to parish, and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This lack of unity in response to the COVID-19 crisis has allowed distrust and disunity to enter into American Orthodoxy. I would guess that many of us in GOARCH will pause our departure, and wait and see what the pan-Orthodox leadership will say about these pressing matters.
Time for an American Council?
To quote the Prophet Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together.” (1:18) The Orthodox Church is by nature a conciliar church. It expects the hierarchs and the clergy to make decisions in solidarity, not by top-down tyrannical fiats. The Orthodox Church is also by nature a local Church. It is gathered around the local bishop who by his ordination stands in succession to the Apostles. The local bishop is to be our shepherd and guide, not some remote despot in some far off land demanding his rent. To have a foreigner rule over our homeland is a form of colonialism. For freedom-loving Americans, this is an intolerable state of affairs and for Orthodox Christians who believe in historic Orthodoxy, this is an ecclesiastical novelty contrary to Holy Tradition.
To conclude, Lawrence Wheeler’s “It’s Time to Go” is a wakeup call to GOARCH and to other Orthodox clergy and hierarchs. If nothing is done to change the present situation, there may be others exiting GOARCH with deleterious consequences for local Greek parishes. This will generate cascading consequences for GOARCH and for the rest of Orthodoxy in the United States. In my opinion, if the clergy and hierarchs were to call for the convening of an American Orthodox council, we may avert this growing crisis. Lord have mercy!
M.A., Church History; Ph.D. Political Science
Asian-American convert to Orthodoxy
Lawrence B. Wheeler “It’s Time to Go.” Handwritings on the Wall: Musings of Orthodox Thinkers (weborthodox.com). 10 November 2021.